By the time the first rounds of the Derby and the Oaks began in Clonmel yesterday at the National Coursing meeting, which pares the numbers down from 64 to 32 for today’s second day, I was below in Cork.
I got the match in first before heading east to Hearns’ Hotel and booking into my usual room at the top of the stairs of Bianconi House.
With a 3pm start to the game in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, it was close to 6pm when I arrived in Clonmel. The party had long started by then but I was in no rush on the road. I asked one of the lads to keep me a coursing card so I could study the form for today when the re-runs were being played in Gerry Chawke’s Sporting Pub.
There will be plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the craic today and tomorrow but I was keeping myself entertained on the road anyway by listening to Cyril Farrell and Tomás Mulcahy going at it on RTÉ Radio One.
At one stage, it sounded like Darren Frehill nearly had to step in to stop the two boys from pulling the heads off one another.
Cyril was defending Davy Fitgerald and Wexford’s system while Mul was taking it apart, giving out hell about how predictable it has now become. Mul sounded like he was walking himself into a hole when Wexford had won the match by five points but he qualified his argument by saying that the hurling was poor and that Cork played like a team that didn’t want to be there.
I’d heard the same stuff from the two boys during the match because I watched it in their company, along with Tom Dempsey. After taking the lift upstairs, I took my seat in the stand. The three lads, who were pitched up in the press-box, decided to join me.
You can always have great banter with Mul. The pitch was horrendous. You’d have seen better at the Ploughing Championship.
‘Jeez Mul, this place is lovely and shiny until you look down,’ I said to him. ‘That pitch might do for Rod Stewart but it ain’t much good for hurling.’
It wasn’t even any good for football. I was listening to the Clare-Kilkenny match on Clare FM but I caught the last few minutes of the Cork-Kildare game. At one stage, one of the Kildare lads tried to bounce the ball off the turf but he may as well have been hopping it into a heap of dung. The ball didn’t come an inch off the ground.
If you were Patrick Horgan or Conor Lehane running out there yesterday, I’m sure they’d have nearly wanted to make a case to switch the game to the Astroturf. When the hurling match started, it would have often been easier to control a rugby ball than a sliotar. When Clare arrive there on Saturday night week, they’d be wise to bring rugby boots.
It must be hugely frustrating for the Cork lads but that still isn’t an excuse for the performance. Wexford deserved the result. They were much more organised and better structured while Cork were outworked once more. Their shooting deserted them in the second half when Cork couldn’t buy a score.
Kevin Foley was much better as the sweeper yesterday than he was against Limerick but that may be more of a reflection of Limerick’s capacity to deal with that tactic than Cork’s failure to do so.
Cork’s inside forwards were starved of possession for long periods. Aidan Walsh was their only outlet for the out-ball for long periods. At least that was a positive for John Meyler, especially when the priority of this campaign is to find new options.
Despite it being a double-header, there was no atmosphere there either. It’s hard to tell from the radio but Cusack Park seemed to be rocking. It was a good response from Clare after the trimming against Tipperary. Nobody reflected that more than Diarmuid Ryan. I dropped him off my Fantasy Hurling team after his performance against Tipp. I thought he wouldn’t get a game till the ground firmed up but he was reportedly excellent yesterday.
You always feel that Clare need those kinds of games in the Park, to keep the momentum rolling, and to stir the hurling public with the belief that certain counties always like to have in their teams.
When I was managing Clare and Dublin I used often say that both counties could never afford not to be going well in the league.
They still only have one point on the board but the result of the weekend was Carlow’s draw against Galway. They haven’t scored a goal in those opening two games either which makes their performances against Dublin and Galway look even more impressive.
They don’t exactly have huge numbers – only four clubs were represented in yesterday’s side - but Colm Bonner and his management team have done an incredible job with this side. Someone from Offaly, who were hammered by Dublin yesterday, could do well to take a trip over to Carlow and see what they’re doing right there.
After Carlow, Limerick will probably be most happy with their weekend after taking out Tipperary. What epitomised Limerick’s set-up and system was their final point from Peter Casey.
The last pass came from Paddy O’Loughlin who found himself above in the half-forward line. When I was left half back, I’d have got a nose-bleed if I found myself that far up the pitch but Paddy had the freedom to push forward because of the cover behind him.
I watched the match with Derek McGrath and Dónal Óg Cusack from the cockpit high up in the Mackey Stand. The two lads are big in to their systems of play, whereas I’m more inclined to think that hurling is an off-the-cuff game, but I could still see how system-based Limerick were in the second half.
Limerick were structured and controlled but all of this stuff has to be qualified by the unknown of what training Tipperary did last week. When Liam Sheedy was asked in a TV interview beforehand by Clare McNamara if Tipp were out to set a trend after their opening round win against Clare, Liam rightly replied ‘There are no trends set in February’.
Who knows how Liam reacted after the win against Clare? Maybe he felt it was time to ground the hype and go hard in training last week. Tipp could have done three thumping physical sessions because having no relegation this spring gives a manager that luxury he didn’t have in previous seasons in 1A.
Tipp were leggy and Limerick exploited it with their runners coming from deep as the game progressed. Limerick held their defensive shape very smartly, with players always covering back when anyone went forward, which allows for defenders like Paddy O’Loughlin to be creative and expressive when the chance presents itself.
Limerick were just that bit sharper as the game played out. There was a lot of talk beforehand about Kevin Downes starting a game for the first time since 2016. It didn’t work out for the Na Piarsaigh man but the way John Kiely introduced Downes’ clubmate, Peter Casey, changed the whole balance of play.
It was a completely different threat for the Tipperary defence. Casey wasn’t going to lie around near the square. As soon as he came on, he won a free out near the sideline.
The fears that the incoming format for 2020 – with no relegation from Division 1A this season - would dilute the intensity was obvious in some games last weekend, and in Cork yesterday, but there was no evidence of that in Limerick on Saturday.
Some of the physical hits were absolutely ferocious.
We watched the last few minutes of both halves down by the sideline, because we were preparing for the TV half-time analysis. It’s only when you see these guys up close that you realise how strong these players are now. Their physiques are absolutely incredible. Diarmuid Byrnes reminded me of a machine; he was getting stronger as the game went on.
It’s early doors yet but Limerick already look to have the best squad in the country, especially when you see how many players they were missing on Saturday.
Conor Boylan, who made his league debut, was excellent. Tom Condon has done really well in the opening two games. Confidence is absolutely massive but the belief you get from winning an All-Ireland can be as powerful as rocket fuel.
I often think of a comment from Damien Quigley, the former Limerick hurler, who said after the 1996 Munster semi-final that the Clare team they beat that afternoon were better than the side which demolished Limerick in the 1995 Munster final.
But we didn’t win in 1996, which underlines the madness of hurling. There is a new swagger in Limerick’s step but that’s the kind of madness this squad will be faced with throughout this season.