No one ever looked wise by reading too much into league form, but we saw plenty of clues over the weekend about what could unfold in this year’s championship action.
Waterford, specifically, will have taken a huge amount from this campaign, shedding fears that there might be a hangover from the All-Ireland final last December. They looked fresher yesterday than they did against Galway – a game in which they seemed lethargic, where they weren’t chasing back and where their half-forward line wasn’t back deep enough.
Yesterday the three half-forwards played deeper roles, allowing Austin Gleeson to sit around the half-back line and bomb forward. It was a big concern to see him go off injured and all of Waterford will hope he’s healthy in three weeks’ time.
What we saw yesterday was the real Waterford, the one from Croke Park last year, running up the pitch in waves, with Calum Lyons and Daragh Lyons breaking tackles in the middle third.
They got to the end of Tipperary, and it began with conceding the puck-out. Waterford didn’t want Tipp going long on puck-outs so the Tipp full-back line was forced to run it up the pitch, and that takes them outside their comfort zone.
I expect them to meet again later in the championship and the big conundrum for Liam Sheedy: when his full-back line gets the ball, what do they do?
Waterford were happiest when Tipp’s defenders delivered the ball from inside their own 45. They effectively play five in the half-back line and when they give away the puck-out, it’s too far for Tipp to hit it inside the 21. When Tipp got it to the 45 they were swarmed and when they did hit it long Waterford had three bodies back.
From a Tipp perspective, I preferred Michael Breen and Dan McCormack in the half-forward line – while it didn’t work yesterday, I think they’re the two best options we have. The one fear every team will have of Tipperary in the championship is that when the ball goes in deep, inside the penalty area, the stick work of their forwards is the best in the country. Jason Forde, Jake Morris, Séamie Callanan, ‘Bubbles’ – when they get you one-on-one it’s big danger, but the conundrum is getting the ball to their own 65 so they can deliver it in long.
For many teams, rest and freshness are the missing pieces that will be added in the coming weeks. I think everyone loaded training during the week in the league and we saw a lot of tired bodies, which left us trying to judge how they played, not knowing if they’d likely trained four nights that week. Now everybody will get to the start line fresh.
Teams don’t need to do a load of drills or a massive amount of hurling at this stage – they have to make sure sessions are short, sharp. To me all the sides, bar Dublin, seem to already know what they want to do.
If I was going up against Dublin, I’d have little idea of their game-plan. I expected more from them in the league but they never threatened Wexford on Saturday. They face Antrim on Saturday week and that’s a game with red danger lights all over it – lose and they’re in the relegation battle. Antrim are hurling with a maturity, a certainty and a belief that has come from getting results.
Wexford looked strong and seem to have found a bit of late, while Cork and Galway played out a big shootout yesterday – two teams that know exactly what they want to do in weeks ahead. Clare beating Kilkenny is a result that raises eyebrows. We know there’s no such thing as a league game for Kilkenny – every match is do or die – so it’s a big win.
The return of Colm Galvin has been crucial. Now there’s someone else bar Tony Kelly buzzing around, posing a threat, and his presence fills the others with belief. Clare have come on leaps and bounds in the last two weeks and that win is massive going into their opener against Waterford. As a manager, the last thing you want is players feeling the season is petering out and it could easily have gone that way for Clare last month.
But Brian Lohan has come through major adversity, on and off the pitch, and there seems to be a bit of togetherness forming in their ranks. They stabilised, clawed their way back and, to me, they now have a sporting chance.