Despite the rhetoric, Davy has not brought hurling to an evolutionary tipping point

Despite the rhetoric, Davy has not brought hurling to an evolutionary tipping point

Fair play, and then some, to Wexford.

They whirled the championship into a new space. Hurling was in danger of a Cinderella complex, a sense that this summer’s action was plain by comparison with last summer’s action.

No longer, no longer. The small fish outgrew tradition’s aquarium. Last weekend saw Wexford emerge as a top four team. Meanwhile Limerick served notice of potential greatness, of a force capable of winning several Senior titles, starting with two on the bounce.

Tipperary fell hard in the Munster Final. If Limerick’s back to back scenario transpires, the outlook will gall The Premier County, a hurling culture that failed to achieve this distinction within easier older formats. Sooner or later, results settle into a pattern. Retained or renovated, patterns are the stuff of tradition.

Consider weft and warp, past and present. As of 2019, Limerick must surmount at least seven games. Back in 2011, Tipperary faced five outings. Back in 2017, Tipperary would have faced five or six outings. This arithmetic kindles fiery winter conversation.

For well merited victory, Wexford performed to near optimum level. While Kilkenny could have done it, not a sinner demurred. The better team, one moving at far closer to their best, scooped the day.

Facing top opposition, Wexford averaged 1-18 in 2017 and 2018. This tally is not adequate for silverware. A Model outing centred on 24 scores and three wides blossomed into a model performance.

Good luck to them. Hurling wise, the sunny South East saw torrents of hail and sleet before sunshine broke back out.

The only pity? Univocal reaction to this triumph. Wexford won a game, not an argument.

Praise Davy Fitzgerald as manager, by all means. He makes Wexford resilient. Same time, retain a sense of perspective. Fitzgerald has not brought hurling to an evolutionary tipping point, despite feverish rhetoric on this front.

Whatever his virtues, Fitzgerald is the same figure in most regards. There he stands, someone who routinely addresses a wind-assisted second half, down six or seven points, and still opts for seven defenders and five forwards.

Well and good and whatever you are having yourself, with sprinkles on it. But call these matters in medium view and on the level, admirable and popular victory aside. If that sort of stuff leaves someone a candidate for hurling’s version of Mensa, they might as well start serving sombreros with a side order of fries in Lahinch.

Retain perspective. Clare never hurled championship in Croke Park during four of their five Fitzgerald-managed seasons. Many Clare players still say privately Paul Kinnerk’s input proved the decisive factor for 2013’s Senior triumph. Bolstering this opinion, Kinnerk found even higher altitude via his move to Limerick.

Had Wexford won 2019’s Leinster Final by ten points, on foot of scintillating hurling, different story and fair enough. This scenario would be notable, something genuinely novel. Said scenario did not occur. The marginally better side garnered a tight contest.

Hurling never more needed a level view. The new provincial round robin format arose as a reaction ― an overreaction, arguably ― to Gaelic football’s introduction of Super 8s. The most beautiful game might be at a crossroads but the signposts are as yet blank. Does anyone truly know what best line of travel comprises?

Diarmuid Lyng, not just one of Wexford GAA’s most articulate talents but one of Ireland’s vital voices, queries plunging blindly forward simply for the smell of fuel in your nostrils. Lyng offered specific counsel. For him, the “wildness” that underpins hurling’s attraction could be eliminated in the rush to embrace newness for the sake of newness, acceleration for the sake of acceleration.

I reckon this perspective counts as wisdom.

Which or whether, last weekend’s further action is instructive. Clare’s Minors opted for a sweeper and lost to Limerick in the Munster Final. The same day, Wexford’s Minors opted for a sweeper and beat Kilkenny in the Leinster Final. Should there not be thoroughgoing debate on whether juvenile hurlers are best developed in such structures?

Diarmuid Lyng provides a philosophical perspective. There are cognate practical considerations. Back the way, not long ago, players bundling all over the field and losing their shape got dubbed ‘sheep in a heap’ hurling. Are we entering a brave new world of ‘antelopes in a heap’ hurling?

This question should be posed because feverish rhetoric rather missed a crucial point. There are cold analytical considerations. How significant in any regard was beating this Kilkenny outfit by three points?

Context is never irrelevant. Read a recent RTÉ column by Christy O’Connor, one of the country’s best informed commentators. This piece observed: “this is not the Kilkenny of ten ― or even three ― years ago”.

No arguments there. The stripy men are now a top six team trying to become a top four team.

Parsing the counties’ round robin draw a fortnight earlier, O’Connor continued: “In the past, if Kilkenny got a goal to go ahead with 25 minutes to play, and with the breeze at their backs, they would have gone on to throttle a team. But this side doesn’t have that capacity.”

Parsing 2019’s Leinster Final, he concluded: “Kilkenny don’t carry that psychological threat anymore and when Wexford stared them down, Kilkenny blinked first.”

Could anyone disagree? I certainly do not. Take the notion that overcoming a so so outfit, one underperforming into the bargain, represents a tipping point. What you have is overreaction larded in glee.

Did no one else read analysis that noted Kilkenny created 39 chances and took 23? That Wexford made 30 chances, seizing 24 of them?

Narrow wins rarely create wide bridges into the future. Needless wides, as previously broached, are killing Noreside development.

More importantly, Wexford hurling needs to give itself some credit. Here are a few Slaneyside facts, spiced with interpretation.

Eight of last weekend’s starting team were part of the groups that successively won three Leinster U21 titles 2013-15. Same scéal with five of the subs (including the suspended Aidan Nolan). Here is a substantial 13 strong cohort, half the current championship panel.

This cohort’s most impressive aspect? That none of its members won a Leinster Minor title. A drive to improve as adult players is their signature.

Mark Fanning, Liam Óg McGovern, Paul Morris, Shaun Murphy and Matthew O’Hanlon are in their late twenties. This quintet provides experience and ballast. Then you have terrific young talent in Rory O’Connor and Damien Reck. The idea that a remarkable Wexford team was magicked out of nowhere is for the cuckoo clock that stands in the hallway of Tir na nÓg.

Steady reality, behind deserved joy? That recent U21 success delivered to the county its biggest bulge of talent in over 20 years. This happenstance occurred at the same time as Kilkenny cleaved to its least accomplished group in 20 plus years.

More facts. This season, players that won the county’s last U21 All Ireland title in 2008 are 30 (Colin Fennelly), 31 (Richie (Hogan and Paul Murphy) or 32 (TJ Reid). Not one figure from the county’s last Minor All Ireland title in 2014 is yet an established starter. Ironically enough, Huw Lawlor, although eligible for that Minor panel but not on it, is currently thriving best at Senior.

You could expand this topic. A player development issue, beyond the vagaries of generational talent, seems to have accrued. None of the Minor teams that made three All Ireland Finals in a row 2008-10 added an U21 title.

Yes, an exceptional Clare group dominated this grade. Yet Wexford, far more than Clare, became the nemesis. While most Wexford candidates improved, most Kilkenny candidates did not. The mid 2010s’ lack of improvement at U21 ended up a tariff on the late 2010s’ Senior prospects. That the same outcome transpired between 2014’s Minors and 2017’s U21s is further grit.

Look sideways. Limerick, out of 2014’s disconsolate Minor panel, created 2017’s U21 All Ireland title against the same opposition. Harvested for Senior along the way were Peter Casey, Seán Finn, Séamus Flanagan, Cian Lynch, Tom Morrissey and Paddy O’Loughlin (as well as Robbie Hanley, Barry Murphy and Barry Nash).

The net result of these dynamics is what occurred over the last three seasons between Kilkenny and Wexford. Any notion that happenstance squared represents a key moment in the evolution of hurling is for the cuckoo clock that stands in the hallway of Hy Brasil.

These co-ordinates take nothing from Wexford’s latest gumption and glory. They merely clarify one result’s nature in broader terms. The Leinster Champions are sitting pretty, awaiting their next opponents.

Could three Leinster teams make the All Ireland semi finals? Doubtful.

A measure of historical perspective proffers a poultice for rhetoric. There is nothing peculiar in Kilkenny’s present curve. Tipperary won four Senior titles in five seasons between 1962 and 1965. Winning another one took until 1971, six seasons (and we know what subsequently transpired). Cork won three Senior titles in a row between 1976 and 1978. Winning another one took until 1984, six seasons.

Again, Kerry’s footballers won three Senior titles in a row between 1984 and 1986. Winning another one took until 1997, 11 seasons. Those three teams remain aptest co-ordinates if you want to contextualize Kilkenny’s 21st century achievement. The peculiar aspect would be if its hurlers, at present, were doing better.

Not that the county’s supporters rest content. Last Sunday evening, I must have received a dozen messages that included the phrase ‘stupid hurling’. Not being strong enough to win Senior titles is one matter. Stark underperformance counts as other business.

Kilkenny’s management seem somewhat spooked by a Davy Fitzgerald-managed Wexford. The origins may lie in 2016’s NHL semi final between Kilkenny and Clare. That day, the latter’s attack dragged the former’s backline all over the place. Clare won by nine points, 4-22 to 2-19. Reports and reviews emphasized Kilkenny not just being outhurled on the pitch but outthought on the sideline.

Spooked…? How else do you read starting a quarter fit Pádraig Walsh at centre forward in 2017’s Leinster semi final in Wexford Park? Some decisions remain hard to add up.

Present ones as well as past ones. Last weekend, Simon Donohoe stood out as a pressure point at the back. No hindsight is involved. This point was implicitly conceded by the relocation of Shaun Murphy from wing back to mark Adrian Mullen, Donohoe’s tormentor in the drawn round robin tie.

Kilkenny’s choice? To launch Alan Murphy, someone with no championship experience as a forward, on Donohoe. Hard to understand…

Placing Walter Walsh on Donohoe would have set Wexford quite a problem. If Donohoe stalled, their next options are all bad ones. Spool again: would Liam Blanchfield not offer freshness in a slogging contest with Paudie Foley?

Much is hard to understand. How often do you see someone later RTÉ’s Man of the Match with the same marker throughout the 70 minutes? Not so often. Precisely this scenario occurred with Enda Morrissey and laoch na h-imeartha Rory O’Connor.

Cillian Buckley lay to hand on the bench. On the field, there was Joey Holden to switch. Equally, would it not have been sensible to try someone other than Paddy Deegan on Lee Chin? Pádraig Walsh, say, who struggled for leverage this time in the free role?

Basic gambits are being passed up in the Kilkenny camp. Dynamics seem awry. Neither the team nor its style of play has found a settled rhythm. The group appears short in true self belief.

Item: TJ Reid passing up that first half free, striving to release Colin Fennelly on goal. The percentage bet swung strongly towards establishing a three point lead. A four or five point Kilkenny lead at halftime revives the conundrum about persisting, when behind more than a couple of points, with five forwards.

That two capable and experienced hurlers opted for this ruse is all the odder. They were basically saying to the Wexford players: ‘We need a stunt goal to be certain of beating ye.’ Then you had, same vein of bad percentage, dropping in those goal-seeking balls during the closing minutes. You had Conor Fogarty’s goal-focused ‘eye of needle’ pass to Fennelly.

Those moments hint at dislocation that will make Cork, even with their creaking defence, mighty tough opponents. Management has a lot of work to do on the collective head.

Where exactly are Kilkenny? Not All Ireland contenders, on known form. The storied ability to edge tight championship encounters has been mislaid.

For now, Kilkenny possess the best goalkeeper. Huw Lawlor is an excellent young full back. Beyond this upside, there is a lot of horizon.

The corner back slots are not settled. The half back line, where Conor Delaney might get a parachute marked 6, is yet to gel. Midfield remains work in process. Up front, TJ Reid and Colin are reliable performers, with Adrian Mullen in line for Young Hurler of the Year.

Kilkenny lack basic cohesiveness. Defeating Cork next weekend will tax them to the hilt. I am not going to patronize anyone by pretending about Westmeath in the preliminary All Ireland quarter final.

For this occasion, the intriguing Cork gambit is Darragh Fitzgibbon’s switch to centre forward. Facilitating this adjustment, Tim O’Mahony drops into midfield. There abides a sense that Cork are no surer in July of their central spine than they were in May.

Presumably Séamus Harnedy starts half forward, with Shane Kingston moving into the corner. Else, with Conor Lehane as the other wing forward, where is your orthodox puckout target? Aidan Walsh’s absence (because of hand injury) upsets an attacking recalibration that counted, on the whole, as a success.

John Meyler and colleagues recalibrate in defence via Stephen McDonnell’s return to right corner back at Seán O’Donoghue’s expense. Thunderous victory over Limerick in the round robin’s second outing raised Rebel hopes of a defensive platform that could support an All Ireland push. The round robin’s two subsequent outings indicated that so strong a defensive showing was a once off.

The story of Cork’s remaining summer centres on whether attacking speed can staunch defensive bleed. Kilkenny might allow this tourniquet but Limerick latitude is far harder to descry.

Fair play, and then some, to the All Ireland Champions for becoming Munster Champions. They rebuffed doubters. Even though Tipperary went down to double digit defeat, the margin did not flatter the winners. Limerick’s 1-7 without reply during the final quarter left Tipperary quite as exposed as any Love Island contestant.

I thought Premier goal power might negotiate a win, that prior wristy finesse deserved credit. I was wrong. Although Tipperary still raised two green flags (and could easily have managed at least one more), their white flag return collapsed from mid twenties into mid teens.

Tipp’s goal-scoring potential survived being outworked in middle third. Tipp’s point-scoring potential did not. The latter facet will gimlet Leinster eyes. Limerick not only beat Tipperary but also drew up a template for beating Tipperary. Here was the day’s rawest rub.

Limerick’s template ― hurl like a rattlesnake in defence, like a python in midfield, like a viper in attack ― granted a fair bit to spare. Neither Dublin nor Laois, stating the necessary obvious, possess the champions’ power and venom. But and but… Dublin could produce a half forward line ― Cónal Keaney, Danny Sutcliffe, Éamonn Dillon ― in this vein. Where they lack present sharpness is midfield.

Darragh O’Connell is required there, plus a springer. Can they find someone to mark Dan McCormack or Niall O’Meara and push Chris Crummey forward from wing back?

Certain Tipp supporters shelter in a line of soft thought: beating Dublin or Laois and Wexford delivers a Senior Final. The more thoughtful ones are already wondering about the value of reaching this stage if radical alterations are not made. Longstanding reservations ― James Barry’s nous at full back, Pádraic Maher’s mobility at centre back, Noel McGrath’s stomach in battle, John O’Dwyer’s appetite for application ― returned red in tooth.

Tipperary were not merely trounced on the afternoon. Management’s macro decisions for the season got scoured.

What radical alterations, so? Liam Sheedy, as returning manager, had gone all in on 2019. If August does not see a 28th Senior title, what of 2020? Tipperary would be searching for half a team. How often does a county win the All Ireland with six to eight newcomers or near newcomers?

Mucho alteration for the coming All Ireland quarter final would look like panic. Softly softly could look like fear of the bench. Tipp suddenly find themselves in a wholly different swell of feeling. They will be vulnerable unless well ahead at halftime.

Limerick and Wexford can wait and prepare. Last weekend’s hurling made the little fish piranhas. This weekend’s hurling grants knockout without suspense. Barring an earthquake, Cork will beat Westmeath and Dublin will beat Laois.

Then the deadly fun starts.

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