Friday 23 March 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: Cork can exorcise their demons and overcome Wexford

Cork and Wexford drew the short straws in bid to reach the quarter-finals

Cork boss Jimmy Barry-Murphy is very much a manager under pressure
Cork boss Jimmy Barry-Murphy is very much a manager under pressure

Jamesie O'Connor

A hurling championship that can best be described as mediocre to date, and which has yet to deliver 70 minutes to set pulses racing, didn't get any better last weekend.

Wexford and Laois routed by Kilkenny and Galway; Tipperary avenging the defeats of the last two years with 16 points to spare in Limerick. It didn't take a crystal ball to predict the winners. But it was reasonable to expect that the games would be a good deal more competitive than they were.

All three contests were effectively decided by half-time, even if it mightn't have been obviously evident, particularly on Saturday in Tullamore. Wind assisted, Galway were just 0-3 to 0-2 ahead after 17 minutes, struggling to break Laois down and, it appeared, in for another uncomfortable evening. All that changed when Johnny Coen's long-range effort fortuitously ended up in the Laois net and the nerves and pressure evaporated.

A trickle of scores soon became a flood. Laois heads dropped, and Cheddar's side were swamped in the process. It was 1-18 to 0-2 at the break. For Galway to hit 1-15 without reply in 18 minutes was impressive, regardless of the opposition. Game over, on to Kilkenny.

They could only beat what was in front of them, and there were aspects of the performance that won't suffice next weekend. But there was a world of difference between Galway's performance against the same opposition a year ago and the clinical dismantling that took place last Saturday. Bottom line, Galway look to be back. After what the Cats produced in Nowlan Park, that makes for a proper Leinster final in seven days' time.

Laois are better than they showed, and from their perspective have to pick themselves up for Dublin in the qualifiers next Saturday. All things considered, it's not a bad draw, preferable in my mind to getting any of the Munster sides. Rather than thinking of inevitable defeat, this should be viewed by the Laois players, especially at home in Portlaoise, as a real opportunity to make amends. I was so disappointed, both in them and for them, especially after the promise of the opening quarter. They really needed to dig in after the Galway goal to staunch the flow and prevent it becoming the haemorrhage that ensued. That didn't happen, and they paid a heavy price for it. I had enough bad days with Clare to know what that dressing room felt like after the game, but they owe it to their supporters, Cheddar and especially themselves to come out fighting next weekend.

A lot of the fundamental errors that Galway punished them for - running out over balls, spilled passes, poor first touches - are mistakes they can't afford to repeat to the extent they did. But the primary objective has to be restoring the pride in the jersey they have worked so hard to regain over the last two years. If they turn up and go through the motions, Dublin will walk all over them. However, if they resolve to stand up and be counted, they have to believe it gives them a chance.

Equally, however, the short journey to Portlaoise is a far more inviting proposition for the Dubs than a trip to Ennis, Cork or the Gaelic Grounds. They dodged a bullet in avoiding Munster opposition in the opening round. That in its own little way gives morale in the camp a much-needed boost.

When it goes as badly wrong, as it did against Galway in the replay, inevitably doubts emerge and players start to apportion blame. Whether that's over the tactics, team selection, or the training, it's a big test of Ger Cunningham's managerial ability to steady the ship, restore confidence and make the necessary adjustments to get them to the All-Ireland quarter-final from here.

Cunningham has some big decisions to make along the way, chief of which is whether or not to revert to Liam Rushe at centre half-back. While I expect them to overcome what should be a markedly stiffer Laois challenge, we'll know a lot more about Dublin's wellbeing and credentials this time next week.

When Limerick defeated Clare four weeks ago, I felt it was a poisoned chalice of sorts. Given the levels they reached last September and some of the form they displayed during the league, Tipperary were always the ones most likely to emerge from that half of the Munster draw. As it transpired, Limerick, rather than Clare, were the ones to have their deficiencies exposed by Eamon O'Shea's side at the weekend. So while Clare have had time to regroup and get their heads around taking the same qualifier path that took them all the way in 2013, Limerick have to deal with a much shorter turnaround, as well as the knock last Sunday's loss is bound to have dealt to their confidence. Fortunately for TJ Ryan, it's to Mullingar, rather than Parnell Park or Wexford Park, that Limerick head next, which makes them the safest of bets to be in that draw for round two of the qualifiers.

The ease with which Tipp opened Limerick up, allied to the ruthless efficiency and class Kilkenny displayed in Nowlan Park, shouldn't be lost on the Clare players or management. The bar has been raised, and what they produced against Limerick isn't close to the level either of those two sides reached last Sunday. However, Clare will have Conor McGrath, Brendan Bugler and now Colm Galvin all available for the upcoming games, which makes them a far more formidable proposition going forward.

In the context of what Galway did to Laois, it's hard to see Offaly travelling to Ennis and achieving anything other than respectability, so Clare look set to join their neighbours, who, incidentally, they cannot be drawn against in that second round.

Someone had to draw the short straw, and the big game next Saturday sees Cork travel to Wexford Park to determine who the first major casualty of the season will be. If fundamental errors crippled Laois's chance at the weekend, it had the same debilitating effect on Liam Dunne's side. No one expected them to beat Kilkenny, but it was reasonable to assume they would be competitive and at least emerge with their pride and honour intact. Outscored by 2-15 to 0-3 in the last 30 minutes, and ending up on the receiving end of a 24-point shelling leaves that very much open to question.

Admittedly, Kilkenny were outstanding. Their touch, movement, accuracy and the speed of execution in everything they did was at a different level to Wexford's. Most of all, though, it was the withering intensity and physicality they brought to every single ball that Wexford found hardest to cope with.

Of course, Wexford made mistakes, and plenty of them at that. They didn't convert either of the two good early goal chances that came their way, failed badly to get any decent ball into their inside forwards and played the game very much on Kilkenny's terms. But how many sides have succumbed to the same script over the years when Kilkenny are in that imposing form?

Nonetheless, I wouldn't be betting that there is enough genuine quality in this Wexford side to match last year's run to the quarter-finals, nor that the pace of their hurling is good enough to live with the top three or four teams.

Opponents Cork have demons to exorcise, but I'd be surprised if there isn't a response forthcoming. They shipped a good deal of criticism in the wake of that loss to Waterford. Some of it was personal, and if there's anything in this Cork panel, it'll surely come out, with their season on the line over the next couple of weekends. I back the Rebels to join Dublin, Limerick and Clare for the right to fight for the two quarter-final spots on offer on July 11.

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