Dubs' see-saw season entering the pressurised red zone
Wexford test will show if Daly's holders can really handle the pressure
Published 14/06/2014 | 02:30
If you believe in sequences, back Wexford at 11/8 to beat Dublin this evening.
The rationale is based on Dublin's six Allianz League games this year, where they lost three and won three in rotation. Defeat by Galway in the opening round was followed by a win over Clare, a defeat by Waterford, a win over Kilkenny, a defeat by Tipperary and a win over Waterford in the relegation play-off.
If that pattern continues, Dublin will surrender the Leinster title at the first checkpoint. Of course, the league may be completely irrelevant in a championship context, but, at the same time, the uneven nature of Dublin's results has to leave nagging doubt in their minds as they head for Wexford Park.
On the plus side, they responded to the biggest league test of all when faced with a 1A relegation shoot-out against Waterford, which they won by five points. Waterford had beaten Dublin by three points some weeks earlier, so it demanded a big response from Anthony Daly's men, which they delivered maturely and effectively.
They boosted their scoring return, too, landing 4-13, an impressive sign-off figure. They needed that after having the second lowest (behind Waterford) scoring total in the five Division 1A group games. Defensively, Dublin were third best behind Clare and Galway.
Daly was right when he emerged under the disappointment of being forced into a relegation play-off after losing the final group game to Tipperary and declared the spring competition to be "a mad league."
Dublin, for instance, had beaten Clare and Kilkenny, arguably the two best teams in the country, yet lost to Galway and Waterford. Granted, there were several other inconsistent results, not least involving Tipperary, who eventually made it to the final, but that's of no interest to Dublin.
Their challenge over the last two months has been to figure out why they mixed the good with the poor in every second game.
They got away with it in the league, albeit in a tight squeeze to avoid relegation, but the championship is far more unforgiving. A defeat this evening would be a massive setback to Dublin, despatching them on the treacherous qualifier road, whereas a win keeps them in line to retain the Leinster title for the first time since 1942.
At the very worst, a win over Wexford would ensure that they were in the last six in the All-Ireland race, even if they lost the Leinster final to Kilkenny or Galway. The worry for Dublin is that there's a risk this year could turn out similar to 2012, when they suffered a serious decline after winning the Allianz League and reaching the All-Ireland semi-finals a year earlier.
They were relegated from 1A in 2012 before being thrashed by Kilkenny in the Leinster semi-final and exiting the All-Ireland race tamely against Clare in Ennis. Granted, Dublin's league form in 2012 was much worse than this year, but the uncertainty still remains as to whether they can put two good years together.
Winning the Leinster title last year granted Dublin the privilege of direct entry into this year's semi-finals and, while that holds obvious attractions when the draw is made, it's actually a disadvantage by the time summer comes around.
Wexford have a game behind them and while a fairly routine win over Antrim might not appear to carry any obvious benefits heading into a much more demanding clash with Dublin, Liam Dunne was delighted with the quarter-final work-out.
"I'm hoping that the Antrim game will have sharpened us up. We'll need to get as much as possible right straight from the start against Dublin," said Dunne.
Dublin also need to reach the pitch of the game early on, a requirement which won't be helped by having had no competitive outing since March 30. As 2012 Leinster champions, Galway had no quarter-final test last year, which showed in the semi-final, where it took them more than an hour to wear down Laois. They had an even tougher struggle in their first game this year against a Laois team that was well-primed after four 'round robin' games.
Kilkenny rarely had difficulty going straight into Leinster semi-finals, but then there has been so much different about them for so long that comparisons with others aren't all that valid.
This evening's game represents yet another in a series of major tests that Dublin have faced in recent years. Confidence levels will be raised by their status as Leinster champions, but quite a lot has happened since last July.
Not all of it has been bad, but the see-saw pattern in the league has to be of concern to Daly and his fellow-strategists.
There's also the pressure that comes from being the defending champions. No Dublin hurling team has experienced that since 1962, a season in which they failed to reach the Leinster final. Daly is well equipped to work on the psyche required to defend titles, but not even he can know how the players will react.
The scale of the Dublin challenge has been greatly increased by the absence through injury of All-Star forward, Danny Sutcliffe, and goalkeeper, Gary Maguire.
Sutcliffe, who scored two goals against Waterford in the relegation play-off, is a particularly loss as his running game would have really tested the Wexford defence.
Dunne was careful to inject perspective into his comments on this evening, pointing out that while Dublin only just avoided relegation, they had six games against hurling's elite.
"Wexford people shouldn't get carried away because we drew with Dublin last year. We'd consider ourselves better than last year, but Dublin are Leinster champions," he said.
The big question is: will Dublin get their game right? The league campaign raised as many questions as it answered, although, in fairness, that could be applied to several other teams, too.
Ultimately, it will come down to how Dublin cope with the pressures of defending a Leinster title. Playing a resurgent Wexford side in Wexford Park will prove pretty quickly if they are up the challenge of charting their way through territory.