The night the hurling world tilts on its axis

Tomorrow evening’s Leinster semi-final could end up an axis tilt, writes PM O’Sullivan.

The night the hurling world tilts on its axis

Most hurling results retain precious little implication. Not tomorrow. What happens between Wexford and Kilkenny will be relentlessly analysed. If Kilkenny lose, this championship gets hailed as the most open one in 20 years.

The spotlight is on Wexford’s resurgence. Last year, Davy Fitzgerald arrived as manager. Fitzgerald always brings certain virtues, organisation and its cognates, and he led them to promotion from Division 1B. Along the way, Wexford beat Kilkenny by five points in their NHL quarter final, convincing winners even in Nowlan Park.

Much credit is due, given how lengthy was the road before this turn. Following 2004’s victory for Wexford, the counties met in the Leinster Championship six times in 12 seasons. Wexford’s average margin of defeat is 13 points. They lost the 2007 All-Ireland semi-final by 10 points. Those figures are cold, eloquent, without any mention of sundry league drubbings.

Wexford’s upsurge, in this context, is remarkable. Yet, there is another angle. Interviewed last April, wing-back Diarmuid O’Keeffe remarked: “I would have always felt the quality of players was always there. Yes, he [Davy Fitzgerald] has had a massive impact, but the players have always been there.”

Correct. Wexford underperformed seriously during much of this decade.

Local word has Kilkenny launching four debutants: Joe Lyng, Jason Cleere, Paddy Deegan, and Chris Bolger. There is belief that Ger Aylward and Michael Fennelly are fit to resume (and maybe even Pádraig Walsh). On the day, Kilkenny should enjoy a measure of freshness.

Before the day, management face a decision on countering Wexford’s structure. Barring a major swerve, Shaun Murphy will act as seventh defender, with Aidan Nolan and Jack O’Connor in midfield. Five forwards, plus Duine Workrate, comprise their attack.

Unless Kilkenny push up a seventh attacker, Brian Cody nominates his own spare defender. Is there a clear plan? With Joe Lyng at corner-back, the governing idea might be him switching to wing back, freeing up Cillian Buckley.

Buckley looks the most suitable candidate. The deliveries of Paul Murphy, given this role in the past, are too frequently more Cape Canaveral than Cape Clear.

Spare man clearances must be stamped with finesse, short to a midfielder or in front of a half forward. High clearances that allow an opposition half back a nudge on his man, sending the ball to Shaun Murphy, lose two ways.

An arresting aspect of that NHL quarter final? Kilkenny pushing up seven on seven at times during the second half. Jonjo Farrell specifically marked Shaun Murphy for a spell. Again, on occasion, a seventh forward was pushed up on Kilkenny’s own puckout, negating the sweeper.

We shall see these gambits. And Wexford’s response, if they fall behind. Does persisting with a sweeper work in light of a four-point deficit?

Yes, here is possible axis tilt. If Kilkenny win, they will be back to having never been away, despite what John Mullane and Liam Sheedy might have claimed. So much of hurling politics is the politics of the last game.

If Wexford win… If Wexford win, 2010’s ash cloud over Iceland will be as nothing to what will erupt. That win would raise not just Model confidence levels, but every county’s intent for this season and well beyond.

Believe it or not, Kilkenny need their own confidence boost. If there is the young brigade, there is likewise the established crew, striving to recover championship mojo after last September’s experience against Tipperary. Do not underestimate this factor. A Kilkenny win would leave them really dangerous in 2017 and beyond, but a loss would likely raise more questions than are currently treatable with answers. Young talent is not truly talent until it is confident talent.

All in all, Kilkenny should muster enough. Wexford might be a bit short at corner back.

Likewise to be assessed is Wexford’s discipline. Under Fitzgerald’s management, Clare left an amount to be desired. This weekend, is it difficult to imagine TJ Reid riveting a penalty at a key moment?

Last weekend, Clare saw off Limerick by four points in underwhelming fashion. While the result surprised few observers, the winners were expected to perform rather better. A friend, neutral in the matter, texted afterwards: “Limerick trying to hurl like Mary I. Tippy tappy feckology. Clare not much better. Closer to lacrosse than hurling.” Hard to dissent. Last weekend lacked hurling’s tensile qualities. Remember Limerick pinning Kilkenny right to the wire in 2014’s elemental All-Ireland semi-final? Kilkenny and Tipp produced two games for the pantheon in the subsequent decider. Back then, Limerick hovered near wondrous altitudes.

How did they disimprove so much, two minor All-Ireland final appearances and an U21 All-Ireland later? The query should be put. Everything is a boggle, including the conditioning of certain Limerick players. As of 2017, their minimum requirements are a goalkeeper, a corner-back, a full-back, a midfielder, a centre-forward, a corner-forward, and a captain.

I broached last week how little we know about Clare. The last three seasons put them hurling behind a curtain, obscured by brouhaha about sweeper systems, PR consultants and whatever else. You name it, we heard it, down to the travails of little fish.

As of 2017, we know a bit more. Clare remain unsure in the goalkeeping stakes. They are pinched for pace in defence. Conor Cleary at centre-back, fronted by two skillsters at centre-field, will not prevent dangerous sortees through the middle. There is a mismatch up front, especially at half-forward, between craft and graft. Granite calls lie await for Dónal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor.

Still, Clare are coming to the brow of a hill. They have a Munster final, prospects, and room to improve. Limerick need to take a long unimpressed look at themselves in some mirror before spooling off into the qualifiers. They have scant prospects without a scatter of improvements.

Next Sunday morning, Kilkenny and Wexford may own a similarly bifurcated perspective.

If Wexford win, 2010’s ash cloud over Iceland will be as nothing to what will erupt

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