One game to save the season
TWO more teams will bid farewell to the 2012 All-Ireland senior hurling championship tomorrow as Cork meet Offaly in a Pairc Ui Chaoimh qualifier and Clare host Dublin in Ennis. Davy v Daly at Cusack Park should be something to savour. All four of tomorrow's participants are coming off the back of provincial semi-final defeats of varying degrees, and each team faces its own individual challenge.
It can be difficult to get back up for a do-or-die game after a huge disappointment in your last outing. The teams that can best put those previous games behind them and face forward in a positive manner will prosper.
Cork and Clare played well against Tipp and Waterford respectively, falling just short of winning by slender margins. Dublin have a bigger task on their hands after suffering at the hands of Kilkenny. Which Dublin will show up?
Under Anthony Daly, they have made huge progress over the last few years and must now get themselves up for the biggest game in their recent past. I don't think anybody can say for sure how this one is going to pan out.
Can Dublin get back to their real form? Maybe they'll come flying out of the blocks and put down a real marker. Or will Clare take control at home in Ennis, in front of strong local support and fuelled by Davy Fitzgerald?
After that huge Kilkenny defeat, and the massive dent in confidence that came with it, Dublin will need to start well. Win and the year is back on with real possibilities. Lose and the daggers will be drawn, players and management will be deemed the worst in the world and heads will be demanded. It's a harsh environment at times.
We're fully conscious of the fact that it could have been us, and not Cork, facing into a winner-takes-all battle with Offaly tomorrow.
In 2010, we had to wait five weeks after losing by 10 points to Cork before we played Wexford in the qualifiers. It was hugely important that we put the Cork game to bed before moving forward.
We got back to training and looked forward to the draw with anticipation. We were going to take our next game by the scruff of the neck and drive on. We remained united, even if supporters and the media were doubting us.
Again, it's down to belief -- individual and collective belief.
Your ability to drive on as a unit defines how good you really are. I'm sure Dublin believed that they could beat Kilkenny, but now they must also believe that they are still a good team -- and they must believe in the work that has seen them achieve so much progress. They must play with a free mind.
They will need to forget about the mistakes of the last day and not worry about repeating them. Play the game like you have for the last 10 or 15 years. Try not to think about the consequences. I can be guilty of that at times -- letting the mind wander ahead to what might happen at Croke Park down the line. On a Friday morning, I might read an article about a match I'm playing in the following Sunday. But if I'm training on a Friday night, that's where my focus must lie.
Back to basics -- the here and now. Dublin will come out fighting. They're a serious team. And isn't it a great place for them to be? Championship hurling -- do or die. Ready to come out all guns blazing.
The scenario is quite straightforward -- the best team goes forward, the team that loses is out. Of course that brings an extra bit of pressure, but only if you dwell on it. In truth, pressure should not be an issue. You're going out to play, to perform. If you do that to the best of your ability, you have a great chance to achieve.
Focus on producing a performance first and foremost and the result will take care of itself. For me, it's very important that I don't change my routine in the days leading up to a big match. If I start changing things, I'm giving too much energy to the game. Routine is important.
Get used to your own way of thinking, your own habits. Why change for the sake of it? For players, it's a great time of the year: training on a Tuesday and Thursday night; top-of-the-ground hurling; bright until 10.0.
Exiting the championship tomorrow will come as a huge disappointment to the losers. You've been training together since January, but now you'll go your separate ways.
And it's a long time between now and next January, when the wheel starts to turn all over again.