Monday 24 July 2017

Vincent Hogan: Is this the most open hurling Championship race since the 1990s?

 

Lee Chin celebrates with delighted Wexford fans following the Leinster Championship victory over Kilkenny. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Lee Chin celebrates with delighted Wexford fans following the Leinster Championship victory over Kilkenny. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On Tuesday, Lee Chin told Newstalk that the video of Wexford's Championship victory over Kilkenny showed him a side to his team that he had not seen before.

They looked almost cold-blooded in the white heat, adhering to a structured game-plan when every last nerve within ached to hose the sky with leather.

"Before, instinctively, I was almost expecting them to just lamp the ball up the field," said Chin. Against Kilkenny, especially, it would have been understandable, given the Cats' gift for making hold of the sliotar feel like possession of a hissing hand-grenade.

But here were Wexford, ferrying the ball to safety through smart, intelligent lines and low-risk offloads. Coveting possession when their recent history with it was to be profligate.

It felt revolutionary, yet Davy Fitzgerald's essential message to Wexford this past six months has, in some respects, been an echo of the gospel preached by Liam Griffin two decades earlier. In other words, no matter the emotional juices flowing, trust your game-plan. Stick to it. Keep things logical even if all about you is an invitation to lose reason.

When Wexford won the All-Ireland in '96, their backs did not concede a single second-half free against Limerick in the final, an extraordinary statistic given the euphoria fuelling their journey. When Griffin took charge of them in the autumn of '94, he'd inherited a team in free-fall, one that, to his eye, was inclined to hurl gamely, but almost blindly.

The game was changing, and teams without a plan tended to run on short-life batteries.

There would be no transcendent style. If Wexford in '96 found success through a faint dousing down of the native dander, their breakthrough was bookended by two Clare All-Irelands franked by pace and a physical force that relied on fitness levels never previously seen in hurling. Bottom line, both teams trained harder than any of their predecessors had ever done.

Where Clare had Crusheen and that brutal hill in Shannon, Wexford had the pitiless gradients of a disused golf course in Bunclody.

This was the point about the so-called 'Revolution Years' of the '90s: teams worked to whatever template best suited their resources. But they did so from a base of conscientious preparation that had not really been seen before.

You might argue that Offaly's All-Ireland wins of '94 and '98 had more eccentric wiring, but they were men who hurled in an independent jet-stream.

It's debatable if the old game ever felt more alive than through those maverick summers between '94 and '98 when Offaly (twice), Clare (twice) and Wexford became intimate with Liam MacCarthy in a stretch during which the oligarchs of the game, Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork, could not win a single provincial title between them.

That wind turned, of course, and only Clare's All-Ireland of 2013 has managed to squeeze out those bluebloods since.

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Clare goalscorer Shane O'Donnell is lifted by his team-mates as they celebrate with the Liam MacCarthy cup after the game. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Yet, to the guardians of the old game, next Monday will surely feel like a publicist's dream. It's safe to say that, just after 8.30am, radio will make a comeback against the social media bratpack when RTE broadcasts an All-Ireland qualifier draw housing more heavyweights than any Sumo academy.

Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford and Limerick are all in the drum for a journey that, short-term, looks far more perilous than that facing the four provincial finalists.

Is revolution back in the air then? Any mid-term report of the main All-Ireland contenders would surely lean in that direction.

Accepting that neither Offaly (500/1), Westmeath (1,000/1) or the winners of tomorrow's game between Laois and Carlow (both 1,000/1) are likely to challenge, here is an attempt at a mid-term report:

CLARE (All-Ireland odds 13/2)

Have reached their first provincial final since '08 and that, in itself, will represent a huge release. Donal Moloney said as much after the semi-final defeat of Limerick but, the liberation of Shane O'Donnell apart, that victory felt unconvincing. Not a single score from play to report from Tony Kelly, Podge Collins or Aron Shanagher, while lack of size in the middle third demands a smart puck-out strategy that wasn't conspicuously executed either. Still a monkey off their backs now and significant scope for improvement.

Grade: C+

CORK (9/2)

Out of nowhere, their native self-regard has a voice again. Huge energy in a team staying true to the Jimmy Barry-Murphy philosophy that won the All-Ireland in '99. That is, as Jimmy put it, you pick "a team of hurlers". Six Championship debutants back then, five this time as they put their faith in the fearlessness of youth and the terror implicit in pace. A young team with sufficient fitness to hunt in packs and the razor-sharp touch to pass their way around teams. Anything seems possible now.

Grade: B+

DUBLIN (80/1)

Hard to see them traveling much further in this Championship. Hopelessly down senior bodies through natural (and un-natural) depletion, with the faint sense now of Ger Cunningham simply seeing out time. Relegated in the League and almost blithely out-punched by Galway in Leinster Championship. Grim short-term outlook.

Grade: E

GALWAY (2/1)

A team of Gullivers who, on their day, can look unplayable. That was the League final story against Tipp and, with size in every line, their sheer ball-winning ability has the capacity to over-ride most opposition tactics. Strength and conditioning work of Lukasz Kirszenstein looks to have borne immediate fruit but history preaches caution. Galway, after all, have won five Leagues since their last All-Ireland in '88. Until and unless…

Grade: B

KILKENNY (10/1)

Finally, the march of time appears to have caught up with Brian Cody's men. The taint of two defeats to Wexford in as many months amplifies the sense of a team now struggling to physically impose its will. Defensively unsettled and a recent over-reliance on TJ Reid and Richie Hogan in attack has come home to roost with Hogan, especially, struggling for fitness. Only Colin Fennelly posed an authentic attacking threat in Wexford Park on June 10, while so many of the support cast continue to come up conspicuously short. Need Michael Fennelly fit again, but will they get him? Cody gambled on the fitness of Hogan and Padraig Walsh the last day and is unlikely to entertain that gambler's reflex again.

Grade: D

LIMERICK (40/1)

Could ill-afford the absence of ball-winners like Diarmuid Byrnes and Gearoid Hegarty against Clare and, apart from six minutes of rampant energy in the first half, they seldom looked capable of winning. Lost any early momentum in the League by blowing a seven-point lead against Wexford and little evidence yet of Paul Kinnerk refining them tactically. That said, their League quarter-final win over a Cork team short just two of the men now pulling up trees suggests Limerick might yet have a big scalp in them.

Grade: D

TIPPERARY (7/2)

Have shed the designation of All-Ireland favourites after successive setbacks, yet their odds remain sufficiently pinched to suggest they could still be around come September. Michael Ryan has been fighting fires that will have been lamentably familiar to his predecessors and that's the worry. Tipp's capacity for self-harm seems un-matched in the game and sports psychologist Gerry Hussey must be working overtime to address that. Disciplinary issues apart, Ryan will be most worried by how utterly the defeats to Galway and Cork appear to have destabilised his back line.

Grade: E

WATERFORD (11/1)

Looked a traumatised bunch in Thurles last weekend, so they'll surely hope to avoid Kilkenny on Monday. Tactically, they seemed out of sorts against Cork, having - to begin with at least - abandoned the sweeper system that has been so fundamental to Derek McGrath's success. With two new selectors added since, Waterford could yet find the momentum to re-ignite their season. Need to find a set position for Austin Gleeson, though, and keep him there.

Grade: D

WEXFORD (10/1)

Energy still building off the back of their return to the National League top flight for the first time since 2011. Davy Fitzgerald has now overseen a first victory over Limerick in 12 years, a first away win in Galway since the '80s and, of course, a first Championship defeat of Kilkenny since '04. Wexford may be running to the very edges of their potential, but they have a momentum that makes them interesting. Terrace grumbles heard during that Walsh Cup game with Kilkenny in January seem almost hallucinatory to recall. Deep in bonus territory now.

Grade: B

Irish Independent

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