Galway v Dublin, Pearse Stadium, Galway, 7pm, Saturday, 9th June
Dead Rubbers. That was one of the arguments put forward, when the idea of changing the hurling championship was mooted. Sure you can’t be doing that lads. You can’t be doing that. Why would you change the format of the competition into a round robin, when there could be dead rubbers at the end of it? And it’s true. It’s hard to argue otherwise. This week’s game between Galway and Dublin, with one team safely ensconced in the Leinster final, and the other, in that uncomfortable nether zone which is neither qualification to the next round, nor relegation to the next division, is most definitely a dead rubber. So I guess the naysayers were right.
But would you change it? Would you completely discard the format of this year’s competition, the drama of the last 5 weeks, just on the basis that one or two games, at the end of the group stage, could take on the dreaded rubbery feel? After the amount of cracking matches, you’d go back to the old format? Well I know I wouldn’t. And hopefully the GAA authorities won’t either.
So yes, we know there’s not really much to this game on Sunday. Galway are in the Leinster final no matter what, and what we can expect on Sunday is just a vast examination of the depths of their squad. So we know how good Joe Canning, Daithi Burke and David Burke are, but what about the recently returned Paul Killeen? Can Jason Flynn be as effective in a starting role? Can Johnny Glynn add a silkier touch to his brute force? Will Brian Concannon be given a full game of hurling to demonstrate how much of a progression on last year’s forward line he is? Or Davy Glennon? Is Sean Linnane worthy of consideration for a corner back or a wing back slot? Because there may come a time, later on in the summer, when these guys are needed.
For Dublin this summer will eternally be one of regret. It’s a toss up between themselves and Waterford for the unluckiest team of the championship. Whatever about beating Wexford away, that game against Kilkenny in Parnell Park was one that could have been, should have been won. If only Conal Keaney had stayed fit? Or if Paddy Smith had been given that free? It didn’t happen. No point crying over spilt milk now. And sure, there’s a long summer to be had, licking their wounds, but it shouldn’t be all doom and gloom. Who’s to say next year they won’t be fitter, happier, more productive? They’re already a serious team now. So let’s just hope they continue in that vein in 12 months.
They’ve got one of the strongest, most obdurate defences in the country, with the likes of Chris Crummey and Sean Moran. They’ve got two Galway style battering rams in the forward line in the shape of Liam Rushe and Conal Keaney. And Danny Sutcliffe is still a supremely talented wing forward and Paul Ryan is in the form of his life. So sure, they might need one or two more marquee forwards to challenge for ultimate honours next year (“Hello…I’m looking for a Con O’Callaghan….Is Con O’Callaghan there please?”) but for the first time in ages, that endangered species, the Dublin hurling fan, can dare to dream.
So yes, what happens on Saturday night doesn’t really matter. But maybe Dublin might just want to say “Hey guys, forget what you thought about Dublin hurling until now, we’re not going to make it easy for you anymore” Or “If you think this is hard, wait until we get you back in Parnell Park next year” Ah yes. Dublin and Galway in Parnell Park next year. I’m looking forward to that one already.
PREDICTION: Dublin by 2
Kilkenny v Wexford, Nowlan Park, Kilkenny, 7pm, Saturday, June 9th
That’s twice now. Twice this season that I’ve tipped Wexford to win big home games. Twice when I felt the odds were in their favour, at home against Kilkenny in the league semi-final, and against Galway in the championship. Twice when I felt they were perfectly primed for an ambush.
But they let me down. Well, not me, obviously. But their fans. Their management team. The hurling public. Because everyone who tuned into that dreaded foreign television station, or went to Wexford Park last Saturday evening, were full sure that they were in for a ding-dong championship battle for Leinster supremacy. Instead, what they got was one side flailing their arms about desperately, and the other holding them off easily, laughing. And yes, we know Galway are good. Exceptionally so. But you can’t help feeling that Wexford could be, should be better.
The worst thing about Wexford’s performance last Saturday, is that you never got the feeling they really believed they would win, or even wanted to. Now I know, obviously, they wanted to. But why, when Rory O’Connor had the chance to go for a goal from a 21 yard free with 20 minutes to go, did he just obediently tap it over the bar? Was that not the time, when they were 9 points down, that he should have put the head down and gone for goal?
Well, you could argue Jason Forde did something similar last Sunday, and missed, so maybe O’Connor was in his rights to tap it over. But Forde’s effort was about something more than that. It was about saying to Waterford “Hey lads, this game isn’t over yet. We’re still capable of getting a goal or two here, and what’s more, we’re going to go for it” But with Wexford, you got the feeling that the game was already up.
If Tipperary’s last two games have proved anything it’s that, even if a side is double digits down, they’re not necessarily beaten. But as soon as Galway got the first two points of the second half last week, or some might say, the minute Galway got their goal in the first five minutes last week, the result was hardly ever in doubt. Wexford looked a beaten team from a long way out. They never even put the seed of doubt in Galway’s mind. They never even hammered into them to say “You’re in a game here lads”. They never laid a glove on them.
So there’s doubts now. There’s legitimate doubts about Wexford’s ability to contend. And doubts about their players. Is Lee Chin really one of the best hurlers in the country? We thought he was, but last weeks’s performance suggested he might still be some way off the Joe Cannings of this world. Now anyone can be swallowed up by a Galway back line. TJ Reid was the week beforehand. But still they need more from him. Is the sweeper system something that has long term sustainability? It certainly looked like Waterford may have benefited last Sunday from dispensing with it. Is it time for Wexford to do likewise? And why was their touch so off last week? Should it not be hitting it’s peak around this time? And why were the likes of Diarmuid O’Keeffe and co hitting such god awful wides? That was like the bad old days of Wexford before anyone had even heard of Liam Griffin.
Davy Fitzgerald was arguing last week that the team that finishes third in Leinster or Munster will still have a big say in this championship. And maybe he’s right. Maybe Wexford just need a bit of rest for a few more weeks to get lads right, play a Joe McDonagh cup team to tune themselves up a bit, and then give it a serious rattle in the Quarter final. But it’s time for Wexford to demonstrate that they actually deserve to be seen as a top hurling county again. In a big game. A really important one where both teams need to win. Because there’s doubts now.
There’s also doubts, in a fairly serious way, over this Kilkenny side. Now in fairness, they have been there since the start of the year. It was only that league final victory that kind of hoodwinked us a bit. It did me anyway. I forgot the fact that Martin Keoghan and John Donnelly, were not necessarily, the new incarnation of Henry Shefflin and in fact, are still only willowy young championship debutants. I forgot that it was possible for a top defender, like say, Gearoid McInerney to put manners on TJ Reid. And that it wasn’t just a given that Brian Cody could turn water into wine, with every single hurler he ever laid eyes on.
But even still, Kilkenny could really have lost against Dublin and by rights, should be fighting for their lives on Saturday. They got a bit lucky. They have only produced in fits and starts in this championship. And they’ve had a week off work which should, theoretically at least, benefit them hugely. They will want to produce a full 70 minutes on Saturday.
So both teams will really want to win this game and signal their intentions for the rest of the summer. And yes, it is a fairly dubious honour all the same, getting to play against Galway in the Leinster final, but as John Kavanagh always said to Conor McGregor, we either win or we learn. And Cody will have learned a lot from that Galway game. And if he played them a second time, he’d learn more. And if he played them a third time…well could you imagine Galway beating Kilkenny three times in the one championship? It’s possible alright. But Jesus, wouldn’t Cody do everything in his power to stop it?
So even though both teams are safely through to July there’s still a lot to play for here. A rebuild of confidence, reputation. And though they’ve both, kind of, let us down in the championship so far, I still have that bit more trust in the men in Black and Amber. Wexford have pulled the wool over our eyes twice. So, in the immortal words of George Bush: fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice….you can’t get fooled again.
PREDICTION: Kilkenny by 5