Tasty. Very tasty. I don’t know about you, but I’m quite looking forward to this one. It’s been a crazy old year so far, with people travelling round the country in snow to try and see a game, and none at all being played in the relatively fine month of April, but now is when it gets really interesting. Now is when we finally get down to business.
From a neutral perspective (as if there is such a thing as a completely neutral person) last year’s championship was a godsend. Wexford and Waterford toppling Kilkenny. Cork emerging from the ashes to take Munster. Galway getting to the All-Ireland final against the Deise and ending a 29 year drought by winning it. What’s not to like? Well, maybe the ever so pernickety fact that, uhm, a lot of the hurling wasn’t that good.
But it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day and whatever about the quality of last year, the fact is what we have right now is an almost unprecedented level of competitiveness. We had a great National League, there’s at least 8 teams who would fancy they could win this one, and Dublin who, in the words of Conal Keaney, are certainly saying they could. But who will do it? Well, in the space of 2500 words or so (yeah, it’s a long one) we’ve tried to delve into the mire.
Hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard. That’s the annoying cliche we always hear bandied about in classrooms and dressing rooms of the world. But try and find a better phrase to sum up Kilkenny’s National hurling league final win over Tipperary. Because on one hand Tipperary had the majority of talent, but on the other, the Cats had all the grit, hard work and a bit of TJ Reid to win it.
Excuses, excuses. It was only the league. They were missing Bonner Maher, Seamus Callanan, Noel McGrath etc. Fine players all. But men for the trenches. Yeah, maybe….I’m not sure though. With Tipperary you just never know. There’s a tendency to believe that each time they win an All-Ireland they slap themselves on the back and tell themselves how great they are, without realizing that true greatness actually relies on backing it up. With the exception of Galway they’re probably the most talented team in the country. On a given day, they can beat anyone out the gate. But when the chips are down against someone like….oh, I don’t know….Kilkenny, are you backing them? Maybe. I’m not sure though.
Hmmm. Hmmm. What can you say that hasn’t been said already? One of the most talented teams in the country? Check. Blessed with some of the most naturally skilful forwards in the game, who are capable of scoring goals and making fools of defenders? Check. Proven All-Ireland winners at multiple levels? For a lot of them, check. But let’s not just focus on broad, sweeping statements here. Let’s, to quote Rafael Benitez, talk about facts.
The fact is since that marvellous Indian summer of 2013, Clare have not reached one All-Ireland semi-final or won a Munster championship. It’s a damning indictment of a team with such obvious quality. And maybe Davy flogged them too hard post All-Ireland victory in 2013. And maybe Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor were still at the “getting to know you stage” with senior inter-county management last year. But still, is that enough?
Is there something lacking in the Clare Psyche that means they can look like the best team in the country for 3 games in the league, and then slowly ebb away in the other three? Is there a reason to believe that their notoriously wayward shooting will automatically improve in the summer? Or that their porous defence will shore up and not concede goals on big days? And sure, on a given day they can beat anyone, but will there be enough of those days between now and mid-August? Possibly. The head says no though.
2 home games. That what was set out in the blurb at the start of the championship. Every one of the 10 sides that played in the 2018 All-Ireland championship would have 2 home and away games each. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Well, it is a good idea. Just so long as you have a ground capable of holding two games in.
Now we can debate how good a ground Walsh Park is or isn’t until the cows mosey on home but the fact is it wasn’t deemed good enough by the Munster council to host games in the championship this year. And that’s a big disadvantage. And Waterford are not out the first week of the Munster championship, and instead have to play 4 games in consecutive weeks with no breaks. And that’s another disadvantage.
Now maybe they’ll turn all of this on it’s head. Maybe they were never that good in Walsh Park anyway and the four games in a row will give them momentum, but I’d be doubtful. You may say that Waterford have enough talent to cope, but with at best, 3 games being played in unfavourable venues for them, there’s enough to suggest that might work against them. It’s going to be tight whatever happens. And it might just end in misery.
PREDICTION: FIRST ROUND EXIT
Overachievement or underachievement? That’s the question that must be ringing in the ears of Cork player’s post 2018. Sure, they did great in Munster and if it wasn’t for Damian Cahalane’s red in the semi they could have made the final. But were they ready for that stage? Or was it bigger than they should have got to?
Now obviously things have changed in the meantime. Kieran Kingston departing stage left had to be a loss particularly if the murmuring heard about John Meyler’s tenure are true. And the league was at best a speed-bump or, at worst, a bit of a disaster. So yes, we know they can mushroom overnight. They did it last year. But can they put two big seasons back to back. It’s unlikely.
PREDICTION: FIRST ROUND EXIT
It’s a big year for them. Well every year is a big year. But this year is a bigger one than most. Last year was a stopgap. The kind of one that the words “team in transition” was invented for. But now a few more of the older lads have been eased out and a few of the younger lads have All-Ireland under 21 medals in their back pocket. So there’s a certain level of expectation that comes with that.
So they’ve had a great league and won the under 21 and they’ve got some of their best players from Na Piarsaigh back in the frame. So we know there’s plenty of potential there. But were they too far back to begin with? Probably. A good solid championship and a quarter final place would represent progress. Because this is a big year. But it’s possible that next year could be even bigger.
PREDICTION: QUARTER FINALS
Progress is the mother of all problems. Wexford had a fine season last time out. Getting promoted to the top tier for the first time in years. Reaching a Leinster final for the first time in 9 years. But still, there was no silverware to show at the end of it. Where do you go from here? And does it get easier or harder?
The thing about Davy Fitzgerald’s style of management is that it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to long term projects. Sure, he stayed on four years at Waterford, but much of the progress was made in the first two. He was 5 years with Clare, but it was really a case of hitting the holy grail at the second attempt, followed by 3 years of steep decline from thereon in. So if he wants to do something monumental with Wexford, this, or at a push, next year, is the time he needs to do it.
Davy has become a little bit of a league master in recent years, and definitely on the basis of the competitions of the last 18 months, Wexford are between the fourth and sixth best team in the country. But are they hitting their peak in late July or coming down the other side of the mountain? They got to the Quarter Final last year. To progress this year, they need to make at least a semi. I can see them making that. I don’t know if I can see them going further.
May 13th. More than any other county in the country, you get the feeling that Dublin’s season will be defined by their opening game. If, and it’s a big if, they can manage to beat Kilkenny then all the hoopla about getting Ger Cunningham and Pat Gilroy and all the old guys in will have been worth it. But lose and then the question will be asked, well, where they ever that good in the first place?
There are some major questions to be asked about Dublin hurling and it’s still hard to see them winning when a lot of their best players (Con O’Callaghan etc) are tied up with the footballers. Could they beat either of Wexford or Galway away if they didn’t win Sunday? They’d like to think so. But you couldn’t believe so.
PREDICTION: FIRST ROUND EXIT
At least 8 or possibly 9 of the championship teams are playing in order to win it this summer. Offaly, on the other hand,are just trying to survive in it. Because, while it’s gone unnoticed by most people, there’s a trap door that remains for the team that finishes bottom of the Leinster Championship group stage. And Offaly are prime candidates to finish there.
Now it’s not really fair, considering how well they’ve done in the league this year, that Offaly look likely to drop down a tier next year, but them’s the breaks. And even if they do falter they could always come back next year, provided they keep up the same level of enthusiasm as this one. But it’s certainly a worry. A game against Dublin away looks like their best chance of a win. But, considering the low base they are at, honourable performances in the other games will give them something to work on.
PREDICTION: FIRST ROUND EXIT AND RELEGATION
Hunger. That’s the indefinable thing isn’t it? We’ve become a stats obsessed society in recent years. Everything is measured in terms of distance covered, or chances converted. And that’s all well and good. But there’s only one problem with reeling off all the stats in the wide earthly world. They can’t measure the intangibles. The things you feel inside. The great GAA cliches. Like hunger.
So Team holidays, All-Star trips, parading the Liam McCarthy around schools, extended county championships, Fenway sports classics in Boston, Award ceremonies and sponsorship commitments. On and on it goes. Sure you’d be exhausted nearly, before you’ve even gone back training. Now it’s February in the muck and snow in Pearse Stadium or wherever else you are. Now ask yourself this. Have you got the hunger?
The line is fine. You lose two winnable All-Irelands against Kilkenny in the decade and you’re branded as cowards. Chokers. Bottlers. You win one All-Ireland against another, notoriously “mentally fragile” side and you’re a great lad. Legends within your county. So Joe Canning can retire happy knowing he’ll never be “the greatest player not to win an All-Ireland” and a scratch that went on for around 25 years too long can finally be itched. But still, is that enough? When you know you could still win more?
The line is fine. Galway were definitely the best team in the country last year. But they were never so far ahead that you were sure they would win. They just had that little bit extra. Call it what you will. Desire. Destiny. Hunger. But whose to say this year that sense of destiny won’t be with someone else? And sure, the confidence gleaned from last year will stand to them, but there’s always second season syndrome to contend with.
Look at the teams who have had long droughts over the past 30 years. Clare were beaten in the first round in 1996. Wexford fell at the semi-final stage in 1997. Clare completely collapsed post 2013. So with the squad they have and the self belief they’ve acquired, winning another All-Ireland is not beyond the bounds for this Galway side. Not at all. But winning one in the year after a massive gap with all the hoopla and ceremony that entails? It’s difficult. Not impossible obviously, but difficult. In a field as dense as this, where one slip can be punished, that may be enough.
PREDICTION: QUARTER FINALS
Yeah, we know. They’re getting on they say. They don’t have the players they say. Sure they’re missing Richie Hogan, Colin Fennelly and Paul Murphy they say. And yet TJ comes back, pours cold water on the wound, and somehow, somehow they manage to squirrel away a league title. Cody performing miracles again? The more things change…
Let’s be honest here. It kind of felt ridiculous, given the amount of change that had taken place, that Kilkenny somehow managed to win the league title this year. If you were to look at their squad you’d deduce that there was no way they would win this All-Ireland.
But look at it another way: who of the All-Ireland contenders would fancy playing them in the morning. Galway? Well they didn’t beat them last year, and they haven’t beaten them in the Championship in the last 7 attempts. So I don’t really see why they would pick Kilkenny as their most desired opponent. Waterford? Well they beat them last year. But they were also 8 points up with 15 minutes and did their best to lose it. Wexford? They definitely have a chance, but if, as the league suggests, Kilkenny have finally worked out how to play against the sweeper, is Wexford’s USP automatically lost? Tipperary? With their record against Kilkenny??? Are you joking???
And you could go through every other team in the country and come up with a convincing argument why they could, maybe even should, beat Kilkenny. But try and find a defender in the country who can mark TJ Reid out of a game. Try and find a manager in the country who can out-think Cody. Try and find a team that’s mentally stronger than them. It’s not easy. And sure, you could definitely find a 15 that had more hurling nuance than the 15 that takes to the field in Parnell Park on Sunday. But since when was just that enough?