Saturday 16 December 2017

Cyril Farrell: Qualifier draws will play crucial role in race for MacCarthy Cup

All the other counties want 'big beasts' Tipp and Kilkenny paired with each other in Monday's draw

Waterford manager Derek McGrath. Photo: Sportsfile
Waterford manager Derek McGrath. Photo: Sportsfile

Cyril Farrell

It's a quiet weekend on the hurling front - Carlow and Laois have the stage to themselves - but there's big action on the way for Monday morning.

It will happen in RTé's 'Morning Ireland' studios when the draw for the first round qualifiers takes place, lining up four games that could have a major bearing on the direction the championship takes.

None of the other six counties in the draw with Kilkenny and Tipperary will admit it publicly, but they're all hoping that the two heavyweights are paired against each other. So too are provincial finalists, Clare, Cork, Galway and Wexford. One less big beast in the jungle makes survival easier so it's all the better for the rest if Tipp and Kilkenny have to square up to each other next weekend.

Waterford can't draw Tipperary but they can get Kilkenny, which would be the worst possible break for them.

They would be much better off drawing Dublin, Offaly or Westmeath, any of whom they would be fancied to beat.

Why take on a big fence if there's a lower one around? It's all about getting to the next round and the longer you can avoid the major powers, the greater your chances of survival.

Waterford are still big players in this championship and what they need now is a win of any sort to ease them back into the groove. For whatever reason, they were off the pace against Cork last Sunday but that's behind them now.

There's an All-Ireland to be fought for so the immediate challenge is to re-focus, sort out the team and return doubly determined. I would relocate Austin Gleeson to centre-back, flanked by Tadhg de Búrca and Darragh Fives and move Philip Mahony to midfield.

The issue of where best to play Gleeson is now a hot topic in Waterford, where there are no shortage of opinions. I have always thought he's best facing the ball, which makes centre-back the ideal position.

He reminds me a bit of Tony Keady, a free spirit who plays off the cuff. Keady played quite a lot as a forward in his underage days with Galway but I always had him down as a centre-back. He went on to be one of the great ones.

I see Gleeson in the same way. He's at his best coming on to the ball and driving forward. I will be surprised if Derek McGrath doesn't restore him to the half-back line for Waterford's relaunch.

It's second coming time too for Kilkenny, Tipperary, Limerick, Dublin, Offaly, Westmeath and the Carlow-Laois winners in a season where the genuine contenders list is much longer than usual.

With Kilkenny returning to the pack and doubts about Tipperary that weren't there early in the year, a vacuum has developed, with several counties believing they can fill it.

Galway, Wexford, Cork and Clare still have two chances each but in two weeks' time it will be down to six survivors in a straight knockout.

Outsiders

The four provincial finalists will be there but there's a fair chance that the eventual All-Ireland winners could come from the qualifying side.

Galway's All-Ireland odds have shortened even further since the start of the championship, not because of their wins over Dublin and Offaly but because of events elsewhere, especially the defeats of Tipperary and Kilkenny.

Unquestionably, Cork have been the story of the championship so far. They started as outsiders of five at 10/1 to win Munster and are now down to 4/5 favourites after the wins over Tipperary and Waterford.

They were a delight to watch in both games. Their movement was so good that it created space all over the pitch and once those forwards get a reasonable supply of ball, they'll do damage. There are still questions marks over the defence but it's getting better.

Damien Cahalane hasn't really been tested at full-back but I have no doubt that Clare will line up a runner to take him on. In fairness to Cahalane, he seems to be growing into the position. It can take time but then some fine full-backs had uneasy starts before settling in.

I remember seeing Kevin Kinahan struggling early on in his Offaly days but they persevered with him and he developed into an outstanding No 3. Whether Cahalane follows a similar path remains to be seen. The Munster final will tell a lot.

On the action front, Carlow will be full of confidence after winning the Christy Ring Cup but home advantage will probably prove crucial for Laois tomorrow.

One final point. I see where the GAA has decided that, irrespective of the counties involved, the All-Ireland quarter-finals will be in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. It's not exactly thinking of the public now is it? I'm sure the new-look Páirc Uí Chaoimh will be a great stadium but it's hardly halfway between any of the counties still left.

If Dublin, Galway, Clare or Wexford find themselves in the quarter-finals, their supporters won't be enamoured with a trip to Leeside, especially if Cork are involved. Announcing the venue well before the pairings were known ruled out complaints because counties don't know if they will be involved.

A clever move by whoever was driving the idea but not very considerate for the wider hurling public.

Irish Independent

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