Thursday 30 March 2017

It's more evolution than revolution

Dublin's unlikely league run doesn't guarantee that summer will bring a new competitiveness

Dermot Crowe

‘In Eamon Dillon, Dublin seem to have uncorked a genuine attacking talent, with burning pace and a natural instinct to go for the jugular’. Photo: Seb Daly / Sportsfile
‘In Eamon Dillon, Dublin seem to have uncorked a genuine attacking talent, with burning pace and a natural instinct to go for the jugular’. Photo: Seb Daly / Sportsfile

After the win over Galway in Parnell Park, there was still a sizeable body of opinion pecked with doubt over Dublin. The win was desperately needed and richly deserved but allowances needed to be made. On the pitch in Donnycarney, famously tight and uncompromising, they have enjoyed a consistently good track record since Tommy Naughton was in charge in 2007.

Under Naughton, with the first stream of successful minor graduates coming through, they started to pick up results against the top sides in the country. The evening they met Galway last month was cold and influenced by a strong wind, but Galway made a poor fist of it when it was in their favour after the interval. Dublin smelled blood and Galway didn't have the stomach for a quarrel.

So the people who follow Dublin hurling with varying levels of emotional investment took it, a small dividend, but weren't inclined to be persuaded that it offered conclusive proof that Dublin were going to deliver this on a regular basis. They weren't even sure that they were not the same team demolished in Thurles on the opening night of the league, when the home team scored 23 points and won by 14. If the Galway game was welcome, but inconclusive, the next match up promised to reveal more.

Cork in Croke Park, where they destroyed Dublin a year earlier, would demonstrate how successfully or otherwise Ger Cunningham's side hacked the wider open spaces with nowhere to hide. A smattering of Cork triumphalism after their league semi-final win over Dublin in 2015, when they turned around an interval deficit of nine points to win with almost the last puck, might have been ringing in Dublin ears. They produced a champagne performance and ripped Cork to shreds. And yet. The resistance was dire. Could it be trusted as a reliable barometer of form?

The league is never the ultimate form guide but for a team in transition like Dublin after such a poor start, the fourth round win in Waterford offered a more compelling argument. It leaves them heading a highly competitive division and that standing doesn't lie. Heading to unbeaten Waterford, in their own backyard in Walsh Park, had the potential to uncover deficiencies in the Dublin team. They were out of their comfort zone, on the road in a small provincial venue in front of a passionate home crowd already spoilt by the scalps of hurling's traditional big three counties, Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork. A five-point win for Dublin, scoring 0-19 and not conceding a goal, leaves Cunningham's team assured of a quarter-final place.

Candidates for relegation after round 1 on February 13, now toying with Kilkenny at Nowlan Park on March 20 to see which county might finish top of the table, amounts to a solid run of form and offers the stability Cunningham's regime craves after a troublesome off-season. Despite adopting an ageing squad, he has managed to secure their 1A status for a second year running. They are in a more positive frame of mind today than most hurling counties in the country and nobody can accuse them of being conservative in selection, with an infusion of younger players and a regeneration of some others.

Most pleasing about Walsh Park on Sunday last was how it differed to last season when Dublin began in a whirlwind, defeating Tipperary in Parnell Park by 12 points, then scoring 0-25 in a spirited win in Kilkenny before collapsing in the next match. Cork scored 34 points in the first major setback for Cunningham's management. A win over Galway in Parnell Park in the final round steered them clear of the relegation play-off. From there they beat an off-colour Limerick before Cork overhauled them in the semi-final.

Their recent league record against Kilkenny is healthy, the win in Nowlan Park last year following a similar success in Parnell Park in 2014. But two years ago they picked up only two wins out of five and needed to defeat Waterford in a Walsh Park play-off to stay up. Their current run of three straight wins was last achieved in the top division in 2011 when they went on to win the National League, though the structure then made for a less competitive series of regulation matches. They also managed three, but did not surpass it, when in Division 1B in 2013. Their current winning streak, then, holds up favourably with any of their league performances since they became a force.

If they were to defeat Kilkenny today then Cunningham's Dublin would be in a vein of form unprecedented for the county in the league in modern times, which is perhaps reason to be concerned when Kilkenny are waiting to test that durability. The spring record includes a series of memorable battles with Kilkenny, drawing with them in 2011 and then overcoming them in the league final and scoring six goals in Nowlan Park the following year but conceding five and losing by a point. That marked their last defeat to Kilkenny in the league.

Kilkenny, though, served painful reminders of the distance a team needs to travel to be a force in the championship. Dublin drew with them in 2011 in the league and then demolished an injury-depleted side in the league final that year, but were heavily beaten when they met in the summer. The same pattern applied in 2014. Dublin won in the league and were stuffed in the championship.

The exception of course was 2013, Dublin's first championship win over Kilkenny since 1942. If they overcome Wexford in the Leinster quarter-finals they face Kilkenny again.

Cunningham's process of rebuilding is ongoing and the influence of the county champions Cuala is notable, from the return of Oisin Gough, who has impressively revived his inter-county career and comes back a more seasoned and settled player, to the - touch wood - injury-free run of David Treacy, one of those players who looked destined to be a hurler who promised more than he would get to deliver. The ageless Dotsie O'Callaghan and talismanic Liam Rushe remain instrumental figures. Niall McMorrow is following through on a highly promising career as a minor and Eoghan O'Donnell is one example of a young player being given league experience.

They have put young untested players into the team and still got the results. The squad will be strengthened when Peter Kelly and Paul Schutte return from injury lay-offs, with Ryan O'Dwyer another who has not been part of the campaign up to now.

The effect of the loss of Danny Sutcliffe hasn't been as pronounced as feared, even if followers hope to see him back hurling with the county before too long. The outstanding player, the one on many people's lips, has been Eamonn Dillon. Cunningham appeared to like him from the start but his consistency has never been on the level it is now. Like the team itself, the jury must remain out until later in the year when the intensity and stakes are higher, but Dublin seem to have uncorked a genuine attacking talent, with burning pace and a natural instinct to go for the jugular.

In the last two matches he has been their top scorer from play, with 2-2 pilfered against Cork. On summer ground he should be even better. Moving Dillon to centre forward was one of Cunningham's earlier moves and he marked his selection there in the opening round league win over Tipperary last year with 1-5 from play. Dillon did not hold that form but this year he has been central to Dublin's improvement over the last three rounds. In Sutcliffe's absence they appear to have found a player who wants to take a leading role and make things happen. Cunningham deserves credit for that.

Since the journey home from Thurles last month the Dublin mood has lifted considerably. You would have got generous odds then on a run of three straight wins, or that they would be at the summit entering the final round. The team that defeated them, Tipperary, find themselves wrestling with Cork and the potential of a relegation play-off if they lose.

The margins are fine, but Dublin have turned it around with commanding displays, on pitches big and small, home and away. They'll be delighted with that much for now.

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