An afternoon of championship dry-runs and deliberations

My last game as an inter-county manager with Dublin was our 2014 All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Tipperary. I drove from Clare, picked up Tommy Dunne in Nenagh and met the squad in the Curragh.

Ross Dunphy, our physical trainer, had a room prepared for us upstairs. We went through our tactics but we didn’t focus very long on gameplans or strategies because, after our collapse to Kilkenny in the Leinster final three weeks earlier, that match was all about fighting the fight.

I thought we fought the good fight that day, even if the final scoreline didn’t reflect as much. That Tipp team was on a roll at the time. They’d blitzed Galway and Offaly in their previous matches, while they hammered Cork in a semi-final before narrowly losing the final to Kilkenny after a replay.

Nobody had given us a chance after the Leinster final but the task was harder again having to play Tipp in their own backyard. We had to suck it up the previous year when playing Tipp in Thurles in a league semi-final but we felt a real sense of injustice having to go there for an All-Ireland quarter-final.

I remember saying it to Andy Kettle, Lord have mercy on him, that it wasn’t right. Yet Andy and I knew that we had no comeback, especially when there was — and still is — so much talk about the Dublin footballers playing all their big games in Croke Park.

Yet that was irrelevant to the hurlers; we never felt that Croke Park was our real home. If anything, other teams nearly preferred playing us there.

I was raging inside but I couldn’t show that to the players. Our focus was to try and bounce back from the Kilkenny game but we always found taking on Tipp in Thurles as one of our biggest challenges.

I don’t know what it was. Dublin had no huge fear of taking on Kilkenny in Nowlan Park or Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh but Tipp in Thurles just seemed to make us swerve.

Three weeks after beating Limerick in Thurles in the Division 1B final, Tipp rolled over us when we returned there for the league semi-final. When we played Tipp in a crucial final round league game in 2014, we couldn’t get it done either. With Tipp ahead by three points deep in injury-time, Niall McMorrow chose to try to force a draw by dropping a free into the Tipp square in search of a goal, apparently oblivious to the fact that a two-point defeat would have been enough to see us into a league quarter-final on scoring difference.

The manner of how we managed to blow it, even when we’d made all the lads aware of where we stood beforehand, was head-wrecking. But going to Thurles just seemed to play with Dublin heads. And with the way Tipp played last week, I’d say Semple Stadium is the last place Mattie Kenny and the players want to go now.

Maybe I’m wrong, perhaps this is the kind of challenge Mattie wanted but if Dublin want to reach a league final, I’d be fairly sure they were probably hoping to meet Clare or Wexford before the permutations were done up last Sunday. Tipp were bouncing off the ground after their five-day training camp in Alicante but there will be an extra spring in their step now heading back to Thurles, and looking for a first win there since opening night against Clare in January.

Mattie will surely go with his strongest team to see where this Dublin side really are, especially now stepping up against serious 1A opposition. The Dubs will give it a rattle but I wouldn’t expect anything other than a Tipp victory.

When the toss was made for the Clare-Waterford game on Monday, I’m sure everyone in Clare was cursing whoever called heads, or whichever way the coin landed. But I’m sure Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor and the management were delighted losing the toss.

This gives Clare the ideal opportunity to do a dry-run for the championship match there on May 12. Supporters don’t think like management but little details, like settling on the right hotel as a base beforehand, the quality of food that hotel serves up, access to the ground, even the time and distance it takes to get Walsh Park, can all be the tiny fractions that can add up to getting the result on the pitch. 

The bus journey from Ennis to Waterford is a nightmare but, even if I’m a player, I would have no issues with today’s trip. Players like routine and familiarity. They don’t like uncertainty. And a dry run gives everyone the opportunity to remove any uncertainty ahead of May 12. 

Home advantage gives Waterford a huge advantage today, as it will in eight weeks, but I often thought that Walsh Park didn’t suit Waterford under Derek McGrath. Tactics are harder to execute there than in Thurles but Waterford have tweaked how they’re trying to play under Padraic Fanning so the dimensions of the pitch are probably less relevant now.

Waterford will want to turn Walsh Park into a fortress ahead of their two championship matches but Clare may be more battle-hardened at the moment after a campaign in 1A. I fancy them.

Galway is an unmercifully long trek from Wexford but like the Clare lads, Davy Fitz won’t have any complaints, not just because it’s just over an hour up the road from his home in Sixmilebridge, but because it also presents Wexford with the opportunity to logistically plan for their game in Pearse Stadium in the championship. Wexford last played Galway in Salthill in the 2017 league, when turning them over up there effectively secured their passage back to Division 1A after so long out of the top echelon.

There was a sense of novelty about that time, especially when everything was new and fresh under Fitzy. But going there for a championship game is a whole different level of business, as Kilkenny discovered last May. With Wexford having to stay overnight, this match presents the group with an opportunity to establish a routine for how Wexford will fine-tune their approach for this fixture in June.

I think they’ll pose serious questions to Galway again this afternoon. I know Davy took issue with suggestions last week that he wanted to win this league but I still think he does. I don’t understand why he wouldn’t want to. If Wexford can beat Galway in Pearse Stadium, it would emphatically prove that they are more than capable of doing so.

If Wexford are ever going to win a Leinster title, this is the type of game they should be targeting, especially when their Leinster ambitions this year will hinge on having to go to Pearse Stadium and Parnell Park. When I think back to Ger Loughnane with us in Clare, this would have been exactly the type of game he’d have targeted as a statement match.

The biggest problem with trying to predict results is not knowing what teams Fitzy and Micheal Donoghue will line out. Donoghue will be keen to win, especially after losing to Waterford last week, but will he go with his strongest side, or continue with his experimentation process? If he picks it strong, I still think Galway will get the job done.

Talking about Cork and Kilkenny is completely irrelevant because it is just a glorified challenge game. I’d say the only reason both teams didn’t toss to see who’d be seeded where in next year’s restructured league was because they presumed the Conor Delaney and Seamus Harnedy red card suspensions would be duly served by the fixture. The CCCC has found otherwise, meaning they are now set to miss their respective opening championship outings. That is a sore miss for Cork, who face Tipp in May.

The biggest hurling match of the weekend anyway is tomorrow’s All-Ireland club final between Ballyhale Shamrocks and St Thomas’.

From knowing some of the people in the club, there is massive spirit in this Thomas’ group. They’re ambitious. Hungry. Driven. They don’t have Ballyhale’s history or pedigree but most of these boys have All-Ireland club medals from 2013. A batch of these Ballyhale lads though, are going for their fourth All-Ireland club. They’re managed by the most decorated hurler in history. 

It was a brave move by Henry going straight in as manager after his playing days finished but he was always a confident player and this was never going to knock Henry off his stride. There is always expectation, especially in Ballyhale, but in Kilkenny you nearly have to win the All-Ireland. Ballyhale will expect to win but this isn’t going to be as clear cut as the bookies think. 

It would be too much to expect a repeat of last year’s two epics between Na Piarsaigh and Cuala, especially the replay, but I’m expecting a cracking game. I just think Ballyhale might be that bit more road-tested. They showed great maturity, especially the younger fellas, to dig out the win against Ballygunner. And I expect them to win again tomorrow.

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