It's going down to the last puck
WATERFORD manager Michael Ryan was probably right when he suggested this week that all six placings in Division 1A of the Allianz Hurling League would be settled in the final 10 minutes of tomorrow's three games.
He even predicted that, in some instances, the last puck could be the most decisive of all. The six counties find themselves in the unusual situation of being in contention for a place in the semi-final (three qualify together with the 1B winners) while also under threat of relegation.
Two of the 12 games in the first four rounds finished level, while six were won by margins of 1-3 points in what has been a remarkably competitive group. Only two points separate first from sixth, while four counties are locked in between, all on the same number of points.
Given how tight the group is, there will be a huge sense of relief in the three counties which reach the semi-finals, as they will be assured of at least one more game while also being guaranteed to be in the top-flight next year. The fourth-placed county will see no further action in this campaign while the bottom two will face a relegation play-off on April 14.
Relegation can be very damaging to a county as there's no guarantee of a return at the first attempt. Dublin, who went down after losing a relegation play-off to Galway last year, are doing well in 1B, but are almost certainly facing a tough promotion test against Limerick, who beat them in Croke Park two weeks ago.
The ultra-competitiveness of Division 1A will strengthen the argument to retain the league in its current format, but there's still the issue of whether it best serves hurling to have such a small top group and only one entry/exit route each year.
Carlow manager John Meyler has suggested that two groups of seven might be a better fit, but Croke Park doesn't fancy having an odd number of teams in any division of the leagues as it leaves one county idle every weekend.
Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork qualified for the semi-finals from Division 1A last year, but this time the odds are against the Leesiders as they must take at least a point out of Nowlan Park tomorrow to have any chance of qualifying. With home advantage, Kilkenny (v Cork) and Tipperary (v Clare) look set to book semi-final places ,with the third going to either Waterford or Galway who meet in Walsh Park. All three games start at 3.0.
Tomorrow: v Tipperary, Thurles.
Results: Two wins (home v Galway, away v Cork), Two defeats (Two home v Waterford, Kilkenny).
Form graph: Steady – but with a little luck it could have soared.
Best performance: Won the second
half against Cork in Pairc Ui Rinn by 1-15 to 1-4 to finish six points clear. It represented an 11-point turnaround, impressive by any criteria and especially on an away assignment against Cork.
Worst performance: It might seem harsh to classify a one-point defeat as a bad outing, but it was disappointing for Clare to lose the opening game to Waterford in Ennis, especially after conceding 2-1 in three minutes in the first half, missing three good goal chances and shooting 13 wides.
Semi-final prospects: Not great. A draw tomorrow would be enough, but with Tipperary, who have home advantage, needing to win to book a last four place, the pressure is on. Losing by a point to Waterford and Kilkenny is hurting Clare now.
Relegation impact: Having being promoted to 1A this season, it would be a serious disappointment if they were to drop back down straight away. Indeed, facing a relegation play-off would be an uneasy feeling after being only one of three teams with a plus scoring differential for their first four games.
Inside the camp: They would have taken a second place slot after four rounds. They would also have assumed that it would be enough to nudge away from possible relegation worries. It's not.
Top scorer: Colin Ryan 0-40 (0-31fs, 1 '65').
Top scorer (open play): Tony Kelly 1-11.
Odds: Title 11/1; Relegation: 11/4.
Tomorrow: v Kilkenny, Nowlan Park.
Results: One win (home v Tipperary), one defeat (home v Clare,), two draws (v Waterford away, Galway away).
Form graph: Started high, dipped, but returned to steady.
Best performance: Cork led Tipperary by 0-17 to 0-2 after 46 minutes of the opening round game in Pairc Ui Rinn, teasing locals into dreaming that maybe they were witnessing the start of something special. Cork won by 12 points.
Worst performance: Back in Pairc Ui Rinn three weeks after demolishing Tipperary, Cork led Clare by 0-12 to 0-7 and appeared to be moving jauntily towards another comfortable win. They lost the second half by 11 points, leaving locals to realise that reality is always on call.
Semi-final prospects: Fading. Need to take at least a point in Nowlan Park tomorrow, an intimidating challenge when facing a Kilkenny team that needs to win to remain in the title race. And, as Kilkenny have always shown in the Cody era, the league counts.
Relegation impact: Damaging. After beating Tipperary so comprehensively in the first round, it would be deflating to get dragged down into a relegation play-off, even more so if they were to get sucked under.
Inside the camp: If Cork were told in advance that they would win only one of their first four games they would be dismayed and if they were told they would lose only one, they would be pleased. That's the confusing contribution made by two draws.
Top scorer: Patrick Horgan 0-30 (0-24fs, 0-2 '65s')
Top scorers (open play): Paudie O'Sullivan 1-4; Lorcan McLoughlin 0-7; Stephen Moylan 1-4.
Odds: Title 14/1; Relegation 7/4.
Tomorrow: v Waterford, Walsh Park.
Results: One win (home v Kilkenny), two defeats (one home v Tipperary, one away v Clare), one draw (home v Cork) Form graph: Good, dropping to poor before returning to moderate.
Best performance: They needed to beat Kilkenny in the first round to put down an immediate marker in the new season and they duly did that, winning the opening game by 3-11 to 0-17. Three goals in the first half set them on their way to what looked like the start of a spring surge.
Worst performance: Hit for 4-22– the highest concession rate by eight points in the 12 Division 1A games played so far – the trimming by Tipperary in Pearse Stadium was dismal, especially as Galway started with 10 of last year's All-Ireland final side.
Semi-final prospects: The target is clear, the shot less so. Beat Waterford and they are in the last four, lose and it's a relegation play-off for the second successive year. They need a big performance against opponents who beat them in their last three competitive clashes (2011 league and championship, 2012 league).
Relegation impact: Ironically, their two relegation play-off games against Dublin last year were very beneficial in building the championship structure, but it's not where they want to be again. It would be very bad for morale to be in another relegation dogfight.
Inside the camp: Anthony Cunningham will be concerned over having taken only three from a possible six points at home. He will be worried, too, about the unevenness of the last two performances, in particular.
Top scorer: Joe Canning 2-35 (0-27fs, 1 '65', 1s-l)
Top scorers (open play): Joe Canning 1-6; Davy Glennon 2-3.
Odds: Title 5/1; Relegation 10/3.
Tomorrow: v Cork, Nowlan Park.
Results: Two wins (home v Waterford, away v Clare), two defeats (away to Galway and Tipperary).
Form graph: Moderate, rising to good.
Best performance: After defeats by Galway and Tipperary in the first two rounds, Kilkenny needed a gear change against Waterford and promptly found it, albeit with some help from sloppy defensive work from the visitors. At the other end, Kilkenny's defence, despite losing Jackie Tyrrell and Paul Murphy to injury, secured the bolts after conceding a total of five goals against Galway and Tipperary.
Worst performance: The opener against Galway when they conceded three goals in the opening 32 minutes. Kilkenny were solid from there on, but few games are won after conceding three goals in the first half.
Semi-final prospects: They need to beat Cork to make the last four, but after losing their first two games, that's a satisfactory position, especially since they will be at home tomorrow.
Relegation impact: Unthinkable for Kilkenny to be relegated, but if they lose tomorrow, they could well be in a play-off. Mind you, it's hard to see them losing.
Inside the camp: Late March, a league semi-final place to be secured. Business as usual, although it's usually completed more easily.
Top scorer: Richie Power 0-17 (0-13fs, 0-2 '65s')
Top scorer (open play): Aidan Fogarty 1-8
Odds: Title 7/4; Relegation 12/1.
Tomorrow: v Clare, Thurles.
Results: Two wins (home v Kilkenny, away v Galway), two defeats (away to Cork and Waterford).
Form graph: Poor to good to moderate.
Best performance: They hit Galway for 4-22, the highest score in the league so far with nine players hitting the target, topped by John O'Dwyer (pictured) on 1-6 from open play.
Worst performance: "I'm neither happy nor sad after any game," said Tipp manager Eamon O' Shea after the big win over Galway, adding that he wasn't deflated by the hammering by Cork a few weeks earlier. Bet he didn't like it, all the same. Certainly not the first 46 minutes when they scored only two points.
Semi-final prospects: Home advantage in the last game is a big plus when a win is needed to secure a semi-final slot. Looking good for Tipp.
Relegation impact: With the worst scoring difference of the four teams on four points, defeat would almost certainly leave them facing a relegation play-off, so tomorrow's game is very important. Dicing with the drop to 1B is not what new management or, indeed, the squad, ever thought remotely possible.
Inside the camp: Despite last Sunday's defeat by Waterford, progress is solid and the memory of the wipe-out by Cork is now receding ever further in the rear-view mirror.
Top scorer: Seamus Callanan 0-18 (0-8fs, 0-3 '65s')
Top scorer (open play): John O'Dwyer 2-9
Odds: Title 5/2; Relegation 5/1.
Tomorrow: v Galway, Walsh Park.
Results: Two wins (v Clare away, Tipperary home), one draw (v Cork home), one defeat (v Kilkenny away).
Form graph: At the high end of stability, with a minor dip in game three (v Kilkenny).
Best performance: Last Sunday. It took real substance to chisel out a win over Tipperary after trailing by three points early in the final quarter. What's more, they held Tipperary scoreless in the final 16 minutes. "Real character" was Michael Ryan's description. Indeed.
Worst performance: They weren't especially bad against Kilkenny, but it was the only game they lost, so it has to have the lowest rating. They gifted Kilkenny a goal which made a huge difference.
Semi-final prospects: A draw would be enough to take them through and, with home advantage tomorrow, they are carrying an extra ace up their sleeve. However, manager Michael Ryan warned his squad: "Don't forget we're playing the Leinster champions and a team that drew the All-Ireland final last year."
Relegation impact: Disappointing and damaging after leading the table going into the last round. It would take an unlikely sequence of events (losing to Galway by more than four points and one of the other two games ending level) to leave them in a relegation battle, but anything is possible in such a tight group.
Inside the camp: Self-belief: "We don't mind being written off. People can keep at it as much as they like and it still won't make any difference to us. We believe in ourselves – that's all that counts." – Michael Ryan.
Top scorer: Padraic O'Mahony 0-18 (0-16fs)
Top scorer (open play): Jake Dillon 1-6
Odds: Title 5/2; Relegation 10/1.