The buzz is back for hurling’s boys in blue

I was walking into Croke Park last Sunday when I heard some fella calling me.

The buzz is back for hurling’s boys in blue

I was walking into Croke Park last Sunday when I heard some fella calling me. “Hi Dalo.” I looked over and spotted a garda. “Jeez, what does some cop want with me?” I asked myself. Then I looked again. “Hedgo, how’s the form man,” I replied. “I’d recognise you in the helmet but not with the garda hat on.”

It was John Hetherton, the Dublin hurler, and son of my great friend, Ciaran ‘Hedgo’ Hetherton, a selector with me in Dublin for six years. The Hethertons are a great Dublin GAA family. Hedgo is a diehard Craobh Chiarán man but his wife Patsy is an even more fanatical St Vincent’s woman. So, before they got married, there was a prenuptial agreement — their first born, whether a boy or a girl, would play with Vincent’s and the rest of the family could play with the Craobh. The first-born just happened to be this big strapping fella, John. I remember going to a Craobh-Vincent’s championship match in 2014 and watching John and Kevin Hetherton playing on both sides. Hedgo was there with his mother, Phyllis, who was in her 80s. I spotted Patsy sitting on her own up against a wall in the shed in Parnell Park. Talk about nailing your colours to the mast.

They are an incredible family. I was talking to Fiona Coughlan, a Grand Slam rugby winner with Ireland a few years back, at a Renault brand ambassador gig last autumn. Fiona was still kicking a bit of ladies Gaelic football with Clontarf. They were in an Intermediate final so I mentioned Hedgo’s daughter, Niamh.

“Do you know her?” I asked Fiona.

“Niamh Hedge?” she replied. “She’s a legend. She’s up and down the pitch like a Duracell bunny.”

Niamh scored about three goals in that final. It’s no surprise now that she’s starting on the Dublin ladies football team. She’s still only 19 but it’s taken John a lot longer to get traction with the hurlers. When he was younger, he used to be around the Dublin panel carrying hurleys and water with Ray Finn, another massive character. He was emerging on the scene in my last couple of years and it was probably no harm for John that myself and his Dad moved on. He got onto the panel under Ger Cunningham and he’s made steady progress ever since under Pat Gilroy and Mattie Kenny. One of the reasons I didn’t recognise John on Sunday was because of how lean and mean he was looking. His body shape has completely changed since I last met him in the flesh before Christmas. John was always a big guy but his body has been chiseled out now into a strong and powerful frame.

We had a brief chat last Sunday about Dublin’s win against Tipperary the previous day. John said that when Tipp drew level, Dublin dug in and met them head on, and drove on to win the match. “Nobody was getting carried away afterwards,” said John. “But it was a bit like some of the great days Dublin had when I was helping out. The buzz was really back.”

It clearly is. It will be a tall order for Dublin to beat Limerick tomorrow but I think the performance is as important as the result. Dublin need to be pitching coming down the stretch, even if that means Limerick still pull away in the end. Dublin will be tactically astute because I know how sharp Mattie Kenny is on the line from closely observed him run the massive success story that has bred Cuala over the past four years. He’ll know full well how Limerick operate; they leave two inside in the full-forward line, Seamie Flanagan is allowed roam, which allows either Gearóid Hegarty, Kyle Hayes or Tom Morrissey to come out and play as a third midfielder, or as a fourth half-back.

Limerick don’t have any one set way of playing but that template forms much of their system, and how they operate it. I don’t know what Mattie will do but to me, that system should allow Eoghan O’Donnell out the field after Flanagan. Dublin are missing Cian O’Callaghan but, if O’Donnell does play deeper, Dublin have two speedy corner-backs behind him in Paddy Smyth and Daire Gray. If they attack the ball, and trust themselves against Aaron Gillane and whoever else is inside there, Dublin may be able to get the man deep on their side (obviously Sean Moran) to make the middle a real battle.

One of the main reasons Cork and Clare got a result against Limerick was because they turned that midfield sector in a warzone. Limerick will be ready for it but they’re also hurling with confidence at the moment. I don’t want to be harping back to the Limerick team of the 1990s but these boys are just different gravy. That Limerick team deserved to win an All-Ireland but there was every chance they’d have gone off the rails if they had. These boys won’t. They don’t want to retire on one All-Ireland medal and I don’t think they will.

You saw that confidence and belief with Ballyhale Shamrocks last weekend. They are winners. They expect to win. You can’t compare cultures after just one senior All-Ireland but these Limerick boys seem to have a similar mindset now; most of them have won Harty Cups, Munster minors, All-Ireland U21s, a share of them have All-Ireland club medals, and now an All-Ireland senior.

They are winners. They expect to win. So why not go after a first National League title for 22 years?

Limerick have been consistently winning even when leaving a load of nailed-on-starters on the bench but they’ll field a strong team tomorrow. Limerick will be fresh too after not having had a game last weekend. Dublin will rattle them but Limerick should advance.

Despite there being no relegation from 1A or promotion from 1B, it’s no real surprise that three of the four semi-finalists have come from the latter section. It allows those teams to experiment with personnel and tactics, while also building momentum,

and Waterford are a prime example of how 1B can provide that luxury. They’ve been able to tweak their system under a new manager, try new players, and build confidence in the process of winning plenty of games.

That has been obvious through the scores they’ve been putting up. Stephen Bennett, a guy who never nailed down a permanent spot under the previous management, is their top scorer. Most of those scores have come from frees but Bennett has clearly embraced the responsibility and is thriving on a new lease of life.

The team seems to have got a huge lift from the decision to stage their two home championship matches in Walsh Park. There weren’t exactly massive crowds there for their last two matches but the supporters won’t be long coming back if the team keep performing like they have been.

I’m a huge admirer of Derek McGrath. His level of thinking on the game is mind-blowing but I often wonder at times if he slightly overthinks it. Some people are lining up to say that Waterford were playing with the handbrake on over the last few years but and I wouldn’t agree with that. Derek got this group thinking and acting and playing differently and, if they’re playing more orthodox and more attacking hurling now, it will only be the summer before Paraic Fanning and the Waterford style can be fully judged. Munster will be a bearpit again but, unless Waterford make that top three, they won’t have made any progress from 2018.

At least their spring progression has been more positive from last year but you can’t really compare the two leagues given the change in mindset around this campaign, and when Waterford were in a highly competitive 1A last season. The players are there and they’re ready. They won’t be any more ready now than they will be in a couple of years. So there’s no point Paraic Fanning thinking that this is a long-term project. If he has a new style, it needs to start working, and winning big games, now.

Waterford are still genuine All-Ireland contenders. They were in a final two years ago. When I took over Clare in 2004, I went in with the attitude of winning an All-Ireland that year. Clare had been in the final in 2002. Why wouldn’t I have been thinking any other way? There’s no reason why Fanning shouldn’t have the same ambition for 2019.

Galway showed last week they just know how to take Wexford’s game apart. It’s probably down to having that patience but Galway have the shooters to punish most teams. They’ll take confidence from the manner of that second half display, and playing Waterford again now is ideal timing two weeks after they lost to them in Walsh Park.

Galway still have issues to sort out. The goalkeeping situation needs to be nailed down. Will Joseph Cooney return? Where will Johnny Glynn fit in when he does come back? Have enough of the new guys stood up and staked a real claim for a starting jersey?

Cathal Mannion’s move to midfield seems to have re-energised him. It has also given the team a new dynamic around the middle, while Galway will have more options when the St Thomas’ contingent return. Galway still have some key questions to answer but they still have eight or nine of the best hurlers in the country. And I expect them to set up a rematch of last year’s All-Ireland final in next weekend’s league final.

More in this section