Tuesday 10 December 2019

Revolution on hold for now as we gear up for a return of the old guard

'As his three-point Leinster final salvo showed, they have a lean and still motivated Henry Shefflin on the sideline'
'As his three-point Leinster final salvo showed, they have a lean and still motivated Henry Shefflin on the sideline'

Jamesie O'Connor

THE All-Ireland hurling championship was formally launched in my home club, St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield, last week. The event featured players from the remaining counties in the chase for Liam MacCarthy and I wonder what were the odds that the host side and defending champions wouldn’t have a representative among them?

Clare showed a lot of courage and character to salvage a draw in Ennis after Podge Collins was sent off. But the even more heroic efforts it took to force extra-time last weekend, with just 13 men for the last 20 minutes of normal time, emptied whatever resources were left in their tank. They looked a tired team, and even if they had somehow pulled off a victory, I think it was merely postponing the inevitable. Clare were toast.

What Clare’s elimination means is a radical revision of how the hurling landscape has changed from that Saturday evening last September when the world appeared to be their oyster. The team played so well from the quarter-finals on that they were deserving champions in 2013. But the reality is that luck was very much on their side, particularly when they ended up in the opposite side of the qualifier draw to Kilkenny, Tipperary and Waterford. The victories over Laois and Wexford, and the confidence and momentum the team gained at a time when they were vulnerable, allowed them to kick on. The path ahead was cleared too so when the opportunity was there for any of the four semi-finalists to win it, Clare were the ones who grabbed it.

But even given the double under 21 All-Ireland success and predictions of a dominant era, having watched the improvements Cork have made, and also how Kilkenny and Tipperary have progressed, hurling people in Clare are now wondering whether this team will win another .

That view may be overly pessimistic. Rested and recharged, Clare will be contenders next year. But of the six sides left, who will they have to dethrone?

The odds appear to favour Cork and Kilkenny, the only two unbeaten sides left. Kilkenny have been rejuvenated and energised by Brian Cody’s approach to the league and the changes made to the team. The opportunities the younger players were given and the competition for places means there’s a lot less mileage in the legs of the older players compared to this time last year.

Not only does the team look fresher and more energetic, but the time spent warming the bench and watching from the stands has allowed many of the old guard to rediscover their appetite. Richie Hogan and TJ Reid have been magnificent, and Pádraig Walsh has been a real find. As his three-point Leinster final salvo showed, they have a lean and still motivated Henry Shefflin on the sideline. Managing to get Michael Fennelly and Richie Power, fit and healthy would strengthen them further.

As league and Leinster champions, they have done all that’s been asked of them. However, Galway were so one-dimensional in the replay, and Dublin so dismal in the Leinster final, that defensively they have been able to cope comfortably. With Brian Hogan and Jackie Tyrrell back, they have looked sounder than ever, and that duo have played well. Nonetheless, Dublin, when they did run at them, created two really good goal chances in the second half that more accomplished finishers like Patrick Horgan or Lar Corbett would surely have put away.

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If results go as expected, the draw looks like pitting Kilkenny against Limerick in the semi-final. Limerick, with nothing to lose, certainly have a chance, but if you had to put the money down now, Kilkenny would be the choice to emerge from the first semi-final.

While Cork took the plaudits and deservedly so last Sunday, Limerick weren’t far away. They paid the price for the four wides in the first seven minutes when they were completely on top, and the great goal opportunity that Shane Dowling didn’t convert in the 25th minute. Yet they were still level with 16 minutes left until Seamus Harnedy’s goal broke the deadlock. Trying to force things, in light of the position they were in, cost them a further 1-1 when Paul Browne and Seamus Hickey, who both performed admirably, took wrong options. Take those out of it and the match would have gone right down to the wire.

Looking ahead, both their wing-backs struggled at times in the Munster final. If they can tighten up, and get more out of both Kevin Downes and Declan Hannon, Limerick are good enough to be in the last four.

Wexford are in bonus territory now, and regardless of whether or not their season ends next Sunday, they can look to 2015 with genuine optimism.

Liam Ryan and Conor McDonald have made a seamless transition out of minor ranks. Others, like Liam Og McGovern have delivered performances in the championship that should enable them kick on and really establish themselves as serious players at this level now. Wexford still have plenty of work to do, but with consecutive Leinster under 21 titles in the bag, the pep is back in the county’s step, the talent is coming through, and with the momentum they have you couldn’t completely write them off next weekend.

Obviously the box-office fixture next Sunday is Tipperary against Dublin. Tipperary are starting to motor, and their attack is looking slicker and more explosive with every game. Don’t underestimate the difference having a fully fit and confident Lar Corbett makes to that side. They still have issues at the back, and their half-forwards not winning enough ball off their own puck-out, could undo them against the Dubs. But they have the firepower, pace and flair in attack to spook even Kilkenny. Dark horses — and the team Cork and Kilkenny would least like to meet in the last four.

Two weeks on, if I’m still disgusted at their Leinster final display, how are the Dublin players feeling?

The gun is to their head now, but, bizarrely, they seem to perform better in such circumstances. At least Danny Sutcliffe will have a couple of games under his belt, given his importance to the side. But the lack of form, even in club matches, shown by some of the other forwards, Ryan O’Dwyer and Conal Keaney in particular, is still a concern. They can’t win a shoot-out with Tipperary, but if Liam Rushe and the rest of the defence deny Tipp a decent supply of the ball, Dublin would have a chance.

Meanwhile, Cork, like Kilkenny, have the luxury of sitting back and getting a close look at their semi-final opponents next weekend. JBM has done a great job in assuaging a lot of the doubts I had about this Cork team. The new players, Bill Cooper and Alan Cadogan in particular, have made a huge difference. But it’s the revised structure of the team that has arguably wrought the biggest gains.

Cork look a lot harder to break down now than the side Clare repeatedly carved open in last September’s replay. They look like a side with unfinished business, and with possible showdowns with Tipp and Kilkenny on the horizon, it’s likely to be the old guard providing the thrills and spills in August and September.

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