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Daly to eye up young stars

WALSH CUP SH Q-FINAL

DUBLIN v UCD

(Parnell Park, Tonight 7.0)

FOR the first time since that gut-wrenching All-Ireland semi-final against Cork – a classic of the 'what if?' genre – the Dublin hurlers return to the competitive arena in Donnycarney this evening.

When compared to the pageantry of Croke Park last August, the circumstances could hardly be any more low-key: a Walsh Cup opener against student opposition.

You may even be inclined to the view that what happens tonight doesn't matter in the slightest, being merely a cobweb-removing exercise with no relevance to summer. Time for a quick history lesson then...

Here's the intriguing thing about Anthony Daly's recent acquaintance with the Walsh Cup: Dublin's performance in the pre-season tournament has actually been a pretty accurate barometer of what's to come that season.

Just look at the last three campaigns. Dublin won the Walsh Cup in 2011 (beating Kilkenny in the decider) and went on to collect a first National League title in 72 years (this time, blitzing Kilkenny in the final). Cue further championship strides as they reached an All-Ireland semi-final, defeating Galway and Limerick along the way.

Fast-forward to 2012. When an experimental Dublin fell at the first Walsh Cup hurdle to Laois, it was viewed at the time as just one of those January things.

And yet hindsight would suggest it foreshadowed a greater malaise that season, wherein Dublin developed a spring tendency to lose narrowly (even while playing well) and eventually ended up being relegated.

Come summer, after a misleading demolition of a lamentable Laois, the Dubs imploded against Kilkenny in Portlaoise and then limped out of the qualifiers against Clare. Last year brought a welcome reaffirmation of the importance of winning every match, big or small.

It started in the Walsh Cup, which Dublin recaptured via victories over Galway and Wexford. There followed promotion from Division 1B and, after the wake-up call of that league semi-final against Tipperary, an uplifting summer and the glory of a first Leinster title in 52 years.

ARGUMENT

All of the above should not be read as proof positive that Dublin MUST win the Walsh Cup this year or that a slip-up against UCD tonight would constitute disaster on a biblical scale.

Daly himself might even proffer the counter-argument that losing to Kilkenny by six clear goals on his Walsh Cup baptism, in 2009, offered a timely reality check for a squad that went on to enjoy a relatively upbeat campaign yielding a long-overdue Leinster final appearance.

Let's not forget this competition does what it says on the tin. It's a pre-season warm-up event, designed to ease players back up to a competitive pitch before the league; and also (just as crucially) to road-test a clutch of young wannabes and fringe players, to see if they might be worth further auditioning come February.

On that score, the Dublin manager has already promised to use the next game or games to check out some of those promising minor graduates from 2012 (the likes of Seánie McClelland, Paul Winters, Cian O'Callaghan and Colm Cronin) along with Cuala's Barry Connolly (son of Galway All-Ireland-winning captain Joe).

But while Daly will be interested primarily, in seeing how the newcomers integrate and perform at this higher level, he'll be keeping one eye on the scoreboard too. Winning, after all, is a habit worth preserving.

ODDS: Dublin 4/9, Draw 10/1, UCD 15/8 (Paddy Power)

VERDICT: Dublin


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