Tuesday 22 August 2017

Qualifiers are a door to redemption but very few can prise it open

Kilkenny hurling manager Brian Cody will be anxious for his team to pick up the pieces after losing to Wexford. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Kilkenny hurling manager Brian Cody will be anxious for his team to pick up the pieces after losing to Wexford. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Brendan Cummins

Since the 'big guns' were knocked out of their respective provincial championships, they've had team meetings, trained harder than ever and convinced themselves that nobody remembers Munster or Leinster winners - only All-Ireland champions.

I was in this position twice in the last four years of my inter-county career - 2010 and 2013. On both occasions, we were punch-drunk and hurting badly. We had so much to prove, not so much to the public, but to each other.

This made us ruthless opponents when a perceived weaker county was pitted against us.

With all due respect to my fellow Irish Independent hurling columnist John Mullane, I'm not sure that I agree with his assertion that drawing Kilkenny would be the best possible qualifier draw for Waterford.

I seriously doubt that any Waterford player would relish a trip to Nowlan Park next Saturday.

Better for Waterford, I believe, for them to take a similar path to 2008, when they beat Antrim, Offaly and Wexford before turning Tipperary over in an All-Ireland semi-final.

Stunned

In 2010, we were stunned by Cork in the first round of the Munster Championship. All I wanted was a home tie next up. We got this when we were paired with Wexford. In our pre-match huddle, I noticed many sets of eyes scanning others, looking for a spark, unsure of what was coming next.

I felt more anxious than I had been before the previous year's All-Ireland final.

Returning to a winning dressing room after the game, I sensed confidence levels rising again. The buzz was back.

We faced Offaly in Portlaoise next, a team struggling for confidence and we dispatched them with relative ease. In our minds, we were now officially off the life support machine.

Confidence was high and while the outside narrative painted us a team that hadn't been fully tested, and with a soft centre, we knew that we were ready for whatever tests were coming our way.

What people fail to understand is that a player who is winning doesn't care about the opposition. All he cares about is that he's feeling better about himself and enjoying playing hurling again.

In our All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway, we were two points down with time fast running out. We scored the final three points of the game. Our perceived softness melted like snow off a ditch and the rest is history.

In 2013, it was a different story. On the morning of the first qualifier draw, we arrived in Thurles for training at 6.15am. We were full of hope, excitement and optimism, eagerly waiting for the identity of our opponents.

That weekend, Dublin had drawn with Kilkenny in the Leinster semi-final. Both of those teams would be in the hat but it didn't matter to us. We were sure, too, that Kilkenny would win the replay.

After our training session, we returned to the dressing room and tuned into the radio over my locker for the draw. Sure enough, it was Dublin or Kilkenny, away from home.

'Parnell Park will be tough,' I thought to myself. 'But we'll have enough to get over them and this will be like 2010 all over again.'

The following Saturday, we were in Salthill on a squad weekend away. We checked into Pearse Stadium to support the footballers in their qualifier against Galway but before that, we held a meeting in our team hotel.

The mood was upbeat. We were looking forward to the football and anticipating that it would be Dublin next in the hurling.

I was keeping an eye on that game via social media, and when the result came through, the PA announcer at Pearse Stadium couldn't conceal his delight. Yes folks, Dublin had beaten Kilkenny.

The announcement drew the biggest cheers of the night from Galway fans, who realised that one of their main rivals for hurling glory was facing a sharp exit.

Paul Curran was sitting beside me in the stand. We looked at each other with raised eyebrows.

We met as a group for dinner that evening and the mood had changed.

Another meeting on Sunday morning after training and guys were anxious and tense. After a quick dip in the sea, we were back on the bus and headed for home, galvanised by what lay ahead.

By 8.30pm on the following Saturday night, however, we were out of the Championship. Kilkenny beat us at Nowlan Park and our season was over in early July.

That's why I can't stress the importance of a favourable draw enough. As we headed into the lion's den, Clare had beaten Laois in Ennis.

When the All-Ireland quarter-finals were concluded, both Tipperary and Kilkenny were gone. Kilkenny won a classic against Waterford in Phase 3, before Cork sent them packing.

Clare made the most of their opportunity but would they have lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup if circumstances had been different?

As we look ahead to this morning's draw, the hurling landscape looks like it's shifting. You only have to look at the results in Leinster and Munster to realise that.

But a kind draw for one of the wounded animals can set one of them on their way to September. The two teams who emerge from the qualifiers and into the quarter-finals will be battle-hardened and ready for the three final steps.

Come through a quarter-final, and they'll face a provincial winner who has been on ice for a number of weeks. Who'll have the advantage then, I wonder?

Irish Independent

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