Friday 28 April 2017

Jamesie O'Connor: Davy's spring tide has lifted Wexford - but wrecked the TV schedules

Limerick can feel hard done by while Galway have no excuses for an unforgivable defeat
Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

Jamesie O'Connor

Division 1A might be where the glamour is, but as the fifth and final round of the Allianz Hurling League rolls around this afternoon, it's arguably been 1B that's produced the biggest headlines.

Twelve months ago today, the Clare-Limerick match in the second flight was the featured match on TG4. Understandably so with the automatic promotion spot coveted by both sides the prize at stake.

With Galway scheduled to conclude their series of matches away to Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds, the planning department was surely thinking that's again where the TV cameras would be deployed. With a straight shoot-out to determine who got promoted, as against the mere jockeying for position in 1A, it's the game I'd have given top billing. What no-one foresaw was Wexford blowing that scenario to pieces five weeks ago.

I was on duty with Newstalk at the Clare-Kilkenny game in Ennis, when news filtered through on our headphones that Joe Canning was standing over a penalty. When he duly stuck it away, Galway were six points clear of the Slaneysiders with just over 20 minutes remaining. At home, and with the wind at their backs, I assumed it meant Wexford were toast.

Having come away empty-handed from Wexford Park a week earlier, it also threw Limerick a lifeline. Beating Galway at home in their last match would put them right back in it, or so I thought. Twenty-five minutes later, RTé's Martin Kiely nudged me, and peeled the cans off his ears to relay that Wexford were now level and had a free deep in stoppage time, in front of the posts, to win it. We shook our heads in unison. Just like that, project Davy had seen off the big two, wrecked the TV schedules and with Kerry, Offaly and Laois to come - had surely sewn up promotion.

Credit where credit is due: Wexford's promotion is the story of this phase of the league. With Limerick and Galway in the first two games, Davy Fitzgerald knew the importance of having his charges fit, sharp and ready to go on February 12. But given who was at the helm, and the impetus he'd bring, Limerick and Galway should have seen it coming. They needed to be every bit as prepared. They weren't.

While Limerick can feel hard done by - away from home, one or two key refereeing decisions going against them, and very much in transition under new management - Galway's loss was inexcusable. For a side with the ambitions they have, to squander a six-point lead at home, especially with the stakes involved, was unforgivable. It wasn't as if they weren't forewarned. It also raises questions again about the leadership, or lack of it, in this Galway team.

Understandably, it must have infuriated Micheál Donoghue. But Galway have to look forward and they could still win the league from this position. What they can't afford is any slip-ups this afternoon. Nothing concrete has yet been proposed, but there is talk of a rejigged eight-team Division 1 in 2018. The nightmare scenario is that defeat today leaves the loser in the dreaded ninth position. For Galway or Limerick to be the ones left stranded on the outside looking in, if that scenario unfolds, would be an unmitigated disaster.

With Galway's backs to the wall, and Limerick in what appears to be rebuilding mode under John Kiely, the odds favour the Tribesmen. I expect them to win.

In the top tier, the only certainty is that Tipp will finish first. That practically guarantees them a place in the semi-finals, because irrespective of whether it's Offaly, Laois, or Kerry up next, they can't compete with Tipp right now. Michael Ryan has to be pleased at how things have gone.

There's clearly huge competition for places within the squad and with opportunities afforded to many of the fringe players to date, he has to be happy with how consistent their performance levels have been. Secretly, I can't see him being too disappointed either at the Kilkenny result. The old enemy hasn't gone away and any hint of complacency within the Tipp camp will have vanished after the gentle reminder they got last Saturday week.

While a win would guarantee Cork's Division 1A status next season, they could lose to Tipp today and still survive if other results go their way. That's a more likely scenario, because with a championship meeting looming in May, I can't see Tipp holding back.

Irrespective of the result, Cork have made strides and arguably unearthed more new talent than anyone else. They're still far too inconsistent, but Shane Kingston, Mark Coleman, Luke Meade, Colm Spillane, Darragh Fitzgibbon and David Griffin have had their moments, and most, if not all, of them will play championship hurling for Cork this summer. That in itself is progress.

Calling the winner of the meeting of last year's league finalists in Ennis is a trickier ask. Waterford were very flat a fortnight ago against Cork. Clare were equally unimpressive when stumbling over the line at home against Dublin.

I don't think either side have any great designs on winning this year's league, but, at the same time, neither want to find themselves in the relegation play-off.

With two wins apiece heading into today, and both having beaten Kilkenny, a draw would be the perfect result. If Clare had a full hand to play, I'd fancy them in Ennis. But while Tony Kelly is back, there's no Conor McGrath, Shane O'Donnell or Pat O'Connor - some of their key players. That, combined with Waterford's greater ball-winning ability, points to an away win.

Finally, Kilkenny can guarantee a quarter-final berth if they see off the Dubs in Parnell rather than Croke Park. Their form has certainly picked up since Colin Fennelly's return and Brian Cody has a better idea of how the jigsaw pieces may fit together after the performance in Thurles a fortnight ago.

Ger Cunningham remains without his Cuala contingent today after their club exploits, and in the longer term he will be without the one player he'd kill to get his hands on - Con O Callaghan - who will be plying his trade with the footballers. What an addition he'd be.

The Dubs deserve credit for the way they've fought back since the opening-night mauling at the hands of Tipp. Like Cork, the youth policy they've gone with will pay dividends down the line. They have a chance, but the depth in their squad isn't there just yet.

Neither are the scores to take Kilkenny down.

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