The inter-county hurling championship is fully up-and-running at this stage with semi-finalists in place in both Munster and Leinster. The first of those semis in Munster brings Waterford and Clare to the Stadium on Sunday week for what promises to be a fascinating collision. Otherwise Tipperary’s build up to the Cork game intensifies with an anxious weekend ahead for the management as club action runs the risk of injuries. Midweek Tipperary’s U21s face Cork down Leeside where Sean Curran will be our only senior panellist in action.
It’s the calm before the storm, I suppose, as Tipperary prepares for that June 24 semi-final down Leeside. By now the evidence of the Limerick game will have been digested and regurgitated in all its minutiae. As ever opinions vary widely from those who pessimistically focus on the negatives of a seven-point deficit to the optimists and their emphasis on the late rally that brought redemption. Through it all there’s no shortage of advice for the management.
There’s no denying the fact that we finished the Limerick game with a far superior side to the one which started out. There were raised eyebrows all over the shop when the line-out was announced on the Thursday before the game. In my preview I tried to read the signals and anticipate the likely team formation. One advance indication was that ‘Bonner’ Maher was pretty certain to start. To the amazement of some he didn’t and clearly that was a mistake.
The case of John O’Keeffe was somewhat puzzling too. In-camp indications were that he was close to a starting slot but in the event he wasn’t even listed on the twenty-seven man panel for the game. As the match unfolded the substitutions worked the oracle, which was just as well for the management because it deflected attention away from the original choices.
They say you learn more from a defeat - or in this case near defeat - than you do from a comfortable win so it’s to be hoped that the lessons from the Limerick game will inform future selections. That will probably mean that Shane McGrath and ‘Bonner’ Maher will start next time and that Eoin Kelly wont. I wouldn’t write Kelly’s hurling obituary just yet but it is a case now of how and where to best utilise him in a game. That probably means positioning him on the edge of the ‘square’ possibly for the final quarter where all his old wiles can be of most benefit.
Up to the late surge that carried us through against Limerick a major worry with the team was the indifferent form of so many central players on the side. I’m referring to Cahill and Curran and Paudie Maher and Brendan Maher and Noel McGrath and Gearoid Ryan and Eoin Kelly. These guys have all delivered in the past but this year have yet to reach former heights. In fairness Paudie Maher’s form was a one-game glitch because prior to the Limerick match he was Mr. Consistency itself.
The hope is that these players will rediscover the old form as the season unfolds because if they don’t then it’s goodbye to our championship prospects. Once again the fervent hope here is that the final quarter against Limerick will be the spark to ignite the remainder of the season.
It will be intriguing to see how the management will assess our defence ahead of the Cork game especially the right flank. Donagh Maher was replaced the last day by Conor O’Brien who made a significant impact though many would question his suitability for corner back; against Limerick he played most of his hurling outfield. Paddy Stapleton has to come back into the frame and surely Brendan Maher must now be considered for wing.
It should be remembered that Tipperary is the only county which has matched Kilkenny on key championship days in recent times. In three successive All Irelands we’ve gone toe-to-toe with the ‘cats’, winning once and being close on the other two occasions, tantalising so in ’09. That Tipperary team is still intact. Some shuffling of the pack is needed to get the best possible formation but crucially the potential is still there. We need to make hay while the sun shines, which in translation means deliver now while we have the players because once the older third of this team departs there’s not a lot coming up through the ranks. The players would need to remember that and realise that we can do without any shenanigans that distracts from the main focus of the season.
Meanwhile games in Leinster last weekend produced predictable results and have now set up two tasty semis. The clash between Kilkenny and Dublin, scheduled for Portlaoise on June 23, is really exciting followers. Dublin’s whitewash of Laois last weekend will have done little for either county, though from Anthony Daly’s perspective it was just a limbering up for what is their target-game of the championship.
I think this Leinster semi is a fascinating prospect. Dublin have been bulking up all year for such a collision and now that they have most of the walking wounded back in harness they seem well equipped to have a go at the ‘cats’. Besides it’s a Kilkenny team with its own injury problems so Dublin will feel they have a realistic chance. The betting odds will still favour the champions but this has to be an occasion for the Dubs to underline their progress of recent years.
In the other Leinster semi, scheduled for Sunday week again at Portlaoise, Galway will be fancied against Offaly. Mind you Anthony Cunningham’s side leaked a worrying score-total to Westmeath last week so they’ll be seeking a lot of tightening up at that end before facing Shane Dooley and colleagues. Still with Joe Canning back on board you’d expect Galway to finally make a Leinster final.
Offaly’s win over Wexford was a curious affair where they seemed to be in command but then had to cling by their fingertips at the end. The game once again put the spotlight on refereeing matters, something which I suspect will be ever-present during this season. To begin with there was that fussy call by the umpires to penalise the Wexford goalie for allegedly pucking-out from outside the parallelogram. Replays of the incident clearly show that the ball was tossed up well within the small ‘square’ before the goalie’s momentum brought a leg outside the area as he was striking. If that breaches the rule then surely every ‘penalty’ is also a breach where the ball may be tossed up on the twenty-metre line but is struck much closer to goal. It was a nonsense decision, one that had a crucial bearing on the game because Offaly goaled from the throw-in that followed.
Then there was the case of the Wexford goal, the one which created the late crisis for Offaly. To begin with I could see no foul whatsoever. It looked suspiciously like a referee being generous to the side that was trailing. As if that wasn’t bad enough you then had a follow up decision to move the free forward in front of goal on some spurious grounds or other. It reminded me once again of that incident during the last ‘Babs’ era when we had a free brought in front of goal which allowed Damien Fitzhenry hit a match-winner. The only positive from that decision was the arrival of Liam Sheedy.
Overall inter-county refereeing standards are poor and unfortunately some bad calls may well decide key games this summer. There is worrying evidence too that some may be following the Cody code of conduct with the whistle. No game should be refereed the way of Kilkenny training sessions. Anyway it’s an area we’ll watch with interest as the season progresses.
Meanwhile some local business brought me to Golden on Saturday last where Kickhams secured the last quarter-final slot in the West championship with a win over newly-promoted seniors, Aherlow. It was comfortable in the end but decidedly uncomfortable at one stage in the second half when Aherlow fought back to within three points and an upset briefly looked possible.
Kickhams certainly looked a notch above Aherlow in the first half. There was a real bounce to their play at that juncture showing pace and precision as they built up a substantial lead. Patrick O’Brien was the lead scorer hitting four first-half points but they had a useful spread of scorers through David Butler, Jerry Horgan and Paul Breen as well as free-taker, Alan Horgan. Even wing back, Michael Heelan, got in on the act as well as clearing more ball than anyone else at that stage.
Perhaps Kickhams needed a goal to consolidate the points and really put this game to bed, but they never threatened a green flag. For their part Aherlow could be grateful for stout defending by Brian Moroney but their forward attempts were very weak at this stage. They trailed by eight at the interval, 0-11 to 0-3.
I saw Kickhams collapse in the second half of an earlier game against Cappawhite and memories of that surfaced again this time as Aherlow came storming back into the contest on the turnover. Cathal Dillon was the lead player in the resurgence, hitting points from play and frees and then a crucial goal when his shot was deflected past the Kickhams’ goalie. Suddenly the lead was back to just three points and a real storm brewing up for Kickhams.
In the end though they managed to weather that storm and finish on a flurry of scores, the main one being a well-taken Niall O’Brien goal. They won by eight in the end probably flattering their effort and being slightly unjust to the Glensmen.
Kickhams now go on to face Eire Og in a quarter-final with the winners playing Cashel in a semi. They’ll be outsiders against Annacarty, which is always the best angle to have approaching an important game. And this will be a very significant game because the winners will be clear of Seamus O’Riain as well as relegation - and will be fancied against Cashel in the semi. At times Kickhams produce some really crisp hurling but then there’s something flighty about the team. They’ll need to be steadier and more consistent against Eire Og.
Aherlow are still seeking their first senior win and now go into the county draw. They’ve shown plenty of spirit as seniors and if they get all players available and fit they’re well capable of remaining senior. On the other side of the West draw Cappawhite face Golden in a quarter-final with Clonoulty awaiting the winners in a semi.
At writing time I don’t have next week’s fixture list but it’s expected that there will be significant club action in all four divisions. Check fixtures for details.