Sunday 21 January 2018

Henry Shefflin: Great players will always find a way to beat whatever system is in place

From more leaders in Tipp and Galway to a different view of Kilkenny, here’s my wish list for the summer

Even the best players like Cork's Séamus Harnedy, pictured here being tackled by Clare full-back Cian Dillon in last year's championship, will find it hard to break through massed defences (SPORTSFILE)
Even the best players like Cork's Séamus Harnedy, pictured here being tackled by Clare full-back Cian Dillon in last year's championship, will find it hard to break through massed defences (SPORTSFILE)

Henry Shefflin

As I watched Tony Kelly land a free struck off his left on one side of the field in Thurles last Sunday and then, some 30 seconds later, drift over to the other sideline and land such a dramatic winner off his right, it reinforced my sense that the great players will always find a way to beat whatever system is in place.

Whether it's TJ Reid, Richie Hogan, Seamus Callanan, Joe Canning or Seamus Harnedy, they will always be able to do that something special to change a game.

We may see more sweepers and heavier defensive traffic as the summer develops but, as last Sunday proved, this style will never completely take hurling hostage.

I'm looking forward to the magic of Reid, Kelly, Hogan and the rest negotiating the maze with their stealth and skill.

Stronger leadership in Tipperary and Galway

We can talk about systems and sweepers but, ultimately, what matters most is the players who can stand up and deliver. I'm thinking about how Paul Murphy and Eoin Larkin grabbed the second half of last year's All-Ireland final and forced their will on it.

That's what matters most, that's what Galway just didn't have in that same second half.

That's what, I feel, Tipperary and Galway need most when they're on a downward slope. I believe they have great hurlers and some strong characters. But not enough, not what's needed to get them consistently over the line. More need to develop.

Galway really need to stand up after dispensing with Anthony Cunningham last year. They haven't had a good league and they know they'll be under pressure for it.

There's quality in both teams but a look at the record books shows there's not much beside their names over the last five years and that's what they'll be judged by.

The Cork defence setting about addressing clear defensive deficiencies

Cork bring colour and flair to the championship when they are going well and, right now, they have three top forwards in Patrick Horgan, Seamus Harnedy and Conor Lehane. But their defence is a real problem, which, if a league campaign that saw them concede a record amount in a six-team Division 1A is anything to go by, hasn't yet found anything like a cure.

I'm sure the memories of Johnny Glynn's goal for Galway in the opening minutes of last year's All-Ireland quarter-final must still pain them. I believe it's something they are working very hard at and the fruits of that will shape their season.

County players being released back to clubs on a more regular basis

It's time inter-county managers began to trust their clubs more and trust themselves that they have the work done by releasing players back to their clubs on a much more regular basis.

Maybe I'm speaking from a better experience than most because in Kilkenny the system is more streamlined with essentially just one sport - hurling.

But Brian Cody has always believed in the benefit of sending players back to their clubs for longer spells.

Last weekend Ballyhale played a challenge and Michael and Colin Fennelly and TJ and Richie Reid all played. Joey Holden sat it out because he was sick.

We have competitive games over the next two weekends and the lads will be available before they return to prepare for Wexford or Dublin.

I know this doesn't happen in other counties but, to me, club players should be available for at least the week of a championship game. We saw the frustration of a member of Brendan Maher's club, Borris-Ileigh, this week and how that manifested.

Underdogs biting harder

If we take it that the winners will come from Kilkenny, Clare, Waterford, Tipperary or Galway, where is the potential for a shock? As a player, wrapped up in the bubble of an inter-county dressing-room where you don't really look too far around you, I used to feel a little put out that people would want to see Kilkenny beaten.

That's the insular nature of the environment we inhabit, I suppose. But with detachment comes a different view and I can see why. Upsets? If Offaly were gone out of the championship before it really gets going that would register, maybe Cork can steal a march on Tipperary next week.

I'd love to see some shocks that could electrify this championship.

Continued progression of Waterford's three rising stars - Shane Bennett, Patrick Curran and Austin Gleeson

The parallel between this trio and Tony Kelly, Colm Galvin and Podge Collins in 2013 with Clare is so strong.

It's hard to believe all three are still under 21 but they are the most exciting group of young players around.

Gleeson is already in his third year but the development of Curran and Bennett really promises to take Waterford to the next level.

Even when things aren't going well for Bennett he can produce something.

More penalty drama and more goals

We saw what goals did for last weekend's league final replay. Patrick Curran was willing to drop his shoulder and go very early and that's the type of ambition this championship needs.

Last year the Munster hurling final didn't produce a goal, nor did the Cork/Clare qualifier on the same weekend. I also feel we have yet to feel the full drama of a one-to-one penalty on a big day.

The success rate of penalty-takers has disappointed me. I felt the odds were stacked in their favour.

But one-on-one has obviously increased the pressure. If you don't have the right mindset, technique will suffer.

Myself? I've taken one and struck a crossbar so maybe it's not as easy as it seems!

If Kilkenny win three in a row, that it will be acclaimed for the achievement it is and not the failings of the rest

Winning one All-Ireland is difficult, winning two takes a very special group but to win three? My hope is that if Kilkenny go on to achieve such success it will be acknowledged for what it is and not for the deficiencies of the chasing pack.

Ger Loughnane's "functional" description has got a bit of traction but you need many more layers than that to defend All-Irelands. If success comes their way it shouldn't be taken for granted outside the county and merely viewed as some rite of passage for Kilkenny.

The lessons of the league semi-final beating will be absorbed. Forewarned is forearmed and the approach to Clare and Waterford, I expect, will be different.

Greater vigilance over off-the-ball fouling

Diarmuid Kirwan was in the eye of the storm last weekend but generally the standard of hurling refereeing is good. I felt Derek McGrath showed a lot of class for what he said in the aftermath. It was clearly a free to Jamie Barron, made worse by the fact that it came at the end of the game.

But at least it wasn't the end of the season like Tipperary experienced in 2009. I'd like to see more vigilance from umpires to what's going on off the ball too. There's far too much restrictive pulling and dragging. Generally, I'd like more consistency and just more common sense from the officials.

Limerick and Wexford making more out of recent U-21 success

Limerick are the current All-Ireland champions, Wexford have won three consecutive Leinster titles. Limerick failed to capitalise on U-21 success before and can't afford to let that happen again this time. Wexford too must cash in on years that yielded successive wins over Kilkenny in the grade.

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