A league final hammering of Tipperary finished off the league with one hell of an exclamation point.
It's been 29 long years since September glory but they're showing more and more signs of being ready to climb the Hogan steps. Yet the Premier are far from dust, while Kilkenny and Waterford have shown enough to suggest they're still in the All-Ireland hunt.
Here's the lie of the land just now, as we see it:
When they’re good, they’re fair good. But when they’re bad, they allow themselves to be pushed around. There is a pressure in the county to finally retain the Liam MacCarthy Cup after so long and rid talk of the flakiness they’ve long being accused of. So often with the Premier, it’s a mentality thing because there’s no doubt they have a strong enough team to win it. The GAA world has been disabused of the notion that Tipp have an amazing panel, and it’s a good reality adjustment in time for summer. They couldn’t beat Kilkenny in the league, lost to Cork (albeit they’d nothing to play for), and were finally hammered by Galway. Michael Ryan spoke of how just two panellists had won a league medal so being sundered in the final was never the plan, and he will rightly be worried. The Jason Forde question remains but more pertinent is whether the Silvermines man is better utilised elsewhere. A midfield partner for Brendan Maher needs to be nailed down. The Rebels should provide some resistance, though not enough, and you get that sense with most of the peloton. Should they not be hurling in September, it will be down to an implosion.
The sturdiest-looking spine in 2017 hurling. Colm Callanan at three, with Gerard McInerney standing sentry in front of Daithi Burke, then Davy Burke at midfield, with Joe Canning at 11, and perhaps Conor Whelan at full-forward. With plenty of options down the flanks, Micheal Donoghue has the makings of an All-Ireland champion team. To do so, the Tribe must maintain the workrate that embarrassed Tipp; one that saw quick ball to the inside line and meant Galway backs could attack hanging deliveries the other way. If a Tipp, Kilkenny or Waterford — for example — can match them athletically and win enough positive turnovers, there’s gold to be mined in the Tribe corners. It will also mean Canning and Co will be looking to win ball under much heavier pressure. This is their year to dominate Leinster because Dublin have imploded, Wexford might need more time to mature, and the Cats don’t have the same depth. Donoghue needs to end the Kilkenny hoodoo, because they know they’ve had the measure of Tipp in recent seasons.
Here are the question marks: the half-back line, the fitness of Michael Fennelly at midfield, the effectiveness of the forward line if they don’t win the middle-eight battle, and players being physically beaten up in some early league games. To the positives: Eoin Murphy is becoming the best keeper the game has ever seen; though they’d love him on the wing, Padraig Walsh (who has a heel issue) is an exceptional full-back who can be left isolated if needs be; Cillian Buckley’s form is largely back since moving to midfield; they still have 2014 and 2015 Hurlers of the Year in Richie Hogan and TJ Reid; and they have the best manager in the history of GAA. Most of the great players under Brian Cody that will be spoken about in decades to come are now in the media, that’s the cold reality. After Wexford beat them well in the league semi-final, a Model County lady jeered Nickey Brennan with much amusement — and it was a most unfamiliar scene. Were this current outfit not wearing a Kilkenny shirt and not being managed by Cody, they would not even be spoken of as contenders — there are simply too many question marks. And yet, they can’t be discounted. Hogan, Reid, Cody, Walsh, Fennellys — they’ll hang on until their fingernails break.
Where will the goals come from? How can they get over a mental block that has seen them lose the 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2016 Munster finals to Tipp by combined total of 53 points? During that time, they haven’t managed a goal against the Premier, which ties back into the initial question. Derek McGrath has taken this team to great heights but he doesn’t have a variety of goalscorers, nor is the team set up with enough numbers in around the square to consistently threaten the best defences. On the plus side, they have Austin Gleeson, arguably the game’s best midfielder in Jamie Barron, a powerful set of defenders, and some good ball-winners. All the while, it’s difficult to see them take that final step to championship glory unless McGrath produces an unexpected trump card.
The last time Clare won a relegation play-off, they went on to lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup. For the Banner to repeat the 2013 glory, the may actually need to beat Tipp or Kilkenny this time — something they haven’t managed in the championship since 2003 and 1997 respectively. “Shur how can they beat them when they haven’t met often,” I hear some disgruntled Clare supporters say. Well, the answer is simple: Clare never get far enough, suggesting they have been lacking. They’ve Tony Kelly, Conor McGrath, Podge Collins, Aaron Shanagher, Colm Galvin and John Conlon, while Davy Fitzgerald looks a much-improved player at wing-back. Still, the defence has question marks over it and Cian Dillon looks under huge pressure at full-back without a sweeper — the role he so often played under Davy Fitz. They should make a Munster final at least, and then we’ll see what they’re made of. It’s time to back up 2013.
Davy Fitzgerald has been banished to the stands for a possible Leinster semi-final with Kilkenny, a measure that will do little to curb his team’s enthusiasm on the field. Plenty of teams in sports across the world — see rugby — see this as the norm and your writer once recalls Jason Ryan doing so in his days as Kildare boss. From the press box, he provided almost a match-length commentary of proceedings and it did little to hinder his side en route to an excellent league win over Mayo. Send a note down the vine to the selectors and all will be well, Davy. Here’s the thing for the Models, can they build on important wins over Galway, Limerick and Kilkenny, followed by an encouragingly resilient performance against Tipp in defeat? When the goals went in, they didn’t collapse as against the Cats and the Treaty in recent championship seasons. Now their mettle will be tested in summer heat, and we’ll see if their gameplan presents enough opportunities to Conor McDonald, Lee Chin, David Dunne, David Redmond and Co. It’s clear they will try to isolate McDonald, and of course they should because the Naomh Eanna man is a ball-winner and scorer. Can they get Aidan Nolan, Chin, Redmond and Dunne running from deep at goal enough? Will teams find a way to plan for sweeper Shaun Murphy (assuming he returns from a sternum injury)? They’ll fly up the rankings if they provide satisfactory answers.
Limerick played in a league semi-final this year like a team who neither expected nor wanted to be there. Galway toyed with them, and a ten-point winning margin didn’t even do the Tribe justice. Their half-back line isn’t steely enough, their midfield is gone backwards from the halcyon days of James Ryan and Paul Browne in 2014, and the ball isn’t sticking up front. They have talent in Gearoid Hegarty and roving corner-forward Cian Lynch but it’s hard to see them beating many big hitters.
For a long time, Cork hurling has been in the stone age. Hoping beyond hope that every team in the country will continue to play with tactics from the All-Ireland Gold era: ie none. This year, Kieran Kingston seems to have a plan that is familiar to many across the hurling world: deep-working wing-forwards, a pacy inside line, and a centre-forward in Conor Lehane who will try to move about the centre-back. They’re a work in progress, a team containing a few water-carriers around the middle and a defence with question marks. They managed just two goals in five league outings while seven went in at the other end. Tipp should beat them in the Munster opener, and there’s always a chance they’ll be beaten heavily. Still, not too many teams outside last year’s final-four will be far ahead of a Rebels side with fresh talent.
A damn shame, that’s what Dublin’s senior inter-county hurling team is. The panel has been ripped apart during Ger Cunningham’s three years and while the country knows of maybe eight players that have left the panel, many more that aren’t especially well-known have followed too. The forward line especially will suffer because there are too many young lads up there to continue winning ball for 70 minutes against seasoned defences such as Galway’s. On the plus side, Dublin arguably have some of the best backs in the country: Eoin O’Donnell, Liam Rushe, Chris Crummey, and Shane Barrett all stood out during the league. This is likely to be Cunningham’s final year, and it’s unlikely to be pretty.
Won just a single game from five in Division 1B, and that against Kerry. It shows where the county is at just now that they may need a kind draw from the Leinster preliminary group just to make a semi-final. Sadly, you suspect they will be someone’s cannon fodder before too long.
Let through 15 goals in their five relegation league games before Kerry hit them for 4-20 in a pulsating relegation clash. Eamon Kelly’s men did enough to stay up at the expense of his former charges and, though they’ve started the championship well, they’ve a lot of work to do.
Relegated from Division 1B of the league but went down fighting. Fintan O’Connor will likely set up in a defensive manner that he became very familiar with as a selector under Derek McGrath in Waterford, and they need the two points against Laois to set up a quarter-final in Leinster.
Finished fourth in Division 2A and lost opening Leinster preliminary clashes to Laois and Kerry.
Topped Division 2B with five wins from five before cruising past Wicklow in the final. Shocked Kerry in the opener ahead of a clash with neighbours Westmeath. Axing James Toher and Mickey Burke from the panel over their dual roles was hardly ideal.
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