Leinster hurling championship predictions week 4: Tribes in line for Yellow Belly shock

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Wexford v Galway, Innovate Wexford Park, Wexford, Saturday 2nd June, 5pm

When Irish rugby star and celebrated Wexford man Tadhg Furlong was asked by his old under 20 International Boss Mike Ruddock what nickname he would like for himself, the giant prop pondered for a while before settling on the moniker of “Jukebox”. Perplexed, Ruddock asked Furlong why he chose this. Smiling, the amiable Yellow Belly replied “Because with me, the hits just keep on coming”.

If anything, that could be the tagline for this year’s hurling. Championship 2018. The hits just keep on coming. So fresh on the back of last week’s thriller between Cork and Tipperary, we have another absolute corker lined up this weekend. Galway, All-Ireland champions, with 7 straight championship wins under their belt, against Davy Fitzgerald’s revitalized Wexford in Wexford Park. Exciting isn’t it? What a championship we have in store this year. And why did we never think of this idea before?

Last Sunday’s game against Kilkenny seemed to confirm every suspicion people had about this year’s competition. Galway are the most superior team in the country and not only that, but they are the best by quite a distance. It’s obvious. We all know it. But are they though? Are they really?

Now we know that Galway are a superb side. They’re one of the strongest, most physically imposing teams that has been around in years. They’ve got the best defensive spine in the shape of Daithi Burke and Gearoid McInerney, one of the greatest hurlers of all time in Joe Canning, Conor Cooney, Pauraic Mannion, Conor Whelan… Yeah, we get it, they’re excellent. And yet, and yet…

Even though it was clear that the Tribesmen were patently superior to their opponents last week, the game was very much in the melting pot until the last 10 minutes. Despite their obvious advantages in power and strength, there was a palpable anxiety in the stadium as it entered the closing stages. And it wasn’t just Kilkenny that they kept in the game this year. It was Waterford in the All-Ireland final last year, or Tipperary in the semi final a few weeks before that. Or even Offaly, to a certain extent, in their first round match this year. They may be the best team around, but they still haven’t mastered the trick of obliterating teams in games. Like say, I don’t know, Kilkenny in their prime.

On the other hand you’ve Wexford. They stuttered a bit in their opening fixture with Dublin. Then again, that’s a Dublin side that it’s thoroughly forgivable to stutter against. Then last weekend they hammered Offaly. And sure it was only Offaly. A team that had 3 men sent off, and were on the back of 2 unmercifully tough fixtures against Galway and Kilkenny. But still Wexford had a job to do, and they very effectively and clinically did it. And what’s more, for the first time in ages, they actually started adding goals to their repertoire. So there’s certainly reason for optimism there.

When people analyze this fixture, there seems to be a very definite thought process as to why Galway will win it. The Leinster final last year. That was a game that Wexford came into when any amount of hope in their heart. Just witness the 60,000 in attendance at it. And while we’re at that, can you imagine what the attendance of the Leinster final would have been if Wexford weren’t there? But Wexford came into that game, all fire and brimstone, and ended, with their tail between their legs. So what’s to say that won’t happen again this year?

Now maybe there is some truth to that. Or maybe, maybe….Wexford had expended so much energy in the earlier part of last season to try and get promoted from Division 1B, and beat Kilkenny in their Leinster semi-final,  that they were just a little past their peak when they got to the Leinster final. Maybe that was a Wexford side in the early parts of a Davy Fitzgerald stylistic makeover, and the real benefits of the change, a la Clare in 2013, come in year 2 of the programme. Maybe Galway were on a mission last year, and poor old Wexford were just the collateral damage in all of it. And maybe, after such a physically draining game as last Sunday, and with a day’s less rest, Galway might not be able to bring the same intensity to this week’s battle. Because we know, without any semblance of doubt, that this game is going to be a battle.

It’s a pet theory of mine, that despite the presence of an underdeveloped Offaly side in the division, the standard of hurling in the Leinster Championship this year is probably better than Munster. Certainly, the physicality and intensity of Dublin’s games against Kilkenny and Wexford, and last weekend’s clash in Pearse stadium was as good, if not better than anything we’ve seen in Munster so far. So, no matter what happens on Sunday, I won’t be surprised if either of the teams squaring up in Wexford Park this weekend, either wins the All-Ireland, or at least, goes very close to it.

And sure, in ways, it’s hard to see Wexford beating Galway in this game, or anyone beating Galway this summer. Then again, they have beaten them in the league in the last 2 years. They do have Rory O’Connor, Lee Chin and Conor McDonald in the forwards, and a back-line that attack with purpose. And we know, Wexford may not be the absolute example of a what an All-Ireland winning team should be, but at least they’re moving in that direction. They just need to make a statement victory to declare their intentions. And what better way to do that, than by beating the All-Ireland champions? You don’t think so? Well, let’s just see what happens. If nothing else, it’s going to be a hell of a ride finding out.

PREDICTION: Wexford by 2

Dublin v Offaly, Parnell Park, Dublin, Sunday June 3rd, 3Pm

It’s the game nobody wants to play in. It’s not billed as such, but everyone who is going to set forth on that pitch on Sunday, knows exactly what’s in store for them. It was always possible, when the draw was made, that this would be the case, and now it’s come to pass. This is the relegation final. Lose this, and you face the ignominy of playing in the Joe McDonagh cup next year.

Now obviously, there’s any number of arguments that can be made why this shouldn’t be the case. For a start, Dublin have been, without doubt, the unluckiest team in the competition so far, and have only been denied a 100% record thus far by last minute winners in both games. In another year, they would be fighting near the top of the table. Indeed, if they were in the Munster championship, they probably would be.

For Offaly meanwhile, this is the stage that they, more than likely, always knew they were going to be at. Does that make it right though? Should they not have been given the chance to have, say, a relegation playoff against the Joe McDonagh cup winners? Or maybe the Leinster championship could be increased to 6 teams next year and Munster could remain at 5? Or, while we’re at it, why do the Munster sides seem immune from relegation this year, but the Leinster ones aren’t?

There’s a lot of questions, and there haven’t been many answers forthcoming, but here’s a few things we know to be true. Offaly are the weakest team in this year’s hurling championship. That’s not said dismissively. It’s obvious they’ve progressed in the last few months, and they gave a good account of themselves in their opening 2 games against Galway and Kilkenny, before last week’s horror show. It’s also obvious that they’re on the right track. They performed well in the league, and Kevin Martin has got them playing with a spirit that hasn’t been seen in years.

But hurling is not one of those sports that we all know, where you can see your side has weaknesses, and then buy 10 players to compensate for them. Offaly are an improving side, but they were setting out at climbing Everest from base camp. There’s improvements being made at underage level, but it could take 5 or 6 years to see giant strides being made at senior level. And let’s hope Kevin Martin is around to try and enact them.

All the same, it would be a terror to see them being relegated. But it looks like that’s going to be their lot. Certainly, if we’re going by their first two performances, it’s near enough impossible to see Dublin conceding this game. Sure, they’re on a bit of a losing streak, and they were beaten by Offaly in the National hurling league, but that really seems like an aeon ago. That was like a Ger Cunningham Dublin hurling team, whereas this one, under Anthony Cunningham and Pat Gilroy, is so much better.

And let’s not forget, there’s still a chance Dublin can get through here. Now admittedly it would require a pretty unusual set of results: Galway losing to Wexford and Dublin beating Galway away is the required scenario. That seems unlikely, but it’s not impossible. Certainly, if the first two games proved anything, it’s that there’s oodles of potential with Dublin. If not this year, then definitely next. As for Offaly meanwhile? After playing 3 weeks in a row and now facing into a fourth game with 3 suspended players? It doesn’t get any easier. It’s a big day on Sunday. But trying to convince the GAA to give them another shot in the championship next year, may be a bigger task than this one.

PREDICTION: Dublin by 10

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