Wexford and Laois in the league quarter-finals, huh? It’s like it’s 1996 all over again. With one slight change. League quarter-finals rarely made a whole lot of difference back then. They can make a whole lot of difference now. They matter all right.
Tomorrow’s fixtures matter to Wexford and Laois because they give them a floor to show that, if they can’t quite beat the big boys, then at least they’re within hailing distance of them once more. The one in Portlaoise matters to the Clare players, the established lads as well as the aspirants, because they have championship places to strive for. The one in Wexford matters to Brian Cody because even games of backs and forwards matter to Brian Cody.
Granted, maybe the one at the Gaelic Grounds doesn’t matter all that much to Galway, or at any rate in four months’ time will, in that supremely Galwayesque of ways, have proven to be of absolutely no relevance whatsoever to the county’s championship prospects. The next financial institution running an ad campaign should just put up a Galway team photo in place of the obligatory “Past performance is no guarantee of future results” disclaimer. But be sure that, for a myriad of very obvious reasons, tomorrow matters to Limerick.
The one in Thurles matters to Cork because, as Jimmy Barry-Murphy acknowledged after the Wexford match last Sunday, they need to up the pace of their game and they need to see if the newcomers in the full-back line float. And it matters to Tipperary because they cannot afford to do a recent Manchester United on it and follow an encouraging win with an immediate reversion to bad habits. They’re managed by Eamon O’Shea, not Eamon Moyes.
As of this morning, then, a novel Sunday afternoon awaits, one bringing with it shades of election results day, with updates and first counts pinging in from all over the place.
Clearly there’s a danger things could go badly wrong for Wexford and Laois, the more so in view of the scutching the latter sustained at Cusack Park in the qualifiers last summer.
Yet here’s the thing. If both counties aspire to a better quality of life than the one known to them in recent years then they have to realise that regular meetings with the Clares and the Kilkennys come with the territory. The medicine may taste vile but it has to be swallowed nonetheless.
Laois, whose rise under the immensely admirable Seamus Plunkett has been, give or take Mount Leinster Rangers, the most heartening hurling story of the past 12 months, are not yet back where they were in 1996, but their journey back to relevance and respectability is well under way. Besides, having deployed a seventh defender so frequently on Plunkett’s watch they ought to have some notion of how to make it hard for Clare to cut a swathe through them.
Wexford too are playing with a loaded deck, and they’re not the ones who loaded it. A 2012 study found that across a 10-year period 4,050 Kilkenny boys would play Leinster Colleges A hurling, whereas only 1,350 Wexford boys would do so. Those skies have lightened somewhat with the long-overdue establishment of the combined Wexford Colleges team, but you get the point.
The latest instalment of Munster’s El Clasico is a bigger match for Tipperary than it is for Cork, if only because the consequences of defeat are graver for the former after they stopped the rot against Dublin and snapped the pattern of one really bad half per outing. Were Cork to lose tomorrow the league will be dismissed as an irrelevance that contained the silver lining of promotion, with the games themselves quickly forgotten. Were Tipp to lose tomorrow the league may be dismissed as an irrelevance — but the games won’t be quickly forgotten about. Only a place in the semi-final will balance the books.
The Cork full-back line has a disturbingly callow look about it, but if JBM wasn’t prepared to experiment tomorrow then when would he be prepared? For the record, Tipp have won only one of the last 10 league meetings of the sides, on February 14, 2009, the evening of the official switch-on of Semple Stadium’s floodlights. Valentine’s Night does not get more romantic (in Thurles). And your stat for today: Patrick Horgan has averaged 10.33 points a game in his last three outings versus Tipp.
Collapsing over the finishing line against Laois, as they did six days ago, constituted splendid quarter-final preparation for Limerick. Though their free-taking still appears a problem, the outcome at the Gaelic Grounds will say more about Galway — or rather, it’ll say nothing about Galway we haven’t heard a million times before — than it will about the hosts. That little girl in the maroon gúna with the little curl right in the middle of her forehead: will she be good? Will she be very, very good? Or will she simply be horrid?
Some other questions likely to arise tomorrow as follows. Does Brendan Maher have the presence for centre-back? At what stage will Alan Cadogan get a shot at building on his three-point cameo as a sub for Cork last Sunday? Are Galway intent on assembling an inordinately big forward line? How will Lee Chin cope for hurling, as opposed to athleticism, against Kilkenny?
At the end of it all expect Clare to win with a bit in hand, Kilkenny to win after they’ve been made to work for it and, solely because it’s Galway they’re facing, Limerick to make home advantage tell. As for Semple Stadium, be honest: nobody can call it.
Oh yeah. Those 1996 league quarter-finals. Laois beat Kilkenny in one, which didn’t count for much in the long run. Wexford, wildly unaccustomed to wins against opponents of substance in knockout matches, beat Offaly in the other. Although they’d go on to lose to Galway in the semi-final, defeat there didn’t efface the benefits of beating Offaly — benefits they took heart from, benefits they nurtured, benefits that saw them all the way through to September. Turns out the league quarter-finals could matter back then. They can matter even more now.
Reward for seeing off both Clare and Kilkenny? A relegation play-off for Dublin. Reward for getting hammered by both Clare and Kilkenny? A relegation play-off for Waterford, with home advantage.
Forget Tipp and Cork; this is the biggest game of the day because it’s the most meaningful one. If momentum counts for anything, Dublin will still be plying their trade in the top flight next season.