Sunday 19 November 2017

Men on a mission in the new campaign

Cork's Sean Og O hAilpin has worked to earn an inter-county recall at the age of 34
Cork's Sean Og O hAilpin has worked to earn an inter-county recall at the age of 34

Christy O’Connor looks ahead to this year’s National Hurling League and picks out six men who are determined to leave their mark on the new campaign

TJ Reid (Kilkenny)

Prior to 2010, when he was team captain, Reid's inter-county career had been limited to seven substitute appearances since 2007. Although he scored four points from 11 plays in the 2008 All-Ireland final against Waterford, Reid failed to start a championship match the following season.

An immensely skilful and stylish left-hander, his accuracy and ball-winning skills heavily compensate for a deficit in pace, but he has often struggled to consistently combine those strong elements of his game with the demands of Kilkenny's high-tempo and physically-charged style.

When he was selected at midfield against Wexford in last year's championship, the new role attempted to fuse his duties as a winner of primary possession under opposition puckouts with sniping scores from open play.

Reid played well, scoring three points from play, but he was substituted early in Kilkenny's next two games and he lost his place for the All-Ireland final.

Although he had a few bad misses in the first half of the All-Ireland semi-final, he was productive from his nine plays, but Cody still hauled him off at half-time. Management clearly haven't always trusted Reid and that has often affected his confidence.

Although he struggled in the first 20 minutes of the 2010 All-Ireland final, he hit four points and was fouled for a converted free over the next 40 minutes, but he was still substituted.

He's been tried in every position in the forwards, but Reid was unlucky in the past that his best position at No 12 was occupied by Eoin Larkin. However, Larkin has moved to full-forward so Reid now has a perfect opportunity to try and nail down that spot. Richie Hogan benefited last year from a consistent run of league games and Reid could similarly profit from a sustained run this spring.

In his sixth season on the panel, he needs to step up like Hogan did last season. Nobody will know that better than himself.

Sean og O hAilpin (Cork)

In November 2010, Denis Walsh told O hAilpin that his hurling graph had been on a downward spiral over the previous couple of seasons and that he wasn't in Cork's plans for 2011.

There's no doubt that O hAilpin's body struggled under the load with injury at stages of 2010, but if he wanted to go on the defensive, he could have suggested that the intensity of some of Cork's training sessions so close to that year's Munster final contributed to him pulling a hamstring.

Walsh obviously felt that O hAilpin might not be able to sustain that pace, and he wasn't prepared to accommodate him in a similar fashion to how Cork football manager Conor Counihan utilised the experience of Anthony Lynch, Derek Kavanagh and Nicholas Murphy in 2010.

Another of the most complex questions surrounding O hAilpin's exit -- and his subsequent return now -- is, can new leaders emerge if they are consistently in the shadow of great players?

The big difference with O hAilpin is his humility and humanity, and he will be comfortable in a mentoring and support role. Jimmy Barry-Murphy was conscious that the dearth of underage success in recent years placed an even higher value on O hAilpin's presence and immense standards; at the squad's first collective session, a number of younger players were taken aback by how much O hAilpin already knew about them.

He will need consistent game-time for management to gauge whether he can be used best as a starter or as a substitute, especially as left half-back, O hAilpin's favourite position, is also William Egan's best position.

O hAilpin's fitness and athleticism though, are as good as ever and he has been near the top during all the fitness tests to date. So whatever opportunity O hAilpin gets this spring, he will be ready and primed to grab it with both hands.

Michael Ryan (Waterford manager)

Over the first five weeks of his management, the perception was that Ryan had made an inglorious start; Eoin Kelly was removed from the panel, and John Mullane then declared that he was taking a break, which triggered a raft of negative rumours surrounding Ryan's management style.

Yet Mullane hasn't left the panel and is still with the squad two nights a week during their gym sessions.

Given that Tony Browne hasn't trained on a field until March for the last few seasons, which clearly hasn't impacted on the performances of a man who will be 39 in July, too much has been read into Mullane following a similar training template.

Meanwhile, Kelly is undergoing a comprehensive gym programme and is likely to be back in the squad before the end of the league.

Ryan is a strong character, but that won't alleviate the pressure coming down the tracks for a side with away games to come against Cork, Tipperary and Galway. That's a less than ideal schedule for a team auditioning young players and a panel which has been heavily hit with injuries, especially in defence.

Given that he was a selector with Justin McCarthy in 2007, when Waterford were at their peak in terms of the quality of their hurling, Ryan will be realistic enough to know that the Deise no longer have the players to play that swashbuckling style.

He'll also be smart enough to know that the game has radically changed since then, but he will still surely seek a return to a more direct and less defensive style than Waterford have been playing.

Making that readjustment, particularly with a side shorn of experience, could mean a degree of pain this spring, but Ryan is experienced enough to handle it.

Joey Boland (Dublin)

Before last year's Division 1 league final, Ger Loughnane described Boland as "the second best centre-back in the game".

By the end of the championship, Boland had franked that approval when he was an All Star nominee in the position. The challenge for Boland now is to try and become the best No 6 in hurling.

He really has that potential: good in the air, powerful physical strength, an outstanding striker off both sides. Pace was an issue but he has worked very hard on improving his speed and it's clear that he has. There are occasions when he appears to over-think his game, but when he is in the zone, Boland is a serious operator.

Unlike other centre-backs, though, he still hasn't been universally acknowledged or valued by the wider hurling public. That was obvious last week when there were six Dublin players selected for the Leinster inter-provincial squad and Boland wasn't one of them.

The positive aspect for Boland is that he has shown before that he can prove people wrong. After suffering a serious shoulder injury in last year's league final, he made it back in time for the Leinster final.

Although he wasn't fit that day, he put his long-term injury lay-off behind him in the All-Ireland quarter-final when he was Dublin's best defender with Niall Corcoran.

He trumped that performance in the semi-final when he made 23 plays. He cleaned out Seamus Callinan in the first half and while his play count dropped significantly in the 15-minute period after the break -- when Tipp tried to drag him away from the centre -- he thundered back into the action and was the game's most influential player.

The real test now is to produce that kind of form consistently. The league provides Boland with an ideal platform to continue where he left off last August.

Declan Ryan (Tipperary manager)

In the middle of the recent furore surrounding Lar Corbett's withdrawal from the squad, surely one of the most disconcerting elements to emerge for Ryan was how he was being compared, negatively, to Liam Sheedy and his style of management.

Sheedy and his coach Eamon O'Shea were portrayed as being able to extract far more from Corbett than the current management, despite the fact that Corbett scored seven goals in four games in last year's championship, and went into the All-Ireland final as a leading contender for Hurler of the Year.

For Ryan, the whole world has turned on its head within just eight months, when this Tipp team appeared to be at their peak after annihilating Waterford in the Munster final. They hit a slope afterwards and they've been sliding since; after an anaemic performance in the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin, they were physically bullied by Kilkenny in the final. Despite counter-claims, there is a feeling within the county that one of the reasons Corbett packed up was that he felt Tipp were still on that slippery slope.

This is a huge test for Ryan. Whether he likes it or not, comparisons with Sheedy will become even more pronounced within the panel if the players have doubts about the system.

Players also want to be inspired, and continually challenged -- especially when they were used to that experience under Sheedy -- but Ryan has a completely different temperament and philosophy regarding communication and man-management, and it's unlikely he will alter his approach now.

In the short term, results will need to be his valve to release some of the pressure on him. With a six-day training regime in place, which was in total contrast to last season's early regime, Tipp will look to hit the ground running. They'll need to.

Iarla Tannian (Galway)

Can you name the only player to score four goals against Kilkenny in the last two seasons in either league or championship?

The first impulse would be to think of Lar Corbett, but the correct answer is Tannian, who bagged 4-3 from play against the Kilkenny defence in their last two league meetings.

In Ger Loughnane's first season in charge in 2007, it looked like Tannian was going to be one of the totems around which Galway would build their future.

When Loughnane used 26 players in that year's championship prior to the All-Ireland quarter-final against Kilkenny, Tannian was one of only three players to have featured in the same position all the way through.

Injury has impacted on his career ever since, but this is his sixth year on the panel and the Galway public view him as a player who has underachieved with his immense talent and physical power.

Despite his ability to score goals in the league, he has still to find the net in the championship. Although he has only failed to score in one of the 14 championship matches he has played, half of his accumulated total of 0-24 came in four games against teams outside the top nine counties.

At times he has struggled to stay fully focused over the course of an entire campaign, but he is fitter at this stage of the season now than he has ever been. He also needs to be deployed in the half-forward line; his physique gives him a ball-winning capacity that Galway desperately need.

With Joe Canning sidelined for a few weeks, Galway will need Tannian now to step up and lead a young forward line in their opening league games. He has the talent to do so.

Irish Independent

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