Monday 19 August 2019

Hurling's Big Three never fail to deliver excitement

Kilkenny players Stephen Maher, Richie O'Neill, Tommy Walsh, Henry Shefflin, Derek Lyng and Noel Hickey
Kilkenny players Stephen Maher, Richie O'Neill, Tommy Walsh, Henry Shefflin, Derek Lyng and Noel Hickey

Cyrill Farrell

At last, a weekend to draw breath, count the losses from Galway races and reflect on the hurling championship so far.

There are no surprises in the McCarthy Cup semi-final pairings as Kilkenny, Cork, Tipperary and Waterford filled four of the five favourites' spots prior to the start of the championship.

Galway were second favourites but once again didn't come anywhere close to living up to their billing.

Based on championship performances over the last three seasons, Galway are now in seventh place behind this year's four semi-finalists plus Clare and Wexford. That's an undeniable reality, one which all of us in Galway have to accept before we start looking forward.

It's all very well having big reputations -- on and off the field -- but all that matters in the end are results and Galway haven't been delivering them.

Having said that, it's unfair that whereas Cork, Clare, Waterford and Wexford were in the All-Ireland quarter-finals last Sunday, despite having lost a game, Galway get no second chance.

It's simply unsustainable. Galway must give Leinster a try and see how it works.

The fact that the hurling traditional 'Big Three' are back in the semi-finals, where they are joined by Waterford -- who in fairness have been a powerful force since 2002 -- will inevitably lead to jibes about hurling being far too predictable.

Domination

Really? And even if the same teams generally head into August seeking an All-Ireland final place, so what? Of course it would be good for hurling generally if Laois, Dublin, Antrim and Westmeath were in the semi-finals but we have to live in the real world.

Besides, domination by a few is not confined to hurling. Take a look at the betting for the new season's English Premier League and you'll find that outside the top four, the next closest are Spurs at 150/1. In Scotland, Celtic and Rangers are odds-on shots to dominate as they always do with Hearts third favourites at 150/1.

It will take nine months to run off the leagues in England and Scotland and already everybody knows that the titles will be won by one of four in England and one of two in Scotland.

That's a reality of sporting life and good luck to all. But it annoys me when I hear or read about how predictable the hurling scene is because it's just as open as many of the major competitions in other countries.

Besides, how predictable were last Sunday's quarter-finals? It took the final whistle to separate the teams in both games and, in fairness, a double draw would have been fairer.

All four teams could take satisfaction from their performances, more so obviously for Cork and Waterford, but Clare and Wexford should be encouraged too.

Mike Mac has done a great job with Clare this year in terms of making them seriously competitive again through the re-introduction of traditional Banner values.

Okay, so they came up well short against Tipperary but after the chaos of 2007, they were starting from a much lower base than Tipp.

Clare didn't perform anywhere near full capacity against Tipperary but were a different side last Sunday. Although they didn't quite make it in the end, they were up against an incredibly driven force in Cork.

Wexford's big problem in recent years has been their inability to get close to Kilkenny. Big defeats in Leinster finals (and in last year's All-Ireland semi-final) have given the wrong impression of Wexford who are better than they're given credit for.

Turmoil

They beat Tipperary in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final and came mighty close to repeating it against Waterford last Sunday, with a squad which was weakened by injury problems. They deserved a second chance but just lost out in the cruellest of circumstances.

Which brings me to Waterford? Never mind how they reached the semi-finals, or the turmoil which erupted in mid-summer, they are now where they wanted to be all along.

There's no doubt that they will have to improve to match Tipperary but it's well within their scope. Davy Fitz has a few weeks to work with them and will put it to good use in terms of sharpening things up. Defensively, they're still too loose -- although Tony Browne has really taken to centre half-back -- but the defence as a unit needs to be worked on.

Dan Shanahan's goal in Thurles last Sunday could yet turn out to be more important than any he scored last year.

It will boost his confidence at just the right time as Waterford head for Croke Park and another crack at breaking down the very solid wall which has prevented them reaching the All-Ireland final.

The Throw-In All-Ireland Hurling Final preview: Can Tipp's firepower edge clash with the Cats?

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