Martin Breheny: 'Who has biggest calls to make before Championship lift-off?'
Pre-championship fine-tuning will have big impact on summer campaigns
Never mind the provincial championship media launches where most players and managers work off a script that couldn't be any tighter if they were rehearsing for a stage production, the real theatre is going on well behind the curtains.
This is the time when big decisions are being made about personnel, tactics and the general approach to the summer season. All counties have their own particular issues to address, with perhaps the success or otherwise of the campaign depending on the responses. Here's a sample of the more intriguing ones.
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Mayo: Clarke or Hennelly?
James Horan has a big decision to make. Both goalkeepers got four starts each in the Allianz League, with Rob Hennelly experiencing a little more action, having come in for the injured Clarke during the Round 7 clash with Monaghan. Horan's rotation policy suggests he has yet to make up his mind between them, but the odds should favour Clarke. Shot-stopping is still the top priority for a goalkeeper and Clarke is not only the best in Mayo, but also the best in the country.
Galway: Time for instinct?
Even allowing for the second-half collapse against Dublin in last year's All-Ireland semi-final, Galway have made considerable progress over the last few seasons, but can they maintain the upward graph with such a conservative approach? Probably not.
Injuries made it necessary for them to dig in during the league and, in fairness, they did it well. However, on summer surfaces, they need to be more creative. They have the players to do that, but Kevin Walsh's philosophy has been to place defensive security ahead of attacking adventure.
Armagh: What's wrong in Ulster?
They have won 11 qualifier games since last winning in the Ulster Championship (v Cavan 2014). Why so poor in the provincial championship (they scored an unacceptably low average of 10.5 points in four successive first-round defeats) before stepping up in the qualifiers? A pre-championship camp in Portugal last year brought no improvement in Ulster, where they scored just 0-7 in the defeat by Fermanagh. Kieran McGeeney and his squad need to have taken more from a similar jaunt to Portugal last week as they prepare for the clash with Down on May 19.
Cork: Where's your pride?
"There are talented players there. They do all the right things. They're eager for success and we'll keep working away with them," said manager, Ronan McCarthy after Cork were demoted to Division 3.
It begs the question: if there's talent and commitment in the camp, why are Cork trapped in the worst slump for decades? It's a question McCarthy is mulling over, but it needs more than addressing before the summer.
Tipperary: Facts don't lie
Two wins from their last 11 league and championship games represents one of Tipp's least successful 12-month periods in their history. So, in addition to figuring out how to make the full-back line more secure, how to do better in aerial warfare and where to find an injection of pace, Liam Sheedy is also dealing with the drop in confidence that inevitably follows such a bad run.
There's a lot to be done on all fronts before the trip to Cork on May 12.
Wexford: System change?
Davy Fitzgerald has done an excellent job with Wexford, building on the solid platform he inherited from Liam Dunne, but he now faces a real dilemma. Does he stick with the tactical set-up of the last two seasons in the hope that it will move Wexford on or is it time for a different approach?
Fitzgerald has always been innovative so it would be no surprise to see a different structure next month.
It's probably necessary if Wexford are to give themselves maximum chance of making more progress.
Waterford: Moving on never easy They played a certain way under Derek McGrath for five years and are now adjusting to Páraic Fanning's different approach.
It was effective for much of the league but malfunctioned against under Limerick's intense scrutiny in the final. It's difficult for a squad to adapt to a different system after being used to another one for so long. Fanning will cram in as much as he can, but this may take more than one season.
Galway: Leaders wanted
How will Galway cope for as long as Joe Canning is out? Who will take extra responsibility?
They weren't doing it when he was with them in the league semi-final against Waterford last month. Indeed, it was his desire to save the day that set him up for the ferocious wallop that left him with a serious injury.
Micheál Donoghue will be looking for new leaders, but are they there? And where is the young talent that was flagged to come through in recent seasons? How will they solve the goalkeeping problem?
Rule on training camps is diluted
The rule on extended training camps – either at home or aboard – states that squads cannot undertake any after April 1, except in the 10 days before a championship game.
So why aren’t Armagh, who were in Portugal last week, in trouble with Croke Park for a second successive year? They escape because of a change added by Congress this year.
It states that training camps may be undertaken if ‘written permission has been given in advance by the Central Competitions Control Committee. Apparently, Armagh were able to convince CCCC that the Portugal jaunt did not impact on their club programme as Easter weekend was left free.
Effectively, the rule has been diluted, with its interpretation now left to CCCC. Also, no overseas training trips will be allowed at any time from next year on, although how enforceable that will be remains to be seen.
What if squads claim it’s for holiday purposes only as happened with Wexford’s hurlers last year. And will Dublin footballers want to visit Notre Dame to see how renovation work is progressing?
Alleluia! Club strike not on the way
What exactly could they mean, we wondered, when the Club Players’ Association said in a statement last week that they were “looking for action” not words in their campaign for a better fixtures programme?
And what had they mind when they told members that they would be “in touch again soon to update you on next steps, including possible escalation”.
Inevitably, it was assumed that a strike might be called, which would be about the daftest thing imaginable. For a start, it’s highly unlikely that all clubs would back it and, even if they did, it would be greeted with public apathy. The CPA have since stated that strike is not on the agenda, even if they remain deeply frustrated by what they regard as very slow progress.
Croke Park can certainly be part of the solution, but the real power rests with clubs in the various counties.
Ultimately, they have the power to make things happen – indeed that’s the only way genuine progress can be made in an area of huge frustration.