Monday 11 December 2017

Martin Breheny: Cold start calls for a quick shot of southern comfort

Munster counties already under pressure in NHL after winless opening weekend

Joseph Cooney scores for Galway during their defeat of Clare in the opening round of the Allianz NHL
Joseph Cooney scores for Galway during their defeat of Clare in the opening round of the Allianz NHL

Martin Beheny

If the hurling managers from the six Munster counties had come together this week to discuss performances in the opening round of the Allianz League, only Waterford's Derek McGrath could have declared himself contented.

Starting with four U-21s and finishing with six, Waterford drew with Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds on a night when the home side were heavily reliant on the penalty-taking expertise of David Reidy, who netted twice.

"Very same as last year - we've been here before," said Limerick manager TJ Ryan, in reference to last season's first-round draw with Cork.

That's not quite accurate, since the 2014 Cork-Limerick game was in Pairc Ui Rinn and Limerick were having their first game since the dysfunctional performance against Clare in the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final. Besides, Cork were All-Ireland runners-up at the time.

Waterford, in contrast, are a squad in transition, quoted a distant 10/1 behind the other quartet for the Munster championship.

Irritant

Dropping a point to Waterford may yet prove no more than a minor irritant to Limerick but it was unconvincing as their first competitive outing since stretching Kilkenny so close to breaking point last August.

Still, Limerick bagged a point, unlike Tipperary, Cork and Clare, all of whom lost in Division 1A. Munster's unease continued in 2A, when Kerry were held to a draw by Derry in Tralee.

That might look like nothing unusual in the broader hurling landscape but it was quite a turnaround from last year when Kerry beat Derry by a combined total of 51 points in 2A and Christy Ring Cup games.

Undoubtedly, the biggest setback for Munster counties last weekend was Dublin's 12-point demolition of Tipperary in Parnell Park. Tipp have a poor record in the opening round of the league over several years, but this was especially mystifying.

Featuring ten of the 15 that started against Kilkenny in last year's All-Ireland final replay - the team also included the vastly experienced Paul Curran and Conor O'Mahony - Tipp were well fancied to win.

If even if they didn't, they would have been expected to deliver a committed performance. Instead, many of them hurled as if the inter-county game was brand new to them.

Now, as Tipperary showed last year after losing three of their first four league games, things can turn around quite quickly in a group where the top four qualify for the quarter-finals.

However, the question arises: why do Tipperary do so badly on their off-days? Losing is one thing, capitulation is altogether different.

Dublin hurled well for long periods last Sunday, but were also greatly encouraged by Tipperary's sluggishness.

Worse still from a Tipperary viewpoint, they showed little enough stomach for battle, except for a period in the second half.

However, they had left themselves with too much to do and once their mini-revival blew itself out, they returned to the earlier inertia which appeared to have "let's finish this and get the hell out" as the theme.

That never happens in Kilkenny, the perennial standard-setters. Even on days when their usual fluency is absent, the determination indicator never varies from full-on.

It's why they have lost so few games by anything other than small margins.

Tipperary have been Kilkenny's closest pursuers since 2009 but still can't match their great rivals when it comes to sheer doggedness and persistence.

Tipperary will recover - probably quickly - from last Sunday's setback, but can they banish the rogue gene that appears to be deeply embedded in their DNA? They will need to if they are to have a realistic chance of becoming No 1.

Cork's defeat by Kilkenny was by the flatteringly low margin of two points on a night when Jimmy Barry-Murphy acknowledged that the Rebels were beaten in many key areas.

nonsensical

As with Tipperary, Cork had every motivation to hit the new season at high tempo but were out-manoeuvred on several fronts. Barry-Murphy wasn't taken in by the nonsensical 'Kilkenny in transition' line that somehow got traction following the retirement blitz, but perhaps some of his players were.

They hurled as if they expected things to happen, whereas Kilkenny, as always, made things happen. That was evident from the team selection, which featured a re-balancing of the formation.

Padraig Walsh was switched from wing-back to wing-forward, while Richie Hogan was sited much closer to goal than in last year's championship.

In the absence of the Michael and Colin Fennelly, TJ Reid and Eoin Larkin, it was a clever move, especially since such experienced performers as Lester Ryan and Brian Kennedy were available for duty at midfield and right half-back respectively.

Cork's experiment with Aidan Walsh at wing-back didn't work and has been abandoned. He returns to midfield for tonight's clash with Clare, which has taken on a real significance in light of last week's results.

The fixtures computer has been very kind to Cork, handing them home advantage in their first two games. However, having lost last week, the pressure increases tonight.

Successive home defeats would be a confidence-sapping start to what is a very important season in the lifecycle of this squad and management.

Clare completed a dismal opening weekend for Munster counties when losing to Galway in Pearse Stadium. Still, compared to Tipperary and Cork, they could take plenty positives from a one-point defeat. Indeed, they seemed headed for a win until Jason Flynn intervened in stoppage-time to point two placed balls.

The issue for Clare is not that they lost by a point in an away game but that they have got out of the winning habit. Since beating Waterford in March last year, they have won only one of seven competitive games, beating Laois, who finished fourth in 1B, in the league quarter-final.

Even then, it was quite a struggle.

Their other six games saw them draw and lose to Galway and Wexford and lose to Tipperary and Cork. And while that may not exactly be a panic-inducing run, it's still a niggling run of setbacks, which cannot be good for confidence. Equally importantly, it boosts the opposition.

Obviously, it would be foolish to over-rate the importance of victories or defeats in the first round of the league, especially in light of what happened last year when the three opening-day winners in 1A were beaten on the following weekend.

Still, in a season when the margins between success and failure are likely to be extremely tight, every indicator has to be taken on its merits.

The pointers will become more reliable as the season progresses, but on the basis of Round 1, the big question now is: how will Munster counties react this weekend?

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