Offaly v Galway, O’Connor Park, Tullamore, May 12, 7pm
If you were to look at this in absolute terms, you’d probably conclude it was between the best team in the All-Ireland hurling championship, and the worst. Certainly, on last year’s form that would be the case, but a lot has happened in the intervening months to suggest the gap has narrowed somewhat. Offaly would fancy that they’ve improved quite a lot from the nadir of last summer while Galway…well it’s hard to know where Galway are at.
There was lot of praise thrown in Kevin Martin’s direction after the county’s spring, but what was the real achievement of it? Two great performances against Dublin and Kilkenny and another half decent one against Laois. But there was that Antrim game that they lost, and that Limerick game they were hammered in, and another one against Galway that they never really laid a glove on them. So really, the league was only a partial success and a possible, nay probable, relegation to the Joe Mcdonagh Cup for next year, is still looming over them like an avalanche.
For Galway there’s a whole different spin on this one. Every game that they played in the league, from their opener in Pearse Stadium against Antrim, to that final one against Wexford, was done with the caveat “Well, we’re All-Ireland champions. We don’t have to win today” But now those excuses are wearing thin. Now, they not only have to start winning, but performing. Because whatever about Offaly, there’s no way they’re going to beat Wexford away or Kilkenny at home, if they’re not operating at full throttle. So it’s time to start fine tuning from now.
So really the perspectives on this game are completely different. Offaly need a performance. Galway need a performance AND a win. Kevin Martin has done well thus far, but really, his side were setting out from base camp while their opponents have already conquered Everest. So if they were beaten by 19 points last year and 11 points by a half strength side in spring time, what really constitutes as progress now? Maybe a single figure defeat? That’s probably the best they can hope for.
PREDICTION: Galway by 9
Dublin v Kilkenny, Parnell Park, Dublin, May 13, 3.30pm
Last year, when it was announced that the format of the provincial hurling championship, was being changed from a straight knockout, to a group stage with home and away games, there was a lot of handwringing and “down with this sort of thing” rhetoric bandied about. It was an unnecessary move they said. It would ruin the GAA they said. It would remove the competitive aspect of the provincial championships they said. Personally I never bought that line. And when I found out who was playing in the first round of the Leinster championship, I definitely didn’t buy it.
The fact is, the provincial championships are perhaps even more cuthroat now than they were previously. Before, a team could lose their first game in Munster or Leinster, and gradually rebuild their confidence-a la Waterford last year-through the qualifiers. Now there are a lot of teams facing into their first game in May, knowing they are walking on a tightrope. There’s only 3 teams from the group going to qualify for the quarter/semi-finals of the All-Ireland championship. If you lose your first game at home then….well, the cliff is right there.
If ever a team needed to stick one to their critics then the Dublin hurlers need to in this game. There’s been a whole lot written and said about them in the last couple of years but the question remains: How good actually are they? So that whole idea of getting rid of Ger Cunningham and bringing Pat Gilroy and Anthony Cunningham in, seemed like a bright one right? Well, today’s the day to prove it. Getting all those old guys like Conal Keaney and Johnny McCaffrey back was worthwhile wasn’t it? Well, today’s the day we’ll find out. So Danny Sutcliffe, you’ve been away for the last two years haven’t you? You’re supposed to be pretty hot stuff aren’t you? Well, today’s the day to show it boy! Today’s the day.
So that whole line of “Well, the league wasn’t that important….sure we were only building a team for the championship…sure we hadn’t the Cuala lads, we weren’t at full throttle” that you have been peddling for the last few months was useful then, but now? No. No more exuses. It was convenient to blame other people before, but if you’re going to show that there’s any stomach/fight/promise in Dublin hurling then today’s the day.
And then on the other hand you’ve Kilkenny. So maybe if you’re Paddy Deegan or James Maher you’re feeling pretty pleased with yourself. So 3 months ago when you were ten points down at home in the first half to Clare you may have been thinking “Jesus, this senior inter county lark is more difficult than I thought” and “Gosh, have we gone from being that good, to that bad?” or “Am I really good enough to be a Kilkenny hurler?”
But now it’s all roses and garlands, and people on the street telling you’re a great lad, because TJ came back into the team and you beat Tipp twice in Nowlan Park. So you maybe, maybe, for one second, felt a little complacent until you caught Cody’s eye in training, and realized that the serious stuff hasn’t even started yet. Because you know that if you lose today, that long summer you’ve planned until late July or August is all but an elaborate facade.
So there’s a lot on the line here. Sure, there’s 3 more games after today and both teams will fancy themselves at home against Offaly but really, the rest of your summer is most likely going to be defined, by what happens between the white lines today. And if you look at the two teams on a piece of paper, there really doesn’t seem to be much difference. Sure, Kilkenny have had a much better spring, but if you look at that Dublin side then there are a lot of proven winners in it. There’s plenty of experience in it. There’s a lot of “potential” in it.
So I guess it comes down to this. If you’ve got a general leading you into battle and one of them is Pat Gilroy and the other is Brian Cody which one are you more likely to trust? Which one would you rather stand behind? Well, Cody. Always Cody. That could just be the difference.
PREDICTION: Kilkenny by 4