Sport Hurling

Friday 23 February 2018

Rapid rise to contender status should banishall doubts for Daly's men in dangerous assignment

The form book should work out well today, and especially in Croke Park, says Jamesie O'Connor

I n a Dublin pub at half-time in last Saturday's Heineken Cup final, a friend of mine couldn't help but overhear a group of Leinster supporters bemoaning their side's apparently irretrievable position.

A plethora of reasons were offered but the conclusion centred on their team's apparent inability to handle the tag of favouritism. With Northampton hitting them with a ferocious intensity, they had completely failed to perform. Humbled in every facet in that opening 40 minutes, the cause was judged to be lost. The remaining question was how large and painful the final margin of defeat was likely to be.

As they all but cried into their pints, a lone dissenting voice in the group begged to differ. Favouritism had nothing to do with it. Sometimes a side has to embrace the favouritism tag, he argued, and accept they have every right to be expected to turn up and win. Leinster had earned the right to it and deserved to be carrying that tag. With the experience and leadership in that dressing room, the game was still alive.

We all know what happened in that next 40 minutes, and the learned individual who refused to rule his team out showed a wisdom beyond his years. Speaking to another friend from the capital last week, who warned me not to start "bigging up the Dubs" for today's Leinster quarter-final showdown with Offaly, last weekend's events came readily to mind.

With the disastrous defeat to Antrim last year still fresh in his memory, the sentiments he expressed are perfectly understandable. Favouritism isn't a tag the Dublin hurlers have handled particularly well, especially with their graph rising in recent years. In fact, any time expectations have heightened on the back of an impressive performance or victory, the team has failed to deliver when it really counted next time out. But all the evidence indicates that that was then and this is now. The 2011 model is a different Dublin, with more importantly a different mentality.

Obviously the League final victory and the manner of it go a long way in terms of spelling that out. But there were signs beforehand that the failings that had sunk them in the past were being addressed. Going toe to toe with all the serious contenders and performing under pressure on the big stage in the Croke Park series was part of that. But the professional manner in which they went to Wexford Park and Tullamore and comprehensively outplayed both Wexford and Offaly was more indicative of their progress.

Typically on such days, when they were expected to win, they failed to perform. This year they did and were far more bullish and confident in their approach. Admittedly, using league form to gauge where Offaly are is usually an exercise in futility, but there was a chasm between the sides that day in Tullamore.

No doubt, in the minds of the Dublin players, they now see themselves as the better side. And so they should. True, Anthony Daly will be certain to have alerted his players to the danger a wounded and written-off Offaly side presents. But that they've had one eye on this fixture for some time was evident in the aftermath of the Kilkenny game. The nadir that the Antrim game represented for the players hasn't been forgotten. While they were all thrilled with the League title, to a man they spoke about how little currency it would carry if they were to fail in Croke Park this afternoon.

Daly's personality too leads me to believe the emphasis will have been on blowing Offaly away rather than talking up the challenge they represent. Dublin look the fitter, faster, stronger and more athletic side and the switch to the wide open spaces of Croke Park is tailor-made for them.

Remember too that this is a completely reconfigured Dublin side, especially in attack. Conal Keaney and Ryan O'Dwyer have brought some much needed physicality and abrasiveness to the half-forward line. But they can also hurl, and the added bonus is the leadership and experience they bring, particularly with the emergence of so many younger forwards. Paul Ryan has been outstanding and both Daire Plunkett and Conor McCormack's emergence means they no longer rely on Dotsy O'Callaghan up front.

If there is a worry for Dublin, it's obviously at the back considering they are without both Tomás Brady and Joey Boland, their first-choice central defenders. That said, they have had time to prepare for that scenario, and while you'd be worried were it the Galway, Tipperary or Kilkenny attack they were facing, Offaly don't carry the same scoring threat. Provided Peter Kelly puts the shackles on Shane Dooley, and Joe Bergin can be reasonably contained, Dublin should limit them to a manageable total. Minus arguably three pillars of their own defence in David Franks, Paul Cleary and Rory Hannify, Offaly are arguably in a worse predicament, and with a barren underage track record in comparison to the Dubs recently, have fewer resources to call on.

Last weekend, Leinster backed themselves to wear their opponents down. I expect the Dubs to do the same.

There was a time when the very mention of Cork v Tipperary in Thurles had supporters and neutrals salivating. Given it's only the end of May, it is the game that should really launch the 2011 championship, and whet the appetite for the season ahead. Sadly, that no longer is the case.

Maybe the qualifier system and the reality that the stakes are not what they once were has taken the edge away. Maybe it's the fact that this fixture's attractiveness is diluted by the fact these sides are meeting for the eighth consecutive year in the championship. Or maybe it's the fact that Cork supporters seem to have no real faith or confidence in this team any more. Either way, the Munster Council will be thrilled if they get anything close to 30,000 through the gates.

I'm not sure where exactly Cork stand at this point in time. I'm not sure they know themselves. And their League campaign doesn't offer too many clues either. True, new players were blooded, and they were competitive. The four games they lost were all by the narrowest of margins. Yet to finish with defeats away to Wexford and at home to Dublin hardly inspires huge confidence given the scale of the challenge the All-Ireland champions are likely to present.

In fairness to Denis Walsh, he has opted for youth. Only five of the starting 15 remain from the last All-Ireland winning side in 2005. While the three debutants -- Stephen McDonnell, and William Egan in defence and Luke O'Farrell up front -- all look like solid players, as are the new midfield pairing of Lorcan McLoughlin and Pat Cronin, the transfusion of some real class that this team probably needed doesn't appear to have materialised. Once again they were hardly impressive up front in the League, only scoring four goals from play in the seven games, while relying on a higher percentage of scores from dead balls than the top finishing sides. Under Donal O'Grady and John Allen, the 20 or so points they consistently hit was usually enough to get the job done. That's no longer the case as Tipp and Kilkenny have raised the bar to new levels.

Cork have plenty of experience on the bench, and Tom Kenny and Jerry O'Connor were to the fore in turning around the League game against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park,

but questions still remain as to whether this team has enough quality to get the job done.

Defensively, minus both Conor O'Mahony and Declan Fanning from last year's half-back line and the outstanding Brendan Maher from the middle of the field, Tipperary may not be as strong as they were in the All-Ireland final last year. But they are unlikely to have to be, and they have more than enough quality to open Cork up and get the goals that are likely to be the difference in the end.

Finally, Wexford entertain Antrim and, even at home, this is a potentially dangerous game for them. Antrim have a competitive outing under their belts and they'll have improved for that. Gizzy Lyng is a huge loss to the Slaneysiders but to do what they did in securing their Division 1 status will have given Colm Bonnar's side huge confidence. They mightn't have it all their own way, but home advantage should see them through to face Kilkenny.

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