The Oxford Dictionary defines a team as "a group of players forming one side in a competitive game or sport". Somehow that definition just doesn't come close to capturing the real essence of a team.
Bitter experience taught me years ago that to be successful, a bunch of players must become a team in the truest sense. Forging that sense of unity, togetherness, and willingness to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, is something that doesn't happen overnight. However, when a group of players come together and are committed, totally honest and willing to work their socks off, it can overcome a lot of deficiencies. Marry that to a belief in who they are and what they're doing, a sense of common purpose and a readiness to back each other to the hilt, and now you have a unit that makes for a dangerous opponent.
Of the two sides contesting the game in Tullamore last Saturday, Dublin were the ones who, from the off, played like a team. And a team that believed they were going to win. A huge amount of the credit for that has to go to Anthony Daly and his management team. It's one thing telling your players they can win, but it's another convincing them they have the talent and ability to make it happen. Dublin could not have won that game last weekend unless, deep down, they truly believed they could.
It's worth pointing out too that Dublin started without their captain Stephen Hiney and first-choice centre-back Joey Boland -- two thirds of their first-choice half-back line. They also lost their full-back Tomás Brady inside the first ten minutes, and later in the second half Ryan O'Dwyer to a needless red card that rules him out of next weekend's Leinster final.
All the excuses were there for Dublin to fall back on. Yet the players never allowed themselves to be fazed by the negatives. Management calmly made the necessary adjustments and, most importantly, the players assumed the responsibility and got on with the job.
I had my doubts at the time, but Peter Kelly did a really good job as a stopgap full-back, especially in dealing with the threat presented by Joe Canning. Canning had to be feeling good coming off the high of burying the ball in the Dublin net and knowing he was now effectively being marked by a rookie in the position. However, Kelly dealt with the challenge admirably. His fielding ability, pace and athleticism means he can recover well, especially when the ball gets in behind him, and I thought he did an excellent job in what were far-from-ideal circumstances.
Elsewhere, Liam Rushe's switch to centre-back also worked to Dublin's advantage as he really took a grip on the middle, completely negated Cyril Donnellan's influence and delivered a man of the match display. Despite his tender years -- Rushe is still under 21 -- he played with the poise and demeanour of a veteran, and the rest of the Dublin defence followed his lead. Oisín Gough in particular, a player who had struggled with his form and confidence in the league, was also outstanding.
Simon Lambert had a massive game when introduced at midfield while the dogs of war in the Dublin half-forward line rolled up their sleeves and really got stuck in. Conal
Keaney's ball-winning ability and leadership are huge bonuses given that all Anthony Daly probably expected to gain from Keaney's return was a forward who knew where the posts were.
If you were to pick holes in the Dublin performance, they did make heavy weather at times of translating their superiority on the scoreboard. They also failed to create any real goal-scoring opportunities and some of the options and shooting decisions bordered on the crazy.
Yet, you couldn't but be impressed with the manner of the win, their physicality and the manner in which they effectively bullied Galway in the middle third. While they may not yet be the finished article, and the lengthening injury list is a growing concern, this is definitely a team heading in the right direction.
From a Galway perspective, while losing a championship match because you've been outhurled might be acceptable, losing it because you've been outfought certainly isn't. What grated on some of the Galway supporters around me was not that their team was struggling to compete with Dublin in the air, something they feared might occur, but that they were being blown away physically and also losing most of the battles for the breaking ball on the ground. As a result, the inside line never got the type of service they might have expected and Damien Hayes and Aengus Callinan were virtually anonymous. With Joe Canning shooting eight wides, probably more than he's had in the last three years combined, and having another off day, the writing was on the wall for the Tribesmen from a long way out.
While their season is far from over, John McIntyre's side have some serious questions to answer. Joe Gantley apart, no one from midfield on made a telling contribution, and there appeared to be no discernable pattern to their play. It's easy to point the finger of blame at the management, but the players have to assume their share of the responsibility too. Canning in particular needs to show some real leadership, and he'll have that opportunity next Saturday when Clare come to Salthill on the back of a largely positive performance against Tipperary.
Can Galway regroup and come back from this? Yes. The defence, given the pressure they were under, looked relatively solid, and they did shoot 15 wides, most of which they'd expect to convert.
However, while few could have foreseen Tipp going on to become the team they were on the first Sunday in September last year after the opening-round debacle in Cork, it's harder still to see Galway turning this around. The problems they have are deep rooted, especially at midfield and in their half-forward line, and while I still expect them to beat Clare next Saturday, the road to redemption is still some way off. The acid test may arrive sooner than they think if they draw an improving Cork in the next qualifier phase.
While the Galway supporters trooped disconsolately out of Tullamore, at least there was a pep in the step of most of the Clare followers coming out of Limerick last Sunday after a brave and heartening display against the All-Ireland champions. They have to play with great heart to have any chance at this level and they did that, adding intensity and no little skill, especially in that hugely entertaining first 35 minutes. Conor McGrath's goal inside the opening 60 seconds was the perfect start, and the talented youngster marked his arrival on the senior inter-county stage with an excellent display.
Up six points at one stage, the naive defending that saw Tipp hit three goals in just four minutes meant Clare really shot themselves in the foot, and to go in trailing at half-time, having had the better of things for most of the first half, was disappointing. That they failed to sustain the same levels of effort and intensity in the second half points to a lack of fitness and some of the players seemed to run out of gas. However, a second season spent playing in Division 2, where the pace and intensity levels are so much lower, may be the root cause. This highlights all the more how imperative it is they make it out of there next season.
To be fair to the Clare defence, the movement of the Tipp players off the ball up front was mesmerising and very difficult to cope with. As a unit, Tipp ask questions that no other team in the country comes close to posing, and yet all three first-half goals were the product of Tipp players reacting faster to the breaking ball than their Clare opponents. In each case, there was only one thing on their mind when they got inside and they exacted the maximum return from each of the goal opportunities that presented in that first half.
The dividend of hurling into September in each of the last two years is now being reaped in terms of the cohesiveness amongst the forwards. They could easily have had another couple of goals in the second period, and only their wayward shooting allowed Clare to stay in the match. That said, the platform for much of what they did in the second half stemmed from the real dominance their half-back line began to exert and, in particular, Pádraig Maher. The Thurles Sarsfields man was the outstanding player on the field, and Clare's goose was cooked with the dominance he exerted over John Conlon, Clare's primary ball-winning target.
Declan Ryan has to be reasonably happy with where his team are at this stage of the season, even if the defence again showed some frailties. Taking both John O'Keeffe and David Young off at half-time showed that the manager isn't prepared to fiddle if Rome is threatening to burn, and the changes at the back definitely tightened things up. With Brendan Maher due to play with his club at the weekend and another fortnight to go to the Munster final to prove his fitness, their hand will be stronger still, and they remain the team the rest have to beat.
For Clare, at home to Wexford rather than away to Galway would have been a far more palatable outcome when the draw was made. Regardless of the opponent though, Clare need to build on the positives and deliver another good performance, something they failed to do last year. While going to Salthill, to take on a wounded and hurting Galway, may be a bridge too far, if they play with the same spirit and intensity, and get more out of Darach Honan, who was desperately disappointing last Sunday, the Tribesmen may not have it all their own way.
As I said last week, Clare's future looks bright and there is young talent coming through. The minors franked that by comprehensively beating Tipp in the Munster semi-final on Friday night and the under 21s have every chance of making it to a fourth consecutive provincial final in a few weeks. However, that will take time to translate into success at senior level, so adult success remains some way off.
The other big game next weekend sees Wexford travel to Limerick. While I'm sure Donal O'Grady will be glad to have avoided Galway in the draw, I don't think he'd have feared them. Provided Limerick turn up at home, where they're always hard to play against, they should have too much in hand for Colm Bonnar's side. The scenario O'Grady will want to avoid is running into his native county in the next qualifier phase. While the ten-goal annihilation of Laois last Saturday certainly got people's attention, yesterday's win over Offaly, even though they cut it fine, was another useful exercise on the road to recovery.
With the experience they have and some emerging new talent, they're a side that could yet ruffle some serious feathers. All in all, after what's been a really good start to the hurling championship, there remains much to look forward to.