Limerick v Westmeath, LIT Gaelic Grounds, Limerick, Sunday, March 1st, 2pm
Out from the frying pan and into the fire for Westmeath. So, fresh from a trip to the home of the 2019 All-Ireland hurling champions, they have a nice handy away fixture against the 2018 All-Ireland hurling champions, who just happen to be unbeaten so far in this year’s league. “Jesus” Shane O’Brien must be thinking. “Can’t a guy catch a break?”
His counterpart has no such worries. Sometimes it’s hard to be John Kiely. In recent weeks, however, it probably hasn’t been. I mean, look at the options he has now. Seamus Flanagan was on the sidelines for most of 2019 and yet he was just about the side’s most influential performer last weekend. Barry Nash is missing? Oh, not to worry, we’ll just bring in Paddy O’Loughlin to clean up in the half back line and slot over a few points while he’s at it. Sure, Richie English is going to be a massive loss, but with the likes of Tom Condon and Aaron Costelloe chomping at the bit to step in, you’d imagine that’s one setback they’ll be able to overcome.
So really, the outcome of this fixture is all dependent on what Limerick’s mind-set is, and how motivated they are for it. Go at half pace, and the scoreline may be somewhat respectable. Go full throttle, and one shudders to think what the final result will be.
PREDICTION: Limerick by 15
Galway v Cork, Pearse Stadium, Galway, Sunday, March 1st, 2pm
2 sides with 2 defeats on the board already, and yet you feel the view from the Rebel’s window looks that bit sunnier than that of the Tribes. Galway haven’t been embarrassed thus far, and could well have snatched victory last Sunday. There hasn’t really been a statement performance as of yet though, and with their last 2 games at home, they probably need to give one.
Maybe Cork didn’t get the result they wanted last week, but there was more than enough to suggest they’ll be a damn sight more lively this summer than last. Declan Dalton looks like an addition to the forwards, Aidan Walsh’s goal was Ray Cummins like in its execution, and while Patrick Horgan is always going to be Patrick Horgan, the idea that Shane Kingston will step up to similar “marquee forward” status, is a tantalizing prospect. You add that to the fact Eoghan Cadogan was biting into challenges last week, and Darragh Fitzgibbon was getting through an ocean of work, and you’ve got to be looking ahead with some optimism as to what’s to come.
Now it could be argued that given the fact they hit twice as many wides as their opponents last weekend, Galway were merely unfortunate and are really not that far off the pace. That’s one way of looking at it. Another would be to say they’ve been failing to win close games for near on a year and a half now. Certainly, they need Joe back. And yet the very fact they’re still so reliant on him, is probably the biggest worry of all. So it’s time for the likes of Tadhg Haran, Sean Bleahane and Brian Concannon to really step up. Maybe being at home this weekend will give them that bit more impetus. For Shane O’Neill’s sake, you’d hope so. Cork just need to keep doing what they’re doing. Galway need a win.
PREDICTION: Galway by 2
Tipperary v Waterford, Semple Stadium, Thurles, Sunday, March 1st, 2pm
A return for Liam Cahill to his old stomping ground and, while I’m sure Liam Sheedy has plenty of time left in the Premier job, his old teammate will be keen to lay down a marker that he has a suitable claim to be next in line to the throne.
It’s all gravy from here on for Cahill. Or, at least, it looks like that. Steadying the ship after the annus horribilis last year was the minimum requirement, and thanks to the 3 victories so far, they’ve already achieved that. Their 2 away fixtures against Tipperary and Limerick were always going to be the trickiest, but they’ll have to show something in the performance to demonstrate they’re a proper force. Last weekend’s fixture was also noticeable for the re-introduction of Austin Gleeson to the scene. It’s over 3 years since he was named hurler of the year. Isn’t it about time he showed he was worthy of that accolade to begin with?
Tipp may have taken a while to get into their stride in this league, but the hammering they dished out to Westmeath was an ominous sign to the rest of the hurling world. They haven’t gone away you know. In fact with Bubbles, Noel McGrath and Brendan Maher all easing themselves back in from here, it could get a good bit more ominous from now on. Waterford don’t really need the win. It’d be a hell of a statement if they did though. You just feel Sheedy might be eager to keep the other Liam in his place.
PREDICTION: Tipperary by 5
Wexford v Carlow, Innovate Wexford Park, Wexford, Sunday, March 1st, 2pm
There’s two ways of looking at last week’s Wexford performance. On the one hand, it’s an indication of how much they’ve progressed. We all know, sure it’s the oldest cliché in the book, only a good team wins when they’re playing badly. And they did it with only 13 men left on the field too. That’s got to be something. On the other hand though….well, they did play really badly didn’t they? I mean, sure, maybe they’ve been training hard and they’re only getting back to full fitness, but if it weren’t for some noticeably askew Dublin free-taking, they’d be staring down the barrel of a league elimination.
So it was a lucky victory and it’s fortunate they’re not facing a more intimidating opposition this weekend. Carlow will feel that they did enough to get something out of that Laois game, but it will be scant consolation, considering they’re now facing into a certain relegation final, that will probably define their year. How likely they are to win that seems partially dependent on how well they fare here. Put up a decent show, and they can face Westmeath with confidence. Suffer a hammering on the other hand, and their next Division 1 game may well be their last for a while.
PREDICTION: Wexford by 12
Clare v Dublin, Cusack Park, Ennis, Sunday, March 1st, 2pm
You’d have to feel a bit of sympathy for Mattie Kenny. Down and out after a dire performance in their opening game, his side managed to go into last week’s fixture against Wexford with a chance of claiming a top 3 spot. Now over the course of the 70 minutes, they were more than a match for their more illustrious opponents. But, as has become a recurring theme over the last few years, they were just beaten by a neck down the finishing straight.
There’s a lot to admire about this Dublin side. They’ve got a ferociously strong defence and midfield, and have a level of physicality that’s a match for anyone. But there’s one vital ingredient that is missing from them and their forward line in particular. Goals. In 4 of their last 5 competitive games (Laois, Kilkenny, Carlow, Wexford) they’ve been held goalless, and subsequently, they’ve lost 3 of those games. Even when they were finding the net in the championship last year, it was usually from penalties or forays from defenders like Chris Crummey, who unfortunately won’t be around for the foreseeable future. So whether it’s Liam Rushe, Eamonn Dillion or whoever else they can pull out of the hat, Dublin need to find an Eddie Brennan or Dan Shanahan like figure. Otherwise they’re looking at another short summer. They may also need to find a free-taker, as Paul Ryan’s radar was noticeably awry last weekend.
There’s no such worries on the Clare side. They have, in Shane O’Donnell, one of the best goal getters in the game. He absolutely terrorized the Kilkenny defence last week and were it not for the fact their defenders weren’t as razor sharp as he was, they would be heading into this week’s fixture with an impeccable record. Brian Lohan, in his inaugural campaign, may have been blessed with a very winnable set of games, but you can only play the hand you’re dealt with and they haven’t put a foot wrong so far. Considering home advantage and the high morale you’d assume they have, that should be enough to see them through this Sunday.
PREDICTION: Clare by 7
Kilkenny v Laois, UPMC Nowlan Park, Kilkenny, Sunday, March 1st, 2pm
Maybe, just maybe, if this game was being played in a packed Portlaoise, with a ravenous home crowd, there would be a whiff of an upset about it. Maybe if Laois were really clinging onto their first division status by the skin of their teeth, and were desperate for a win, then they could manage to pull off a shock. But the Carlow result last week and the egregious state of the O’Moore Park pitch, has really reduced the need for Eddie Brennan’s men to overstretch themselves come Sunday. This is a free hit for this Laois side. That could result in them playing with an abandon they haven’t showed of yet. It could also mean they’re not going into this at full tilt. It’s their last competitive game for over 2 months and I’m sure their manager will be looking for a performance, but subconsciously at least, his players may have already tuned out.
Last weekend wasn’t necessarily a great one for Brian Cody and his band of brothers. Fair enough, they didn’t lose the game, but I’m sure he would have gladly taken the defeat if it meant he didn’t have to suffer the loss of Adrian Mullen. It was a most unfortunate injury for a player whose graph has just represented a vertical spike for the last 12 months, and it’s deprived the side of much needed firepower for the summer.
That Clare game also revealed more than a few creases in the Cat’s pyjamas that need to be ironed out. Certainly, Eoin Murphy will be welcomed back into the side with open arms. Joey Holden and Paul Murphy will believe their places are reasonably secure in the backline too. And really, any Kilkenny side without TJ in it, is like Hamlet without the prince. So there’s plenty of issues that may cause Cody to stay awake at night, but given they’re at home, with a point to prove, they should have enough about them for this one.
PREDICTION: Kilkenny by 10