Sport Hurling

Thursday 22 March 2018

Increased options leave champions sitting pretty

Declan Ryan will be thrilled with the attacking potential in his squad, says Jamesie O'Connor

While results went along expected lines in Leinster and Munster last weekend, there were still plenty of positives for the three defeated managers to mull over during the week.

Indeed, the old adage that you learn more about your team in defeat than victory may well prove true as Cork, Offaly and Antrim move towards the qualifiers and what they hope will be an extended run over the next couple of months.

And while last Sunday was all about getting over that critical first hurdle, Declan Ryan, Colm Bonnar and Anthony Daly have plenty of food for thought too as they begin their focus on the provincial semi-finals coming up over the next three weekends.

While the new Tipperary manager mightn't be thrilled with some of the defensive aspects of his side's victory over Cork, he certainly couldn't have too many qualms with the way his attack functioned.

We know the Tipp forward line has an awful lot of weapons, but the most impressive aspect was how they functioned as a unit last Sunday: 3-22 was a seriously impressive tally given Cork still have a decent defence, and it was noticeable that all six starting forwards had contributed on the scoreboard by the 33rd minute. Lar Corbett, Noel McGrath and Eoin Kelly, in particular, all looked sharp, and Kelly's first-half goal, given the work he had to do, was as good as any he has scored in the championship.

The real bonus, however, was Seamus Callanan's return to form. Having lost his confidence, his form and his way last summer, and ultimately his place on the team, five points from play constituted a seriously good afternoon's work. Callanan's ability to ghost into space and play anything unlike an orthodox centre-forward role make him particularly difficult to mark.

That's especially the case if the opposing centre-back's remit is to hold his position and lock down the middle, as it usually is. With the skill and accuracy he has, allowing Callanan to roam unattended will see him punish you on the scoreboard. Follow him and you leave a gaping hole down the middle, which, with the players Tipp have, is an invitation to be pillaged. With the swagger and confidence in his game back, Tipp look even more menacing up front.

It's also telling of the balance Tipp now have that perhaps the most decisive contribution to the win was made by arguably the least skilful and dangerous of their attacking sextet. Two of Tipp's goals were essentially created out of nothing by 'Bonner' Maher, whose general work-rate and selflessness now make him an integral part of the team.

Where Tipp have also moved ahead of the pack is in their economy of use of possession. They hardly wasted a ball over the 75 minutes and I struggled to remember a bad wide in the meagre tally of five they accumulated.

One only has to look at the wealth of riches on the Tipperary bench, too, to realise the scope they have for further improvement. Shane McGrath and Gearóid Ryan started at midfield last Sunday, but James Woodlock, who missed all of last year with a broken leg, is now available and looked fit and eager when introduced. With those options available, and the half-back line unconvincing, Declan Ryan may even have the luxury of considering playing the outstanding midfielder in the country 12 months ago, Brendan Maher, at wing-back when he returns from injury. Wing-back was where Maher lined out for the under 21s last summer, so the position is familiar to him.

Certainly, a half-back line with Conor O'Mahony in the middle, who was impressive when introduced on Sunday, flanked by Pádraic and Brendan Maher, has a far more imposing look to it than the one that started on Sunday.

From a Cork perspective, unsure as they were as to where exactly their team was at, Denis Walsh would have to be happy with many aspects of the display. Had they taken the two early goal chances they created, the match may well have assumed a different complexion.

The newcomers acquitted themselves reasonably well and the team didn't panic when Tipp looked like pulling away. Having scored 21 points by the 55th minute to draw level, that they only scored two more in the remaining time and failed to create another clear-cut goal opportunity was disappointing and in that regard the decision to leave Cathal Naughton and 'Fraggy' Murphy on the bench until the 69th minute was baffling. Naughton, especially, would surely have revelled in the open spaces late on when the game had loosened up.

It was hard, too, to fathom why Patrick Horgan was called ashore before the final whistle given that along with Niall McCarthy, he was one of Cork's best forwards; but that was something that happened on occasion last year as well.

Nevertheless, Cork definitely have something to build on. The force of old they may not be, but they're still a better side than most of the other teams in the country, and a team to be avoided in the qualifiers. The system and potential series of games ahead may now afford them the opportunity to determine their optimum starting 15, get some confidence and rhythm into their play up front, and they could very well be semi-finalists come August.

Wexford's prize for what ended up being a comfortable and comprehensive win over Antrim is the poisoned chalice of a home tie with Kilkenny next Saturday evening. Under normal circumstances, this would be a relatively straightforward outcome to predict.

Up for the challenge and at home, Wexford would present a decent test. Ultimately, however, Kilkenny would weather whatever storm Wexford would throw at them and in probably no more than third gear, and still have too much strength, power and scoring prowess for their neighbours to live with.

That of course was before the disaster that was the league final. Part of me believes that, psychologically, having looked at what Dublin did, the same fear that playing Kilkenny would normally engender in the Wexford players may not be there. But a bigger part of me fears that Wexford might be on the receiving end of a backlash. And there's bound to be a backlash.

What will be interesting is to see just what team Brian Cody picks and how many casualties there will be from the league final. In that frank and revealing interview he gave after that game, Jackie Tyrrell spoke about the way standards had slipped in Kilkenny and that they needed to get back to doing what made them the team they were for so long.

While I can't imagine his manager was particularly pleased that he chose to air those views publicly, and Tyrrell no doubt felt his wrath for having done so, privately, I'm sure, he agrees with them.

This team achieved what they did because of the standards Cody set. I have no doubt but that his attitude will be that the players either play to his standards or they won't play at all. On that basis, the axe will surely fall on some. Who exactly remains to be seen. Either way, we may have to re-evaluate Kilkenny's supposed demise after next Saturday.

Finally, while it was far from impressive, Dublin eventually managed to fall over the line in Croke Park to set up that mouth-watering clash with Galway in Tullamore next Sunday. The Dubs were always going to be on a hiding to nothing, given the huge expectations that now exist in the capital and the depleted Offaly side they were coming up against, but they still made very hard work of what should have been an easy win. Then again, Galway made even heavier work of disposing of Westmeath in Mullingar last night.

Both Galway and Dublin have designs on Leinster this year, and see Kilkenny as vulnerable, but will know that a repeat of these performances won't come close to being good enough to wrest the title from its long-time home.

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