All to play for as hurling year deviates from script
Don't rule out a few more surprises as the championship enters its serious phase, says Jamesie O'Connor
After another helter-skelter weekend that saw Clare and Wexford go down fighting but ultimately make their exits, just six sides now remain as we head into the business end of the championship. It's time so to draw breath, and take stock of the season so far.
Firstly, it's been a far more entertaining championship than anyone expected. Whatever about the merits or otherwise of the current system, we've had a really good Munster campaign with great commitment and intensity on show, and all four matches in the melting pot heading into the last ten minutes.
The trio that didn't make the final, Clare, Cork and Limerick, are all making progress and unearthing new talent, standards in the province appear to be levelling off and while Tipperary are still a step ahead of the chasing pack, the gap is narrowing.
From a spectator's perspective, there were some great passages of hurling in all the matches, and if there's a negative it's how poorly attended many of them were. With the effort the players are putting in, they deserve better. The weather hasn't helped but ticket prices are fractionally too high. Finding the price point above which people find it easier to decide it's too expensive to travel would be a help, but a small reduction is surely something worth considering.
While the entertainment levels in Leinster didn't hit the same heights, delivering the biggest disappointment in the damp squib that Kilkenny v Dublin turned out to be, it also delivered the standout performance of the year. Galway's sacking of the champions not only blew the competition wide open, but has breathed new life into what had looked like a jaded docket. Of course it also makes next week's quarter-finals all the more intriguing, particularly in relation to how Kilkenny will respond to that defeat.
Limerick drew the short straw. However, after the disappointment of having Tipp on the rack and not finishing them off, they've re-grouped, with three morale-boosting wins in the qualifiers and so possess both confidence and momentum. In John Allen they have a smart and experienced man at the helm, appear to have a very united camp, and with the pace and form they've shown, Kilkenny will need to respect them. Another positive is that the team has been getting goals, and the three they hit last weekend against Clare decided the match.
Maybe it was because of our rivalry, but I always found Limerick a difficult side to play against. Kilkenny are capable of blowing them away, and it'll be very interesting to see what team Brian Cody picks, but it's not something that's too likely to happen.
Cork fans would have been praying for Clare to beat Limerick last Saturday because that scenario would have ensured they had to play Waterford and would avoid Kilkenny in the quarter-final. As events transpired, that's what unfolded anyway, but if at the start of the year you offered JBM and the Cork players a situation where Waterford and Galway stood between them and a spot in the All-Ireland final they'd have taken the hand off you. Cork have a great record against Galway in the championship, and they will be quietly fancying their chances of emerging from that half of the draw.
That said, Waterford have had Galway's number for years too, and defeated Cork the last time they met in the championship as well. They too will fancy their chances provided they can regroup after the disappointment of last Sunday.
While Tipperary had a bit to spare at the end of the Munster final, it was a real contest for over an hour. Again, the two goals Tipp scored made the difference, but Waterford had their chances. In the immediate aftermath of Tipp's second goal, Maurice Shanahan missed a scoreable free, Tony Browne hit a wide and Eoin Kelly had a goal chance that in his prime he would surely have buried. With those misses went the match, but they showed there's enough character in the side by fighting it out to the end.
There is considerably less style in the Waterford team now than in previous years, but there are plenty of players with substance, and while winning the All-Ireland is probably beyond them, a place in the final isn't and that's still a prize well worth playing for.
While Tipp and Galway have the luxury of sitting back and getting a good look at their semi-final opponents next Sunday, those whose seasons are over will look back with varying degrees of regret and disappointment. Only Westmeath amongst the minnows made progress, while Laois, Carlow, and Antrim continue to struggle against stiffer opposition.
Offaly got over Wexford, but they just don't seem to have the depth or talent to live with the top five or six sides either, and their woeful record at minor and under 21 level in recent years, means their pool of emerging talent is shallower than most of those ranked above them.
Having seen Wexford in the flesh three times this year, I think they are on the right track and in Liam Dunne have the right man in place. They never threw the towel in or stopped hurling in the two championship games they lost and, for the most part, kept trying to do the right things with the ball. They are still short a few players, especially a couple of ball-winning forwards, and naive defending cost them goals at key stages. Yet, while there's still a considerable way for them to go, at least they are heading in the right direction.
The key decision for the Dublin County Board now relates to Anthony Daly. I thought he was a great appointment four years ago, particularly in lifting the profile of Dublin hurling. No one could argue that's not something which has been achieved. This year, however, was a disaster from start to finish. What disappointed me most was how one-dimensional their style of play was against both Kilkenny and Clare. A Dublin supporter I met coming out of Ennis labelled it caveman hurling, and it neatly summed up their lack of ideas, or invention and the route-one approach they adopted.
Dublin are better than that, but to break down defences of the calibre the top teams possess requires a more enlightened approach. I still think Dalo has something to offer Dublin, but if re-appointed, some hard decisions will need to be made, both on and off the field.
Probably the team with most to be disappointed about, especially after last weekend, is Clare. They had chances in the Munster semi-final against Waterford that they just didn't take, and the two goals they conceded either side of half-time last Saturday to Limerick allowed a match that was eminently winnable to slip away from them. It was a brave and, in my opinion, correct decision to throw some of the younger players into the fray in the last two matches, but that inexperience proved costly at times. There were a number of occasions when they took the ball into contact and turned it over, for example, but those lessons will only be learned through experience.
The advantage Clare have over Offaly, Wexford, Limerick and Dublin is that at least they will play Division 1 hurling next season, and with a young team that experience will be invaluable from a development perspective.
From here, barring replays, only five games remain in the hurling year. But those five games feature the best six teams in the country, and there's plenty to whet the appetite and look forward to. Tipp, Kilkenny and Galway look like potential winners, but the script hasn't fully gone to plan in 2012 and the other three may well have something to say about that before the year is out.
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