Vincent Hogan: Afraid of the drop zone
Published 14/04/2012 | 05:00
ON Monday morning, Dublin hurlers played a 30-minute training match at the Amendoeira Sports Club before flying home from the Algarve.
As statements of intent go, the game found a compelling tenor. In the week of a National League relegation play-off, every one of their long-term wounded came unscathed through a contest described by one player as being of "virtual championship intensity".
Peter Kelly, Stephen Hiney, Tomas Brady and Conal Keaney all played the full half-hour as Dublin wound down a high-intensity, four-day training camp close to the town of Silves. Travelling home, they weren't exactly burdened then with the 'life is a bitch' feel of men facing the threat of demotion.
If anything, on the threshold to tomorrow's cellar-door dance between the last two National League champions, they appear in remarkably fine fettle.
The vibe is a little different in Galway. On Tuesday night in Athenry, Anthony Cunningham was openly critical of his squad's training effort. Coming just over a week after their mauling at Nowlan Park, Cunningham's assessment had to give grounds for worry.
During a bright opening to this league, his young team seemed to have shut all windows and doors to relegation worry, only for it to come sliding down the chimney. A Salthill defeat to Waterford prefaced that shocking 25-point loss to Kilkenny and left the county potentially facing its first spell out of top-flight hurling for two decades.
Confidence in Cunningham's attempts to build a new, young Galway team has been compromised by the Kilkenny rout and, more pertinently, his strategic response to it. Of five more young players subsequently introduced to the squad, three were from last year's minor team.
The overt physicality of inter-county hurling today makes it a hostile environment in which to develop teenage talent. And, just now, no team looks conditioned for heavy-hitting better than Anthony Daly's Dublin.
It was physical domination that defined their convincing defeat of Galway in last year's Leinster Championship semi-final and, on all available evidence, the Dubs are equipped to ratchet that side of their game even higher in 2012.
Their position at the bottom of Division 1A has a slightly artificial feel given they suffered single-point defeats to both Kilkenny and Cork, drew with Tipperary and -- their fate already sealed -- put out a largely second-string side against Waterford. Dublin's one genuinely anaemic display was in their opening game, as it happens, against tomorrow's opponents.
Yet, Galway did finish with four points to the Dubs' one and can maybe feel disgruntled that such simple arithmetic hasn't been enough to guarantee their survival in the top division. Equally, two of their three defeats were by narrow two-point margins.
With the exception of a handful of senior stalwarts, Cunningham has relied largely on U-21 players in this league, acting it seems on the findings of a report commissioned by the hurling board after last year's heavy All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Waterford.
Ostensibly, this made sense. After all, he managed the county's U-21s to an All-Ireland victory last year and has an intimate knowledge of the young talent in the county. Mattie Murphy guided the minors to another All-Ireland win last September, so the perception of a county rich in underage resource remains more vibrant than ever.
Cunningham has a three-year term yet, within Galway hurling, patience is notoriously threadbare.
They have not won a senior All-Ireland in almost quarter of a century now and the last successful captain, Conor Hayes -- a former team-mate of Cunningham's -- was this week openly critical of what he sees as the new manager's over-reliance on youth. There is a suspicion that the autumn cull of men like Damien Joyce, Ger Farragher, John Lee, Shane Kavanagh, Joe Gantley and Donal Barry might have been premature.
Relegation in Tullamore tomorrow would harden that suspicion into anger.
Defeat, mind, represents just as untenable a thought for Dublin. And Daly is less likely than most to have his head turned by bright training-ground karma given his early managerial experience with Clare in '04. All the evidence of their Munster Championship preparation suggested they would have too much for a Waterford team still smarting from defeat in that year's National League final. To Daly's horror, Clare lost the game by 19 points, his first championship day as manager.
So the good vibes and near misses of recent weeks won't blind him to the potential damage a defeat tomorrow could wreak on the Dublin psyche. If the Dubs lose, they will face into the Leinster Championship knowing that their last meaningful victory was an All-Ireland quarter-final victory over Limerick on July 24 last.
Assuming they beat Carlow or Laois at the beginning of June, how confident could they logically be facing Kilkenny later that month, having gone almost a calendar year without taking a single significant scalp?
Daly has said that tomorrow's game represents an ideal challenge, albeit in maybe less than ideal circumstance.
It's a description that should hold good for the winners. This play-off will be ferociously contested and, to come through it successfully, would represent a perfect championship launch pad for either team. Defeat, though, pitches them to the other side of the moon.
In the last three seasons, no team relegated from the top division in spring has recorded a single victory in the subsequent championship.
Contrary to speculation, it is unlikely that the recent epidemic of tinkering with the league structure will stretch its fingers into 2013. Relegation to Division 1B will, thus, be what it says on the tin.
The endless meddling has settled, finally, on a passably decent shape for, if there is still a significant difference in the quality of the two top divisions, at least that difference is no longer a gulf. True, Clare's performance in next week's semi-final against Kilkenny will be revealing. But there is palpable hostility within the hurling community to the idea of more change, unless the leap taken is seismic.
Colm Bonnar, under whom Wexford believed they had retained their top division status last year, is scathing of a system that now sees his old team scrambling desperately to avoid the plunge into what, for such a traditional hurling county, would be the dark continent of Division 2.
The Cashel man's personal preference would be a 10-team First Division. He questions the culture of "chopping and changing" and believes "it makes little sense" that either Dublin or Galway will be demoted tomorrow.
"It's just frustrating people," he says. "For maybe 20 years now, it's been one step forward, two steps back with the league. And hurling is no further down the line as a result. To be telling one of the last two league winners that they should go down a division now, what's the benefit of it?
"They just keep fiddling around. Wexford thought they had stayed up last year and you saw what it meant to their supporters when we drew with Tipperary in Thurles. But we were still, effectively, demoted. Likewise, Limerick understood they had won promotion yet were relegated in the same breath.
"Bottom line, you've maybe nine counties that are capable of competing at a high level, then Laois and Antrim that are knocking on the door. You've Carlow trying to break into that. But go outside those teams and it's like falling off the face of the earth.
"But the current system of five games doesn't offer enough for teams. If there was a 10-team First Division with just the bottom county relegated and top team in Division 2 promoted, people would get enough quality games to keep everyone interested."
Tomorrow, at least, should fall into that category. The general consensus is that Dublin will look to jam the natural rhythms of Galway's hurling, trusting their conditioning and size to wear down largely callow opposition. On the flight home from Portugal on Monday, some of their players killed time by picking a football team from the hurling squad. In every line, they could place big men capable of winning awkward ball.
They had trained ferociously through the weekend, opening their days with 7.0am sessions and maintaining a level of competitive intensity throughout that would have made many professional teams wilt.
Galway, you have to feel, consider themselves some distance from that unity. The evening of their mauling in Nowlan Park, the players were told by management to take "a long look in the mirror". Cunningham is considered colder in style of communication than his predecessor, John McIntyre. His decision to replace the entire full-forward line less than 30 minutes in against Kilkenny was seen by some as an attempt to show real decisiveness under pressure.
But it wasn't Conor Hayes' interpretation. The last man to lead Galway to an All-Ireland final said this week he was "amazed" by it, adding "you destabilise the team by doing that".
That said, the feeling within the Galway squad is that recent training matches have been sharper and that the further they get into the year, the better Galway will hurl. There is the considerable boon too of Joe Canning's imminent return to factor in and the sense that, barring a dramatic meltdown, they look sure to make the Leinster final.
Still, dramatic meltdowns are not unfamiliar to Galway are they? And, if the hurling board's desire is for Cunningham to build a more robust (physically and mentally) county team, his absolute faith in youth makes short-term gain difficult to envisage.
Relegation may be a price he feels he has to pay in that pursuit for, as one insider put it this week, the Galway of recent outings has been one "hurling a little in fear".
Tullamore tomorrow might offer liberation. But when you obsess with the future, there's always a danger your present will let you down.