LEAGUE QUARTER FINALS
Offaly v Kilkenny, 13:00, Sunday, March 18th, O’Connor Park, Tullamore
They just won’t die will they? How many times over the last seven or 8 years or so has the downfall of Kilkenny hurling been predicted? And how many times have they come back from the brink? Well they’re not dead yet. And if anything, they might be getting stronger.
The upsurge in their fortunes mid league can be attributed, not completely, but very strongly, to the re-introduction of one man: TJ Reid. The Ballyhale wizard is pretty much the most influential player in the country now, and with the team showing very few changes in the past couple of weeks, there’s a sense that Cody has already clicked into championship mode.
On the other hand Offaly’s campaign has been a contrast of outstanding highs (Dublin in Croke Park) and dispiriting lows (Limerick and Antrim at home). On the whole, I believe they’re making progress, but the rate of said progression may be a little slower than previously hoped. And while it’s arguable that the team is showing better form than Dublin, there seems to be a definite hierarchy of a top 3 in the province (Wexford, Galway, Kilkenny) that should come to the fore come summer. So while Kevin Martin can be pretty pleased with what he’s done so far, you don’t want to lose to Antrim on your home turf and then face the might of TJ Reid and co the week after. Sunday could be a chastening experience.
VERDICT: Kilkenny by 10
Wexford v Galway, 14:00, Sunday, March 18th, Wexford Park, Wexford
Ok. Now we know Galway are All-Ireland champions. We know they’re probably the best team in the country with one of the strongest and most skilful sets of players around, and were most deserving champions of both competitions last year. Still and all, the fact remains, they haven’t approached anything like top form in this year’s competition, most obviously displayed by their capitulation in the second half against Limerick last Sunday.
On the other hand you have Wexford. Wexford who were tipped by many to get relegated from the highest division this spring (they weren’t). Wexford who could have capitulated in a number of their league games at half-time this year (they didn’t). Wexford who won three of their group games and could conceivably have got something from their other two.
So when you consider that one side (Wexford) is in the top division of the league, and has showed pretty good form so far, while the other (Galway) is the second tier, and has shown pretty poor form until now, it stands to the reason that the home side will be favourites. Yes? Eh, no, mysteriously enough. Now I know, I know, I know, yes, Galway are All-Ireland champions. And yes, they’re slowly introducing the “big guns” of Joe Canning and David Burke back into the set up. So yes, come May or June whenever they meet in the championship, the Tribesman may prove better than Davy’s men, but answer me this. Are they a better team NOW? My hunch says no. And if Wexford are able to get a full enough team onto the field, why wouldn’t they think themselves capable of beating their more prestigious rivals? They get my vote anyway.
VERDICT: Wexford by 2
Dublin v Tipperary, 15:00, Sunday, March 18th, Parnell Park, Dublin
Hmmm. The more things change the more they stay the same. So there may have been the whole galvanizing effect of Pat Gilroy coming into the team dressing room a few months ago and all their old “stars” coming back but the fact is Dublin haven’t got the bounce they expected in this year’s league. On the other side, Tipp are Tipp. As exquisitely gifted as ever, but never a team you would want to bet your last dime on.
So what’s it to be? Well obviously last Sunday’s outing against Laois was probably the only bright spot of the campaign for the metropolitans. They had to win that game and they did. But they don’t HAVE to win the game on Sunday. And even if they did, they probably wouldn’t be capable of it. Because it doesn’t matter how many old stars you get back in the fold, if you’re coming up against the likes of Jason Forde and John McGrath and you’re not in Tipp top form (pun intended), then they will punish you. And Sunday looks like being one of those occasions.
VERDICT: Tipperary by 8
Limerick v Clare, 16:00, Sunday, March 18th, Gaelic Grounds, Limerick
Beautiful. That was the feeling of most Limerick fans after that epic comeback last Sunday, and their excitement levels would have beeen heightened still further when they saw who they were going to face in the quarter final draw. A local derby, at home, with your team on a roll. What more, really, could you ask for?
So how would you frame Clare’s league so far? In terms of games won, you’d say decent. But in terms of trajectory, you’d have to say it’s been a little bit disappointing. Because while it’s great to secure your top flight status after the first 3 games, the fact that you’ve under performed and gone down in the last two, has to be a bit of a niggling worry. And finishing fourth in the division, even though that’s more to do with the wafer thin margins between the top sides more than a lack of quality on Clare’s behalf, is not necessarily a boost for confidence.
If the spring campaign has shown us anything thus far, it’s that there’s very little to choose between the top 8 sides in the country. Little things like momentum and home advantage can make all the difference. So play this game in another couple of months with the needles pointing in different directions and the result could be completely different. But with the boost gleaned from last Sunday’s landmark win, and a passionate Gaelic Grounds crowd behind them, you’d have to fancy it to be Limerick’s day.
VERDICT: Limerick by 2
Cork v Waterford, 15:00, Sunday, March 18th, Pairc Ui Chaoimh, Cork
It’s only three weeks ago that these sides faced off against each other in a sandpit at the same venue. To call that game one of “hurling” may be stretching it, as it was more akin to beach volleyball, but even given the inclement conditions, the superiority of the Deise men would have been concerning for John Meyler and co.
It appears that, after looking like a team completely bereft mid season, there’s reason to believe not all hope is lost on the banks of the Suir. Certainly the last two victories have been encouraging, and the form of Patrick Curran, for one, has been a major boon of late.
Then again, there are a couple of straws to clutch for the rebels. One obviously, is the home advantage factor. The second is the fact that Derek McGrath’s commitment to the league is…hmmm, questionable, and, having already won the competition from Division 1B, just like Galway did last year, in 2015, the side may not be so scared at the prospect of trying to do so next year. They may go out all guns blazing on Sunday, but given they didn’t do so in their quarter final against Galway last March, they may not either.
The third and, possibly most random reason for tipping Cork is that, well, Cork are adept at avoiding relegation. They faced into a very similar scenario against Galway a couple of years ago, having lost all five games in the National league proper, and somehow managed to eke out a victory. So while logically, Waterford appear the team in form, the very unpredictable nature of Cork hurling paradoxically gets them the vote.
VERDICT: Cork by 1
Antrim v Laois, 14:00, Sunday, March 18th, Dunloy Antrim
There were a couple of great feelgood hurling stories last Sunday. One obviously, was Limerick’s landmark win over Galway in Salthill, but for pure drama at least, the glensmen’s long overdue, last gasp victory against Offaly took trumping. It’s a different era, with a vastly different level of quality, but last week’s win brought to memory that famous 1989 victory in Croke Park and showed that the spirit of Jim Nelson is still going alive and well.
Laois’s campaign on the other hand has been one long arduous stumble in the dark. Sure, they did get one win in the corresponding fixture last month, but since then they’ve been overturned by Offaly, and, in increasingly dispiriting fashion, by Dublin last Sunday. The dial is pointing in the wrong direction now, and they would have been much happier to have faced an Antrim team that were roundly trounced last week, rather than one with a spirit affirming victory.
That away win for in Birr definitely left you with a warm glow but in a sense you could argue they should never have been in this position. There were at least three other games (Galway, Dublin, Laois away) that they could have taken points from and then they would have been looking at the altogether giddy prospect of a league quarter final. But whatever the rights and wrongs of it, they got stuck in a hole, and now they have to dig themselves out of it. The good news is, they seem well capable of doing it.
VERDICT: Antrim by 3