Not even Cats can take eye off ball in gripping league
Landscape is changing as cut-throat campaign reaches climax, writes Jamesie O'Connor
Unexpect the expected. Allianz got their tag line spot on. No one could have anticipated the sequence of results this year's National Hurling League campaign has thrown up. With just two points separating all six teams, any one of them, including Galway, Tipperary and even Kilkenny, could be relegated or top the table.
After two early defeats, the defending champions have righted the ship. I don't think there was ever the slightest bit of concern in Kilkenny with those first two losses. The team was competitive and both games could have been won against the two sides, Galway and Tipp, that on psychological grounds needed to beat them most.
Not even Kilkenny, however, can take their eye off the ball today. Defeat to Cork, inconceivable as it might seem, would almost certainly mean a relegation play-off in a fortnight's time. With several frontline players still absent, and Cork's backs to the wall as well, victory is not a foregone conclusion.
What the casualty situation in Kilkenny has meant is that the next wave have been afforded more of an opportunity than might have been the case before. Lester Ryan has started every game and was excellent against Clare; Eoin Murphy looks like getting every opportunity between the posts to take David Herity's jersey; we've hardly seen Walter Walsh, and in Ger Aylward they have yet another forward with pedigree and an eye for goal.
Putting a yardstick on Cork's progress has been more difficult. If the opening-night demolition of Tipp flattered them, they are nowhere near as bad as they showed in the second-half capitulation to Clare. Their true worth lies somewhere in between. Nowlan Park today is as good a barometer of the mettle in this Cork team as Jimmy Barry-Murphy could ask for. But it's hard to see past Kilkenny at home.
After a perfect start, the wheels have really come off Galway's campaign. Clare certainly wanted it more when the sides met in Ennis in round two, and Tipp issued a timely reminder of their wellbeing in Salthill a week later.
It's by no means a crisis. Galway were in a similar hole 12 months ago, beat Dublin in the relegation play-off after a replay and never looked back, but I'm not sure that's where they want to be in a fortnight. To me they've looked a little fatigued. Obviously the St Thomas's players have still to come back, but it doesn't seem as if they've unearthed any real new talent otherwise. After last year the genie is out of the bottle.
With a great record against the Tribesmen – especially in recent years – home advantage, and a crowd that really got behind the team last weekend, Waterford will fancy their chances of turning over Galway again. That they top the table has come as a huge surprise to everyone, myself included.
I felt that defensively, with Brick Walsh, Kevin Moran, Stephen Daniels and Noel Connors, they'd be solid this year, but that scores would be hard to come by at the other end and that would prove their undoing. In the absence of John Mullane, however, the younger lads have had to step up, and they have a lot of players who have been successful at underage and especially colleges level.
Waterford really impressed me in Ennis. They looked very together, and the elder statesmen – Seamus Prendergast, Brick, Moran and Shane O'Sullivan – deserve a lot of credit for that because they've shown the required leadership on the field.
Waterford finished really strongly last weekend, but Tipp shouldn't have allowed themselves to be caught. Galway won't have it easy, but if they bring the urgency this game demands, they have to be favourites.
If there was ever a lesson about not jumping to conclusions about league results in the earlier rounds, it came on the opening night. It wouldn't have been in Eamon O'Shea's nature to press the panic button, but the scoreline in Cork came as a shock. No doubt it concentrated the minds, but the response has been excellent.
I think they've used the league very sensibly. They've made five or six changes from game to game, giving players the opportunity to impress, and that's led to what looks like a lot of genuine options, especially up front. If there's a negative, it's that they don't appear to have the same level of cover defensively, and in particular for Paul Curran at full-back.
Regardless of what happens from here, Clare can take huge positives out of this campaign. The home games they've lost, to both Waterford and Kilkenny, were by the narrowest of margins and with a smidgeon more experience, they could be looking ahead to a semi-final spot. Yet, harsh as it might seem, defeat today could well consign them to that dreaded relegation play-off.
Defensively, there's a settled look to the side now, and David McInerney has been outstanding at full-back. Brendan Bugler and Pat Donnellan have shown a lot of leadership, and with five players who started against Kilkenny eligible for under 21 this year, the future is bright. Cian Dillon, Conor McGrath and Darach Honan are all on the way back from injury, so there will be depth and options, given that players have stepped up in their absence.
I'd be worried for Clare that Tipp know a lot more now about their younger players after the Waterford Crystal final. Clare have only scored three goals while conceding seven. Tipp have scored seven and conceded just three.
The hallmark of Liam Sheedy's tenure was that Tipp looked like getting goals every day they played and everyone seemed to be on the same page when it came to a style of play. Even with the talent they had, I think they lost their way last year, particularly that clarity of thought about just exactly what they were trying to do.
O'Shea in his calm, unfussy way will have restored that, and Tipp appear to be in a good place right now. In addition, Brendan Maher looks back to his best and Lar Corbett looks like the player Tipp need him to be if they're to annex silverware this season.
Clare are a coming force, but they still have a distance to travel. Tipp are a lot further down that road, and Clare just mightn't have enough to take them in Thurles.