Everything still to play for National Hurling League
It's tough at the top on the final day of the hurling league
IT'S been a National Hurling League of many different complexions; one in which, Waterford's rhythm apart, a regular heartbeat has been hard to detect.
Momentum has switched frantically through February and March and today is pretty much a culmination of the drama and theatre we've been treated to since the curtain opened.
Remarkably, all six Division 1A teams can either reach the league semi-finals, or suffer relegation.
Michael Ryan's unsung Waterford team sits at the summit with five points; a draw would put them in the semi-finals. Mathematically, though, they can still be plunged into a relegation play-off.
Meanwhile, Clare, Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary are just behind on four points, all aware that a win today will see them into the title play-offs.
Galway prop up the table with three; they must at least draw to avoid a relegation battle while a win would propel them to semi-final contenders. It's possible all six teams could finish on five points which means that head-to-head meetings and scoring difference would come into play at 5.0 this afternoon.
Today's finale has been described as a grandstand finish, but some pundits feel it's merely been an average two months' hurling; a theory that Kilkenny forward Matthew Ruth totally disagrees with.
"Conditions over the past six weeks have made it almost impossible to hurl in some instances," he points out. "It's been pretty tough to hurl in at times and you could find yourself training in a blizzard now and again. But it's the same for all teams," he added. "I suppose it's a testament to the success of Division 1A to have everything still to play for. I'm sure coming into the last few minutes of every match it will still be all to play for."
With every passing week, more teams are noticeably adapting the short-passing and possession template refined by Cork in the mid-noughties. Clare, especially, have honed that formula from last season and clearly boast the skill levels to back it up.
This year's games seem to be more tactical and played at a quicker pace too – teams are shooting in the region of 28 points despite some horrific conditions. Only a few years ago 21 points was the usual target for victorious teams but we're fast approaching the point where the two sides are both hitting the 25-point mark with ease. Considering the ball is out of play for long instances and the weather has been so dismal, that's astonishing.
And the levels of excitement have risen too.
After half an hour against Cork last weekend, Clare looked dead and buried. They hadn't scored from play but then hit eight points without reply in as many minutes. After being wiped out by Cork, Tipp looked doomed for a thrashing against Kilkenny but pulled a great win out of the fire and then walloped Galway. Waterford have trod steadily all the way through, and while Kilkenny have been ravaged with injury they have once again found another three young talents.
The teams are learning more about each other all the time. By the end of play this afternoon, their dossiers will be even more complete.
At this time of transition they are simply blessed to have Brick Walsh and their manager knows it. "Michael Walsh is just an incredible guy. He would be on any hurling team or football team in this country," says the boss, Michael Ryan. "That's the character of this guy; he's a tremendous leader. A couple of months ago we sat down and he said, 'Forget who we haven't got, let's work with the fellas we have got,' and that's what we have done."
Walsh's form is such that if he is ever nullified by the opposition, Waterford will struggle. Likewise, Seamus Prendergast is key in their half-forward line. If he doesn't win primary ball, the team struggles. We saw that during a 20-minute spell in the second half of the Tipp match. Still, their younger players are really stepping up to the plate.
The assumption was that in the wake of the John Mullane and Eoin Kelly retirements – and the absence of other regulars – they would be all at sea. Credit to Michael Ryan and his men, it's been the exact opposite. Countless young players are emerging from post-primary and third-level fare and the light still shines bright just when we thought the flame was flickering in the breeze.
By far the fittest team in the land at the moment, Clare go into battle with all the style, belief and ball control that served them so well at underage. Two wins from three is a nice platform for the Tipperary game and we'll have a far more accurate gauge of their progress after today. Their midfield has been weak at times but in John Conlon, Tony Kelly and Shane O'Donnell they have top-drawer forwards.
David McInerney is settling well into the troublesome full-back spot. Their players are chiselled and seem better conditioned than any other county at the moment.
But they could yet be vulnerable to physicality and intense tackling and their short, possession game will test many of their fans.
They also have men purely to break ball and trust the likes of McGrath and Ryan to pounce on it, so there's a good balance. Sometimes their decision-making has been poor and they've also found goals hard to come by. But that could change with the return of Darach Honan from injury. They'll tear at the Tipp defence at every opportunity.
The only fear is that they're firing hard very early in the season. They need to negotiate three games to win Munster so they'll have to closely monitor their intensity levels.
You could probably name about six or seven Cork players who will definitely start championship this year, but that's about it. They kicked off with a smashing win against Tipperary but have found the going tough enough since then. They've been far too dependent on Pat Horgan for scores and although he hasn't let them down, it's not healthy.
They're still not settled on a number three and the Pa Cronin experiment at number six has left them bereft of his handling ability in the half-forward line.
Still, Cian McCarthy and his colleagues won a huge amount of ball there against Galway and they showed a lot more leadership than in their second-half collapse against Clare.
Winning aerial possession was critical but they'll do well to repeat that today. Then again, a league final or title is probably not a priority for this side. Reaching the business end of the hurling league didn't really stand to them last season.
"This is a massive game for us today and we have to win," admits Matthew Ruth. "It's an unusual situation because if we lose we could be in relegation trouble and if we win we'll be in the top three. There's a lot at stake.
"After the first few games it didn't look too good but the matches we lost were away to Galway and away to Tipp and we only fell by a point or two. So there wasn't much in it even though we still had nothing to show for it."
Like Ruth says, Kilkenny are now in a decent place after a rocky opening with a heap of old warriors yet to come back to the trenches. There are other reasons for Brian Cody to be happy – Pádraig Walsh, Tommy's younger brother, looks to the manner born at left-half back. Conor Fogarty has also impressed this season and the busy Lester Ryan has caught the eye too at midfield. Ger Aylward's pace caused huge problems for Clare and he looks a real find.
They have played poorly for long stretches of the season and even allowing for the catalogue of injuries, that's a worry.
Tipp have conceded way too many frees of late and it remains to be seen who will play at centre-back and midfield with Eamon O'Shea still examining his options.
Conor O'Brien has been in great form in a number of positions and Tipp fans will also be heartened by the form of Seamus Callanan, Lar Corbett, John O'Dwyer and young Jason Forde who has been carefully blended into the set-up.
But they missed a good opportunity at Walsh Park last weekend when two points could have removed all relegation worries. Tipp had that game won and their late collapse won't sit well in a dressing-room crying out for confidence. The team's form is very much up and down but a win today would set them up for a great summer.
Brendan Maher looks like he's getting back to his best. Darren Gleeson is pushing hard for the number one shirt and you get the feeling that Tipp's focus is very much down the line.
Clare's running style will trouble the Premier County. A relegation battle – possibly with either Galway or Cork – could be looming if they lose so today's game is massive.
Some of Galway's players have looked jaded this season after playing a succession of Walsh Cup, Railway Cup and National League games.
They are in hard training too, but the likes of Iarla Tannian, Davy Glennon, Niall Healy and Damien Hayes have still shown up well. Possibly the most influential player, though, is new centre-back Joseph Cooney who has looked the part.
They were in the driving seat against Cork but lacked the composure and concentration to finish off the game. After losing last year's All-Ireland final replay, a league relegation battle would further upset their levels of belief. So expect a win this afternoon and a bounce to safety as they prepare for another summer assault.