Summer hurling’s opening weekend threw up killer lines.
Pun entirely intended. Most of the time, May is there to sharpen June’s knife. The chop comes later. Right now, expect butchery in blossomtime.
Could even be this weekend. Tomorrow Cork go to Limerick and Waterford go to Thurles along a rocky Munster road. Doubled pun intended. These lines of travel are tantamount to a point of no return.
Why duck hard possibilities? Another loss sends home Cork and Waterford along a route mined with recriminations and excuses. Both counties’ chance of progressing from Munster would be burnt toast, dependent on a lucky scrape of results.
Players are not great to look at themselves when responsibility is being portioned. Given this line of return, there would be plenty of voices whispering about John Meyler and Páraic Fanning.
Another loss… The Rebel dream of a Senior title in every decade since the 1880s all but vanishes. Diarmuid O’Sullivan has been giving it holly on this front, quite the while. Cork’s sense of its own tradition is becoming rockier.
This readjustment would be like an amputation. The battle over which new manager could offer the best prosthesis shapes like intense drama.
Another loss… The Déise dream of a first Senior title in six decades fades to grey. The Ballygunner contingent would be keen on Fergal Hartley as the next manager ― sooner rather than later.
Nor would anyone, in such a scenario, bet a farthing on next season as so different for the two counties. So drastic a lapse in 2019 could only leave people clear sighted about 2020. Both panels would be facing a serious clearout, as of autumntime ― unless a new manager granted an amnesty. For certain players, even in defeat, here is a career percentage.
What challenge can Cork mount in the Gaelic Grounds? Management made four changes, including two newcomers in the half back line. This situation is fraught, since any defence needs time operating together as a unit before optimum impact can be reached.
An asterisk is Tim O’Mahony’s demotion as centre back. He was meant to be Mark Ellis’ replacement as pivot, thoroughbred horse instead of serviceable cart. Now Ellis re-enters the frame, simultaneously undermined and promoted. Hardly an auspicious dynamic.
Robert Downey, a promising hurler, gets in at right half back. Last weekend, Christopher Joyce, often Cork’s most reliable defender in recent seasons, looked weary and sluggish. Debuting in a sextet nowhere near being a unit must be as difficult as it gets. Downey clicks as the real deal if he can meet this demand.
To be honest, I hear the cry of the banshee when I watch Cork’s defensive play. Calamity hangs in the air. Tipperary’s first goal last Sunday, beginning to net, ended up a farce of errors.
The obvious negative was Tim O’Mahony needlessly losing possession. Snaffling the ball, Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher sent a torpedo handpass to Séamus Callanan, out right in space.
Did anyone clock far worse slips? As Callanan advanced, at no great pace, corner back Seán O’Donoghue gestured, wanting a colleague to pick up his man, John McGrath, so that the man in possession could be challenged.
No one heeded the signal. Three players instead ran towards the wrong Tipperary man.
By the time O’Donoghue went across, Callanan had a lock on goal and netted with ruthless aplomb. Worse again, the cavalry had dawdled so much that McGrath, preserved in splendid isolation, was able to meet the ball when it rebounded out off Anthony Nash’s bag.
You could say Tipperary shot a double goal because Cork’s tracking quit.
The amount of hot air that issues from the latter county about coaching could power a No Deal Brexit. Is there no native to coach the basics of backplay? No one who could prevent ballwatching and two defenders going to the same forward? Prevent lack of communication and shapelessness? Take a torch to laziness?
A banshee… Cork’s defence got so loose that by final whistle I was in mind of the weightless punchline to Waiting for Godot (1955), Samuel Beckett’s doomfest: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful!”
Eoin Cadogan and Niall O’Leary, Cork’s doughtiest defenders, should ensure this line is plastered all over tomorrow’s dressingroom. At the minute, around ten Cork hurlers could be nicknamed ‘Godot’. One of them is hardly Shane Kingston, which leaves his demotion an odd one. I guess Aidan Walsh, honest but a blunt instrument, is there to provide his version of cut.
You can go high up on tactics and low down on application. You can talk any amount of nice talk. Cork need a result.
Can they seize it? People claim tradition brightens their case. Perhaps, perhaps… But tradition is a courtesan, an endless accommodation alike of the attractive and the unattractive.
Taking on Limerick’s current crew centres on tracking runners from middle third. Beautiful instance: their masterpiece goal against Dublin in last March’s NHL semi final.
Diarmaid Byrnes rifles diagonally to Cian Lynch, roving out of midfield. He gathers possession, all velvet, and spots Séamus Flanagan, carving towards goal, all steel. Flanagan is given the ball and lifts the net out of it.
Are Cork geared to stifle this kind of creativity, velvet easing killer penetration? Not on present evidence. Equally, Limerick opted for but one change from last August’s All Ireland-winning team. If there are reasonable queries about Séamus Flanagan being benched, the champions’ defence is clearly a unit at this stage. They also field the country’s best defender in Seán Finn.
You can only advance, unmoved by tradition’s scents, Cork success as dependent on a drastic fall in Limerick’s performance levels over the last 12 months. Still, Patrick Horgan was all but a no show in last season’s All Ireland semi final. He possesses every class of motivation.
Like Cork, Waterford see four changes. Face value says Patrick Curran, Jack Prendergast and Thomas Ryan are unlikely to remedy the deficit in ball-winning ability up front. Even so, this trio are pacy; the Tipperary backline, anything but.
Unsettling Tipperary’s half back line requires proximate ballwinners who can pop balls to runners. Who are these ballwinners? Will Maurice Shanahan and Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh actually start?
Main Déise hope? That Jamie Barron and Conor Gleeson can better Michael Breen and Noel McGrath in midfield. Yet cold assessment moves in one direction. While Waterford might be better than against Clare, I doubt improvement sufficient unto a win.
Thanks to Cork’s Beckettian side, Tipperary are back feeling good about themselves. Once a birthright, this sensation now counts as luxury. This dynamic forever leaves the county, one and same time, dangerous and vulnerable.
There are times when Tipperary hurl like the least drunk individual in a riot. Those times, Tipp are irresistible, the best of all momentum teams. At the moment, they have the quickest wrists (and minds) but the slowest legs.
Time will tell whether last weekend’s tally of 2-28 is more significant than Cork’s 1-24. Back in 2016, when Tipperary ran up 2-29 in the Senior Final, Kilkenny’s 2-20 seemed negligible. The subsequent two seasons reweighted this emphasis. The next two months will involve similar calibrations.
Wexford head to Parnell Park. This contest has been glossed as hot versus cold, with the home side’s run out against Kilkenny a significant advantage. Yet Dublin came back from Nowlan Park, following a second half trimming, plagued by old concerns in new guises. Their defence is largely sound but their forwards remain unable to bear the weight of expectation and close attention.
Certain factors aside, I would fancy the visitors to win this contest. But you can never discount the sheer incoherence of how Wexford, under Davy Fitzgerald, approach matters. Although Dublin will field six good to excellent backs, Wexford will likely deploy five forwards. Much on will hinge on how efficiently Dublin’s spare defender (Darragh O’Connell?) uses possession.
Their midfield, with O’Connell not there, can look somewhat threadbare. Wexford might well dominate in this sector, leverage that would ordinarily parlay into a win. But nothing is ordinary or ordained when illogic, such as hurling with five forwards when wind assisted and down seven points, enters the picture.
Kilkenny travel a short Leinster road to Carlow for what counts as a novel occasion. Good luck to Colm Bonnar, home manager, one of the finest hurling men and with whom I had the pleasure of working while himself and Andy Moloney oversaw Ballyhale Shamrocks.
I travelled with a friend to Wexford Park for last March’s refixed NHL tie. We were frozen out of it and Kilkenny were blown out it by Wexford’s second half performance. The losers seemed further away than ever from figuring out the winners’ sweeper system.
Driving home, Tony said: “I won’t even drive to feckin’ Carlow in the summer to see those lads.” He is a diehard. And so…
Tony rang during the week: would I travel with him to Carlow? Would love to, I said, but will be in the Gaelic Grounds, Munster a go go. Fair enough, he said. Will ring and let you know who went well.
The Kilkenny public are back in a wary relationship with optimism. Barring an earthquake, their team will beat Carlow tomorrow. If so, the following home game with Galway becomes an opportunity to stick one foot in an All Ireland semi final.
Could be an amputation but so runs the gamble.