Falling off a perch, as one TD recently discovered, makes for vulnerability in unforeseeable ways.
Ask Limerick’s management and hurlers. There they were, way up high, NHL title added to All Ireland title. Their whirling style, founded on three card trick hurling around midfield, drew intense plaudits over spring and early summer.
Jackie Tyrrell might have hesitated about placing the county in Ireland’s top three teams. Yet a later column implied cancellation of the caveat. Tyrrell deemed Limerick’s core emphasis ― “flood the middle third” ― an approach hard to counter.
There was more. Writing in a remarkable article entitled ‘Green Monster: what can your team learn from Limerick’s 2018 hurling machine?’, Brian McDonnell advanced the All Ireland Champions as the game’s future: “In traditional, no-tactics hurling you lump the ball towards where the inside forward already is, but the secret to Limerick’s brilliance is that they play the ball to where an inside forward is going to be.”
Heady stuff before ever a summer ball is pucked…
Now we wonder whether Tyrrell’s earlier verdict was that odd, whether McDonnell jumped a card sharp. Which or whether, Limerick are on the floor, facing an all but do or die occasion. The visit to Waterford might push 2019’s chances into the ground. Lose and they are mostly done.
Dynamics have swung.
The first weekend’s hurling raised fears that the suspense factor, so strong in last year’s provincial championships, might not apply this summer. Nay worry. The second weekend’s hurling levered both provincial championships not so much back into the stalls, with thriving teams at a remove, as into a mosh pit.
Results dictate a crush. Until now, who would have doubted qualification for last year’s Senior finalists, Galway and Limerick? Right now, both counties are swaying towards this scenario.
Limerick can impugn nothing except a drop in their application. Two weekends back, Cork arrived in the Gaelic Grounds, all but last legs, and went away with a swing in their step, two points gathered. So far, Cork’s statement is this season’s most powerful one. They went to the well and the bucket came up heavy.
Do not underestimate this statement’s weight. One county established a new touchstone for itself, back to wall, everything on the line. The rise in Rebel performance levels between Tipperary at home and Limerick away made willpower a dial. Their defence in particular redeemed itself, following a horror show in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
You can talk tactics until the bull comes home. You can imply hurling should be played by algorithm. Certain hurling days are like a blade.
Comes a time, as Neil Young has it. Came the time for Cork, that fortnight back.
Their players ensured each individual action had an aftermath, hung in the air, an intensification of usual service. Support sharpened, niggles got nigglier, tackles got tightened, eyes narrowed.
Everything got upped. Cork essentially played reverb hurling, emphasizing passion, the staying power of passion. Think Neil Young on ‘Cortez the Killer’.
Watching highlights that evening, I was struck by the way the Cork players greeted each other afterwards on the pitch. Few embraces and hugs were on view. Their respect for each other led on cool implacability, which augurs well.
Cork had come through, still joined to 11 decades of forebears in the jersey, each decade with at least one Senior title. The county won 1919’s All Ireland Final, 16 seasons without one. 1919 was their sole victory during the 1910s.
Can the county win 2019’s All Ireland Final, 14 seasons without one? Sometimes your name is on something.
Limerick travel to Walsh Park, chastened seven point losers, same as Cork travelled to the Gaelic Grounds. The latter found an answer. Will the former unsheathe a riposte?
While the stakes are not 11 decades of continuity, there is a considerable pride factor. Supporters discern more than one Senior title in this panel ― maybe far more. Deep down, they believe hurling involves a ‘Big Four’ rather than a ‘Big Three’. For them, the coming decade must scroll this message.
Loss to Cork undermined such hopes. I was in the Gaelic Grounds. The home supporters I met beforehand were strikingly confident. Afterwards, they seemed stunned.
Limerick do not need reverb. What they need is a better rhythm section, a back to basics stomp. Think Keith Moon and John Entwistle on The Who’s ‘My Generation’, that hymn to young menace. Limerick need to hit Walsh Park like Rockers, concentrating on ferocity and force, and leave Walsh Park like Mods, resplendent with renewed confidence.
This occasion is about raw desire. There is only so much John Kiely and colleagues can do as management. Make no changes and panel shallowness will be indicted. Make a host of challenges and panic will be discerned. Kiely has opted for two new faces, Paddy O’Loughlin for Diarmaid Byrnes at wing back and William O’Donoghue for Darragh O’Donovan in midfield.
That fortnight back, Limerick’s half backs and half forwards were where the rhythm stuttered. Cohesiveness disappeared because the Cork half forwards staunched at source much of their direct opponents’ input. Once the Limerick half forwards’ workrate diminished, their half backs’ ability to supply quality ball atrophied.
Telling contrast: Cork’s starting half forward line scored ten points from play; Limerick’s starting half forward line, two points. Faced with quicksilver attacks and roving forwards, Treaty defenders had to defend.
As Brian McDonnell’s admirably detailed article demonstrates, much of 2018’s defensive duties were sublet to the front eight. Once application to these duties fell, the team’s tally from play dropped in tandem.
The back six’s possession-supplying aspect got swamped by a tackle-applying demand.
Cian Lynch is Limerick’s sole virtuoso hurler in the front eight. Aaron Gillane might get there in time but only Lynch registers so at the moment. His form held up reasonably well against Cork.
Non virtuosos fall 50% if they fall 5%. Over to these guys tomorrow. If Limerick cannot carve out a clear win, talk of a Big Four will resettle, quite rightly, at its historical level.
Meanwhile Waterford look unusually vulnerable. Anyone interested in hurling heard the many stories of internal ruaille buaille. Their final quarter display against Tipperary indicated players who have already given up on this summer.
Here are two central questions. Are Waterford still responsive to the prompts of pride? Do some of the panel truly want to throw their manager a lifeline via an unexpected win? Meaning: do significant figures on the panel want to junk 2019 so as to find new management for 2020?
Part of the difficulty runs back to Pat Ryan’s refusal of this job last year. The Cork native had first dibs on the position but apparently felt he would be going into a difficult post as regards player input. This situation was similar in ways to Gerald McCarthy succeeding John Allen as Cork manager.
As it is, Páraic Fanning makes three changes. The excellent Darragh Fives is named at wing back. The lively Jack Prendergast, named at midfield, likely goes into the forwards. Kevin Moran, one of my favourite hurlers over the last ten years, looks leaden legged but may well slot into midfield. Conor Gleeson has been benched.
Up front, Maurice Shanahan starts. Rumour says Austin Gleeson, whose talent is not being matched by his influence, switches to centre back. If so, Waterford’s difficulty with puckout targets moves into the red zone.
The main problem, which dictated the previous regime’s use of seven defenders, lies in constructing a serviceable half forward line. Pauric Mahony, for instance, likes to forage deep and be sped 25 yard passes. If such deliveries are not forthcoming, Mahony gets caught in no man’s land.
Item: Ballyhale Shamrocks’ victory over Ballygunner in last February’s All Ireland semi final pivoted on the last quarter. During this period, the Kilkenny club’s half backs harvested unchallenged possession because the Waterford club were essentially hurling without a half forward line.
Ballygunner are five in a row Senior Champions. To no one’s surprise, the dominant club’s dilemma is the intercounty team’s dilemma. Waterford’s half forward line tomorrow will probably comprise Mikey Kearney, Maurice Shanahan (or Stephen Bennett) and Pauric Mahony. This roster seems a displacement of the dilemma rather than its solution.
To be fair, there is no obvious remedy. The traditional virtues of half forward play are going the same way as the corncrake, supplanted by a supposedly more sophisticated world. Dearth at club level will continue to ramify at intercounty level.
Everything is set up for Limerick’s chariot.
Tipperary are riding high at the minute. But even this county, the most impressive outfit thus far, are not guaranteed qualification. Their away game with Clare looks a defining moment.
Were the home side to win, Tipperary qualification would require defeat of Limerick in the final round. Who could presume anything when the All Ireland Champions might be laying their title on the line? Tipperary will want a Munster Final berth booked before that contest.
Liam Sheedy has gone all in on 2019. His side need to win this All Ireland and let revel take hindmost. Should Tipperary not triumph next August, serious rebuilding ensures in 2020, with a 28th Senior title further away than at any point during this decade.
For the moment, Sheedy’s return is being lauded. Some of Tipperary’s hurling against Cork and Waterford was gorgeous and imperious, an eagle on its thermals. For 2019, the question is not whether Tipp are good enough. The question is whether Tipp are young enough, fresh enough, for a seven or an eight game campaign.
I wonder whether their issues at goalkeeper and full back are solved. As the third quarter against Waterford demonstrated, Brian Hogan is capable of head staggers. James Barry remains, with no compelling option in sight, a makeshift full back. Corner back Alan Flynn counts as a tyro.
Again, Cathal Barrett looks terrific coming onto ball, lancing out of defence. But how consistent is his defending when an opponent gains possession? Equally, impetuousness in the tackle meant he could have been sent off against Cork. Quite often, Barrett attacks the ball from the wrong angle. He is also far more comfortable in the right corner than in the left one, which becomes a factor if he moves over to mark Shane O’Donnell.
John Conlon is nicely equipped to expose Barry’s uncertainties. O’Donnell, with his high stepping Cossack style hurling, can break more than glasses. Podge Collins, probably pursued by Flynn, will scoot around, dependent on how cleverly his half backs pick him out.
This outing is wing forward Diarmuid Ryan’s debut. Serious Clare fillip, if he thrives. The governing idea is Ryan as a Gearóid Hegarty type figure, devouring ground in middle third.
The Cratloe clubman operates off a higher skill base than the St Patrick’s clubman and stands as a prospect. But Hegarty took a couple of seasons to find wing forward feet. Expecting a fully formed Ryan to appear tomorrow is a massive ask ― especially if he is on Brendan Maher.
Peter Duggan is a proven operator after last season. While he has legs on both Pádraic Maher and Rónan Maher, Duggan still faces a substantial challenge. Against these two men, his fetching ability offers less advantage than over many other half backs.
Tony Kelly is the original false 11, a centre forward who spends little time in this position’s theatre of war. His brief is relentless activity, space-opening movement, avoidance of low percentage pots at goal. Going well, Kelly touches hurling parts other cavaliers cannot reach.
The upside of this false 11 is his threat to the scoreboard ― especially if the first couple of shots go over. The downside is Pádraic Maher sitting deep, monstering possession and initiating incisive attacks.
A major part of Tipperary’s strong suit is the Maher brothers’ input as score makers. Reducing their contribution should lessen score takers’ impact. Then again, as every schoolchild knows, Tipp currently possess by far the best score takers.
There would be logic in placing Duggan and Ryan on the Maher brothers, leaving Tony Kelly to Brendan Maher. If the latter follows the former outfield, the remaining forwards gain space (particularly if Podge Collins and a companion are gone from right corner).
A Clare win resets the championship. The first grey feather would have appeared in Tipperary’s summer plumage.
How possible is this outcome? The core Banner faults remain wilful fouling and wayward shooting. Until these flaws alleviate, their case will always be uncertain, whatever the occasion.
Tomorrow’s pattern should hinge on creativity at half back. How creative can we dub a trio of Cathal Malone, Jack Browne (or Conor Cleary) and David Fitzgerald? There is the nub.
Malone should be a sound marker for Patrick ‘Bonnar’ Maher or Niall O’Meara. David Fitzgerald will make life hard for Jason Forde or whomever. Jack Browne or Conor Cleary will hold the centre. But how many score-getting moves will they initiate?
You could anticipate Colm Galvin and Shane Golden, harriers as much as carriers, outdoing Michael Breen and Noel McGrath at midfield. You could envisage both John Conlon and Shane O’Donnell weighing in with a goal, a scenario that might foster a Clare win by something like 2-21 to 1-23.
Last month’s Munster hurling points in the other direction. As matters stand, the Tipperary half backs are more apt to produce killer clearances. Unless Clare manage a tight staunch at half forward, this influence means Tipperary scoring one more goal and at least a couple of extra points.
The other game sees Carlow host Dublin. Barring peculiar events, the visitors garner the points. But what will they learn? Probably the obvious lesson, that their forward line badly misses Dónal Burke and Mark Schutte. No county is less able to absorb natural forwards’ absence.
For them, Galway are up next. A win in Parnell Park would put Dublin, at worst, in last six. Momentum is needed and goals are needed and their midfield remains a serious problem.
Being honest, Leinster feels paused until Kilkenny host Galway next weekend. This game will be a dinger. A home win would offer Kilkenny’s new team the sort of boost that might deliver them, this time eight weeks, an All Ireland semi final. An away win would refloat Galway’s currach.
Given time, Kilkenny’s hand of cards might contain more trumps. Both Cillian Buckley and Richie Hogan came through a full club hour. James Maher got half an hour. Conor Delaney, Joey Holden and Eoin Murphy are not far off.
This is as close as any day can ever be. We rebound to riffs and reverb and beat. We come back to mentioning second album syndrome, the difficulty of following up unexpected triumph and thunderous joy. Limerick require their own version of implacability.
Perches offer nice views but a hard fall. Places of music, nightclubs and so on, are an eternal case in point. What better comparison is there with the crowd’s heave, with players’ passion, than live music?
Both arenas push the same truth: you have to perform. Now must it be done, the only time it can ever be done. And there are no guarantees, based on what went before, however lofty the last elevation.
Music and passion, as one TD recently discovered, can involve a swing becoming a career roundabout.