After the Clare-Limerick match last Sunday, I slipped back across the border for a Cheltenham Preview night at the Na Piarsaigh clubhouse in Caherdavin. Shane Dowling had asked me to attend last December and, I’m not sure if Dowler knew how the fixtures were falling at that stage, but it was almost ironic that the event was on the same evening that our two tribes had just gone to war.
The slagging was merciless but great craic. "The Clare lads were going down fair handy, looking for frees," one fella said to me. "Will ye go way," I replied, "Tom Morrissey pulled off his helmet at one stage and threw it down on the ground to get the match stopped." The first chance I got, I had an aul’ dig at Peter Casey.
"Hi Caso, if you were on a diving board, you’d have got a 9.99 for that last dive to get the equalising free." It was great fun.
Some of the crowd had a few jars on them coming from Ennis and Matt Chapman got them riled up to start emptying their pockets for Na Piarsaigh and Cliona’s Foundation. Some of the prizes for auction were first class; tours of Charles Byrne’s and Gordon Elliot's stable yards, a signed JP McManus racing silks, and a signed Limerick hurling jersey.
They were always going to fetch big bucks but Chapman got money for other prizes that wouldn’t have attracted one-fifth of the cash on Monday morning. Chapman’s arrival onto the stage with a Limerick jersey nearly brought the roof down but he went down a bomb. He is notorious for going to town on lads and the banter between himself and Davy Russell was hilarious.
Davy had left himself wide open from the word go because the event had to be pushed back over an hour when Davy arrived dog-late after crawling up in the car from Youghal in the hail and sleet. I really enjoyed the evening but I got a great kick out of chatting to the Na Piarsaigh fellas on the Limerick squad.
They were relaxed and in great form, happy in the knowledge of being top of the table and the only Division 1A team safely ensconced in a league quarter-final. Coming out of Ennis with a result added a sugar lump to the taste of their conversation with me. You could detect in their tone too that it left some unfinished business for their meeting with Clare in the championship.
Smiles were creasing across their cheeks when that topic came up but you could see how they’re brimming with confidence, and packed up with self-belief. From having worked in the Limerick academy for three years, that lack of confidence in their own ability was often what dragged Limerick down.
There is massive heavy lifting yet to come down the tracks but Limerick have a lot of it already done. The boys might have thought that they had this weekend off because their fixture against Laois wasn’t fixed until Monday. But I’m sure they’re delighted now that it is going ahead this evening because it will give them more leeway for downtime on St Patrick’s weekend.
It’s no disrespect to Laois but Limerick, professional as they are, will look on this game as a done deal. They’ll turn up locked and loaded and primed to blow Laois away. Laois will know what’s coming but last weekend’s match against Dublin was an ideal dress rehearsal.
There isn’t the same pressure on Laois as there was six days ago, especially when Eddie Brennan and the lads knew that a Carlow win against Offaly would have plunged them into a relegation final (if Laois had lost to Dublin). Laois got a huge break with Offaly beating Carlow but they still put a fair battle against the Dubs. After racking up a slot-machine score against Waterford, Laois held Dublin to just 0-13.
They led the Dubs by one point with a couple of minutes remaining, even though Laois had to play the last quarter with 14 men. The weather was obviously a factor but that’s a sign of a team prepared to dig in and do whatever it takes to get a result.
That sounds like Kilkenny and Eddie traits to me anyway. It doesn’t matter how Laois got here, they have fulfilled their first goal of the year; stay out of a relegation final and make a quarter-final. Having to face Limerick now is a massive step up but, no matter what happens, Laois are in bonus territory. Their only focus after this evening will be to win the Joe McDonagh Cup. It’s the same for Offaly but they have a more pressing requirement tomorrow with a relegation final against Carlow.
Given the bodies they were down early in the season, Offaly’s league campaign was always likely to come down to this. Yet Offaly look ready for it now because they have their strongest team back when they need them most; Joe Bergin, Shane Dooley, Oisin Kelly, Ben Conneely were nearly all missing for their earlier games.
When I look at where Offaly are now, I often think of their opening Leinster championship match last year against Galway, when Offaly were really competitive for three quarters of the match. Their goalkeeper Eoghan Cahill was their best player on the evening but that still didn’t tell the full story of how well Offaly played against the then All-Ireland champions.
Offaly have to be way better than they’ve showed this spring, especially when losing their opening two games to Waterford and Dublin by an aggregate of 40 points. But the injury list, combined with the demoralisation of relegation to the Joe McDonagh last June, clearly took a toll. In fairness to Kevin Martin, he hasn’t wallowed in self-pity.
He recruited Dave Matthews, the former Olympian and 800 metres runner, along with Ann-Marie Kennedy, who worked as a sports psychologist with the Dublin footballers. If you’re an Offaly hurler, those high-profile appointments are bound to give you a significant boost. I don’t know how far Kevin had to go to secure those appointments but if he did have to make threats, fair play to him. Because Offaly needed something.
They first showed that hint of something against Galway before finally getting a win last week against Carlow. That will give Offaly massive confidence against the same team tomorrow. And I expect them to survive. I fancied Cork to beat Tipperary last weekend but when I saw the Tipp team named on the Saturday, I changed my mind.
That team was far stronger than I thought Tipp might have available after so many injuries. After spending the week abroad on a training camp, where guys struggling with knocks will have got the ideal chance to do proper rehab, I’m sure Tipp will be hopping off the ground.
And they’ll also be fully intent on making a statement after losing their last three matches, two of which were by one point. I fancy Tipp tomorrow, even with the match on in Páirc Uí Rinn. The Wexford-Kilkenny match is another hard call. With scoring difference a factor, and both sides aware that a draw will take them through, I wouldn’t rule it out.
The more I think of it, a draw may be a good bet. Galway must be absolutely sick to the teeth at this stage of the south-east, with this being their fourth visit there inside 12 months. Galway might vent some of that anger on Waterford tomorrow.
There isn’t any promotion at stake and, while Galway will want to win, I’d say their main priority for a quarter-final will be to get a home draw. Galway have only had two games in Pearse Stadium but they’ll be hoping they meet a team which has already played three home games, which would automatically grant Galway a home fixture.
Because the last thing they want next week is to be on the road again. That may seem insignificant but all of that stuff adds up when you have S&C coaches calibrating their team’s preparations with forensic detail.
Long-haul bus journeys are taken into consideration for training plans but having that extra week without a game will have facilitated that opportunity to do more training loading, and deposit more physical work in the bank when the games have been coming so hot and heavy. I’m sure Davy Fitz didn’t let last Sunday pass without doing something with his squad.
It may have been gym-work but, even with the desperate weather, I’d say Fitzy was scouring the county to find the driest pitch in Wexford to squeeze in an animal two-hour session. There was no way those players were told to go away and enjoy a nice relaxing evening at a race night anyway.