Saturday 25 November 2017

Has last weekend's one-sided hurling results made the qualifiers irrelevant?

Yes, says Jackie Cahill, No says Martin Breheny

Richie Hogan, Kilkenny, steps over Wexford goalkeeper Mark Fanning after scoring his side's first goal. Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship, Semi-Final, Kilkenny v Wexford, Nowlan Park, Kilkenny (David Maher / SPORTSFILE)
Richie Hogan, Kilkenny, steps over Wexford goalkeeper Mark Fanning after scoring his side's first goal. Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship, Semi-Final, Kilkenny v Wexford, Nowlan Park, Kilkenny (David Maher / SPORTSFILE)

Jackie Cahill and Martin Breheny

The All-Ireland senior hurling qualifiers get under way next weekend, with three of the four games essentially foregone conclusions.

Clare will beat Offaly, Limerick will take care of business away to Westmeath and Dublin will get the show back on the road at O'Moore Park against Laois.

To a large degree, those three games are irrelevant. The pre-match favourites are damned if they do and damned if they don't.

When they win, it's because they were expected to. If they lose, they weren't genuine contenders anyway.

Cork against Wexford? That's a different story and should be a much tighter affair but we'll be amazed if either team gets anywhere near Croke Park in September.

The race for the Liam MacCarthy Cup essentially boils down to four contenders - the current provincial finalists Tipperary, Waterford, Kilkenny and Galway.

Clare will feel they have a chance too and they regrouped impressively to win the 2013 championship, having lost to Cork in Munster.

But in a season when Kilkenny and Tipp were essentially teams on the slide, the road opened up and the Banner County took a chance that doesn't come along too often.

That memorable campaign two years ago sparked talk about a hurling revolution.

Clare, Limerick and Wexford were back in the big time and would challenge the established old order - Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork.

Last Sunday, Limerick lost by 16 points against Tipp, and Wexford were handed a 24-point spanking by Kilkenny.

On the previous evening, Galway were busy mauling by Laois by 20 points. Vive la révolution, indeed.

Are we merely delaying the inevitable for those vanquished provincial losers by asking them to negotiate the qualifier route?

Limerick, Clare and Dublin will take heart from getting the show back on the road and while Cork or Wexford will also receive a significant psychological boost, there's too much collateral damage inflicted to expect a sustained revival.

Wexford are shelled well below the water-line and unless Cork can discover some tactical nous that has been sadly lacking to date, their back-door trek will be a short one. We still hold out some hope that Clare and Limerick can regroup but on all known form, it's all about the current 'big four'.

Tipp and Kilkenny to meet again in a September decider, the rest as also-rans.

Our suspicion is that the four provincial finalists will progress to the last four of the All-Ireland series. It's up to the rest to prove otherwise.

No, says Martin Breheny

Being fiercely impressed by the last good performance is a familiar characteristic in the world of sports punditry.

So when three big wins – two by the All-Ireland favourites – were delivered in the provincial hurling championships last weekend, it inevitably led to claims that the race for Liam MacCarthy was down to a two-horse gallop between Kilkenny and Tipperary.

Galway’s demolition of Laois tightened their odds too in the belief that they could be ready to embark on one of those adventurous campaigns that they plot from time to time.

And then there’s Waterford, neatly tucked into the Munster final, having already won the league. Sure why bother with the qualifiers at all?

The answer comes from past experiences, rather than a giddy reaction to games which Kilkenny, Tipperary and Galway won by a combined total of 60 points.

Three of the last five All-Ireland titles (2010-12-13) were won by counties, which had lost heavily in the provincial championships.

Tipperary lost to Cork by ten points in the 2010 Munster opener, the same margin by which Galway beat Kilkenny in the 2012 Leinster final.

Clare finished eight points adrift of Cork in the 2013 Munster semi-final, but went on to win the All-Ireland title, just as Tipperary did in 2010, followed by Kilkenny two years later.

Who gave Tipperary a chance after the Cork trimming in 2010? And how many backed Clare for a comeback in 2013.

Kilkenny were always fancied for a revival in 2012, but still looked to have an awful lot to do after the Leinster final wipe-out.

So let’s examine the main contenders from this year’s qualifiers.

Clare immediately shoot to the front, even if their win column has been decidedly light over the past 14 months.

There isn’t a whole lot wrong with Clare that a win or two wouldn’t solve. And, as if in a positive omen, they have home advantage in the first-round qualifier, just as they had in 2013.

Limerick looked a bedraggled lot against Tipperary on the run-in last Sunday, yet they were only a point adrift after 50 minutes.

Which is the real Limerick? It’s far too early to dismiss them. This, after all, is the same Limerick that came so close against Kilkenny in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final.

Cork were well beaten by Limerick in the 2013 Munster final but came within seconds of winning the All-Ireland. There’s more in them than we saw twice against Waterford.

The same goes for Dublin and Wexford. Don’t be fooled by last weekend – the hurling championship could still deliver some surprises.

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