When we were finishing up our work in UL with the Limerick Academy last Saturday, Tipperary were coming on after us at 1pm. They looked extremely business-like. It’s the attitude you’d expect from All-Ireland champions, but I also thought their presence was a silent statement of intent from Mick Ryan and about how serious they are about this evening’s fixture against Dublin in Croke Park.
Pitches are always an issue at this time of year. The Limerick minors are playing Tipperary in the championship in April and we’re already getting anxious about training on a grass field. We couldn’t get in anywhere on Tuesday night and ended up on the astroturf pitch in Rathkeale. You understand that it’s probably the same for Tipp’s minors and seniors. They probably have Dr Morris Park cut to ribbons, especially when the footballers train there too, but to me, going to UL was an acclimatisation exercise for Croke Park this evening.
Before last year’s All-Ireland minor semi-final and final, when pitches were good, when clubs were mad keen to invite us in to train, and when we always had access to the Gaelic Grounds, we still brought the lads to UL for a couple of sessions. The astroturf surface gives a false sense of security at this time of the year, especially on your first touch. On most grass pitches in February, wet balls get lodged in muck and dirt. The balls ping off the astroturf in UL like golf balls slamming against concrete, but that’s similar to the surface in Croke Park the whole time, whatever the weather. There is certainly no other pitch like it at this time of the season.
Tipp are hot favourites with the bookies. The handicap on the winning scoreline also looks a little disrespectful to Dublin but I’m sure Mick Ryan has tried to address all those insidious little arrows of complacency that have wounded Tipp the season after winning an All-Ireland. Complacency might not have always been the reason but, whatever has been, failing to retain the All-Ireland is a trend that has lasted for over half a century.
From my experience as a player, it’s only natural that All-Ireland success will blunt your edge the following spring. During the early part of the 1996 league, the Clare half-back line of myself, Seanie McMahon and Liam Doyle looked more like the Munster front-row after all we’d consumed on the circuit that winter. And Claw and the Munster boys were no small men back then.
The whole attitude towards preparation and strength and conditioning has changed dramatically now. Modern inter-county players are strong and fit 12 months of the year. Nobody comes back out of shape now but body fat is a lot easier to measure than attitude and mindset. Any mental slackness can come back to haunt you down the line when the real heat comes on.
Gobbling up leagues never did Kilkenny any harm when they were hoovering up All-Irelands, which is something I’m sure Mick Ryan will have taken note of. While most people may not have noticed, I was really impressed with the Tipp lads when I was manager of the Munster interprovincial team before Christmas. There was no giddiness with them. They backboned the team. They were solid and steady and that’s the type of attitude that’s needed to kick on and fulfil the massive potential within this squad.
Mick won’t want to completely throw out all his All-Ireland winning team in the early stages of the spring. He will want to try a few new guys, and put it up to a few established fellas, that making this team is no guarantee, that the standard of last September is the only benchmark for Tipp going forward.
Meeting that challenge head-on will be a huge test for Dublin. Missing the Cuala players robs an already diminished panel of even more of the kind of worldliness and savvy that you need to cut it in Division 1A. Still, they had a good Walsh Cup. They lined out in one game with four of last year’s minor team (watch out for Dónal Burke, a top class prospect) which is unprecedented for any county at this level. Despite the talk of unrest coming up to Christmas, they seem to be a very united camp.
They went to an army camp recently down in Waterford, high up in the Knockmealdown Mountains, a beautiful spot on a summer’s day but in January a different prospect. Word has it this young squad worked savagely hard, which will surely stand to them when the going gets tough, which it will throughout this spring.
It’s important for the Dubs to start well. Getting a trimming from Tipp in the first round last year didn’t derail the rest of their campaign, but this is a far less experienced team and it might not be as easy to recover, especially if the Cuala boys don’t return until late March.
When I was with them, I always felt that there was never a day when Dublin couldn’t afford to be going well. There was a feelgood factor. It was easier to train. That is the mindset in some counties. It’s different for counties like Tipperary, but Dublin aren’t Tipperary. Dublin will hope to perform this evening but I expect Tipp to win.
Cork-Clare later at 7pm is an intriguing match. Their Munster league form indicates Cork have trained really hard. They need to try and win their two home games in the next seven days and I’m sure the focus Gary Keegan will have brought to that target will be fully evident tonight. From having worked with Gary in the past, I thought getting him on board was a massive statement from Cork from the get-go.
Clare have a couple of notable absentees but the presence of Jack Browne and the mercurial Tony Kelly give a much stronger look to the Banner line up (the Ballyea club have been extraordinarily generous to Clare GAA in the last two weekends).
Davy Fitzgerald contributed so much as manager but it probably was the time to hand the baton on. There are lads back on board and there seems to be a huge vibe coming from the camp that the buzz is back. We will all be fascinated to see what changes in tactics and style of play that Gerry O’Conner and Donal Moloney introduce.
Dónal Óg Cusack returning with Clare to Cork also adds an extra dimension. I’m not sure if home advantage is really a big factor here. Páirc Uí Rinn is tight, which doesn’t always suit some of Cork’s pacy forwards, especially when Clare will be keen to bring a physicality to the match. All the pressure to perform is on Cork. How will they cope? This is not the Munster league. Clare to come away with the points.
I fancy Kilkenny in Nowlan Park tomorrow. I expect them to be more up to speed after winning the Walsh Cup last weekend whereas Waterford didn’t really road-test a strong team until last Sunday’s challenge game in Doon. Derek McGrath may feel his squad are fresh and ready now but I always believed you needed to be somewhat battle-hardened when facing Kilkenny in early February.
ilkenny haven’t gone away. I’m sure Brian Cody has spent the last few weeks putting it up to lads about jerseys being up for grabs. They have heard it all before but it never sounds hollow because he is always true to his word. You can imagine how pumped and sore he still is since last September. He’ll be goading his players to ram it down the throats of every critic who said last September was a defining point for this Kilkenny team and I expect them to start that process tomorrow.
Last Saturday, I met Jim Bob Ryan, the new Limerick captain. He was in giving a hand with the U14s in the Limerick Academy. I asked him if they were ready for Wexford. “We’d want to be,” was his reply. “It’s definitely gone up a notch, hasn’t it?”
Wexford have huffed and puffed in Division 1B over the last five years, never really threatening to get promoted. They had an outside chance going into their last game in 2015 and then Waterford put them back in their box. Last year, they were lucky not to find themselves in a relegation play-off to drop to Division 2A.
The whole dynamic though, has changed with Davy Fitz’s arrival in town. They have trained savagely hard. Expectation has already gone through the roof. Wexford Park tomorrow should be electric. The crowd could resemble a championship match. If I wasn’t heading to Nowlan Park, I’d probably continue driving further south to take in one of the most intriguing matches of the weekend.
It’s been a long time since you could say that about a match involving Wexford, but a win for them tomorrow could blow the division wide open. Heading into a sixth season in 1B ramps up the pressure even more on Limerick but I think John Kiely will be given some leeway with a young squad and that most of the heat in this division will be on Michael Donoghue and Galway, who will see promotion as a baseline target. I fancy wins for Galway, Wexford and Laois.
Whatever happens, it’s just magic to be back again. Even if, outside of Croke Park, we’ll be watching sliotars stuck in dirt and muck, getting frustrated with multiple rucks and schemozzles. And listening to some lads in the stands roaring like Butty Brennan and Roundy Mooney from D’Unbelievables: ‘Will ye fecking pull hard lads!’