It had to happen didn’t it? After the jubilation and self-congratulation of “The best championship ever!” © of last summer, it just had to be followed by, well, if not the worst league of recent times, then certainly one of the least inspiring. Sure, there’s been a few thrills and spills, Carlow’s performances in Division 1B were particularly fun, but with the lack of relegation from Division 1A, and the already, highly intense round robin nature of the championship, has the necessity for a competitive spring campaign been lost? Have we really learned that much from this year’s league? And is it possible that the Football League (yes, I went there) has been more entertaining than the hurling one this spring? Anyone? Ok, ok, I’ll go back in my box now.
Still there’s reasons to be cheerful. League finals over the last 20 years have been dominated by Kilkenny (11 final appearances, 9 wins) and Tipperary (9 final appearances, 3 victories) and as much as we love it when the old firm duke it out, it makes a refreshing change to have Limerick (first League final in 13 years) and Waterford (first final in 3 years) pair up together. And what’s more intriguing is that this is the first time in the long history of the competition (94 years now) where these two proud hurling counties will come head to head in such an encounter. So yes, there’s certainly something novel and intriguing about this one.
By rights Limerick shouldn’t be here. I mean, they don’t need to be. They won the All-Ireland last year for the first time since the Vietnam war ended, and it wouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone if the celebrations from such a triumph carried on into this year. But it just so happens that, whatever way they swing it, they have probably the most complete squad in the country right now, and whatever 15 they put out is capable of taking on anyone. So Mike Casey is out for a while? No problem, we’ll just throw Tom Condon in there and he’ll reward us with the form of his life. Kyle Hayes is missing for a couple of games? Not to worry, Shane Dowling can just come in and remind us why he’d just about make any other team in the country anyway.
What’s perhaps most scary for the competition at the moment, is that the number of options this team has seems to be increasing. If anything, the supporting cast of last year appear to be the leading men of this year. Then you have the likes of Conor Boylan, Robbie Hanley and Paddy O’Loughlin throwing their hands up in the air as well.
Waterford, on the other hand, did need to produce something this spring. Let’s face it, last year was a washout, and notwithstanding the reasonable grumbles they could have had (refereeing decisions, injuries, the Munster council, their own county board) there was the lingering sense that, well, they kind of let themselves down a bit as well. It was a bitterly disappointing end to the Derek McGrath era, and for sure there needed to be a reaction this spring to show that there was life left in this team yet. No matter what happens this Sunday, at the very least, Pauric Fanning has got that.
This campaign has proved a few things about this Waterford team. Number 1: Whatever talk there is about the county not having the players or, in particular, the forwards to compete at the highest level is a complete nonsense. It seems utterly ridiculous that anyone would ever accuse a squad containing Pauric Mahony, Maurice Shanahan, the Bennett Brothers, Austin Gleeson alongside Tommy Ryan, Brian O’Halloran, DJ Foran et al of being light in attack. Whatever may trip them up between now and August, a lack of scoring forwards should not be one of them.
Secondly, and this is very important, there seems to be just that little bit more backbone in this side than there was before. Now granted, there was a fair deal of luck in the way the side managed to, somehow, conjure up a win against Galway last Sunday, but the psychological gain gleaned from such a victory cannot be discounted. Let’s face it, two points down, a man down, with 15 minutes to go, playing into the wind against one of the best teams in the country. Only the most fervent, one eyed Deise supporter would have backed their team from there. And yet, win it they did.
It’s been a bit plainer sailing for Limerick. Very few people would have tipped them to lose either their quarter or semi-final and in fairness, there was never really a time when either looked in doubt. On saying that though, when was the last time the team gave a real standout performance? Kilkenny in the middle of February? It could just be that they haven’t needed to give a display of that stature since, but there must be a slight concern that the test they’re going to face on Sunday will be significantly more difficult than their previous 2 games.
So, it’s a tight one call and certainly, if you were going by the unpredictability of this year’s competition, and this column has struggled, you wouldn’t be parting with too much of your hard earned money on it. Here’s an interesting titbit though: 3 of the last 4 National Hurling League winners (Clare, Waterford and Galway) have been from the “lower” division of 1B. An omen for Waterford perhaps? Obviously on form and, well pedigree at least, there’s no comparison. Limerick seem the safer bet. But something just tells me that Waterford need this one a bit more than their opponents. And in a game of such fine margins, that could be all the difference.
PREDICTION: Waterford by 2