This league has been so up and down, so hit and miss so far, that the intensity and energy was like going from afternoon tea in Dromoland Castle to a dance party in Ibiza, writes Anthony Daly.
When I am doing TV co-commentary for big games, you mostly can’t hear anything because the headphones act like ear-muffs, but on Saturday night in Thurles, the crescendo of noise was clearly audible as Tipperary and Kilkenny fans went into championship mode.
The match was a classic for a league game. Everybody was enthralled by the action; the slick moves, the electricity on the pitch, in the stands, the feelgood factor from a March evening that could have been August, such was the high quality of hurling. This league has been so up and down, so hit and miss so far, that the intensity and energy was like going from afternoon tea in Dromoland Castle to a dance party in Ibiza. (I can’t remember the latter).
When Kilkenny are in that defiant mood, there’s bound to be fireworks, pyrotechnics, and loud music. They just don’t know the meaning of surrender. There were stages early on when Tipp threatened to run away with the game but once Kilkenny got control back, they were the team turning, or attempting to turn the screw, on their opponents.
Their mentality just fascinates me. One of the lads I coach with the UL Freshers, Conor Doheny, was called onto the panel recently. I was asking him at training about life under Mr Cody. Conor wouldn’t release any team secrets but his description of how difficult it is just to survive was revealing. He is only trying to gain a foothold in the squad but that ferocious intensity he spoke about in training matches is the reason that Kilkenny are repeatedly able to produce that kind of quality, despite the high volume of quality players they have lost.
They still have massive leaders. TJ Reid was immense. So was Cillian Buckley. Richie Hogan was quiet in the first half but his second- half performance was sensational, nailing four points, while Liam Blanchfield’s penalty came from a Hogan point attempt which came back off the post.
The only real concern for Kilkenny was they had just four scorers, to Tipp’s nine. That reinforces the danger for Cody if anything happens to Reid or Hogan.
Michael Ryan will be happy too. Tipp will be sharper in time but they may have got lulled into a false sense of security with the quickfire start they had. After the second goal, it looked like Tipp might rip Kilkenny asunder. Even the beauty of that goal was Barcelonaesque with the tiki-taka passing between John McGrath and ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer to release Niall O’Meara. Tipp may have thought they could do what they wanted. They may have believed ‘this is going to be handy’. It never is against Kilkenny but if there was some small kink in Tipp’s mindset at that moment in the match, Mick will no doubt take lessons from it when he assesses the feedback in more detail. If Tipp want to take over from Kilkenny, that’s the assassin type mentality they need to develop — that an eight-point lead in those circumstances is potential for a wipeout.
Kilkenny always have that willingness to fight and battle. Colin Fennelly did very little in open play but he chased back at one stage to get in a little hook on Padraic Maher who was winding up for one of those trademark roof-lifting scores. As a coach, you’re always telling fellas that it’s those little moments which turn games. Everything counts and every little detail, every little piece in the collage of colour contributed to Saturday’s masterpiece.
Every game is different but after that kind of a high, the atmosphere and mood was bound to feel flatter everywhere else yesterday. I was in Ennis where Clare shaded a poor game. It was still an important win for Clare but I expected more from them. In a must-win game, I thought there would be more urgency and energy to Clare’s play.
They started well against the breeze but the concession of Ryan O’Dwyer’s goal seemed to rock their confidence. A lot of their play is revolving around Podge Collins at centre-forward but teams are going to cop that in time. Dublin eventually did yesterday. Liam Rushe was following Podge around at the start of the match until Dublin decided to bring Niall McMorrow deep, which forced Podge to win possession deeper, and allowed Rushe to sit back into the pocket. When he did, Rushey thundered into the match.
Even with Clare’s profligacy after the break, Dublin must have been wondering on the bus journey home how they didn’t take something out of the game. One of the reasons they didn’t was the performance of Seadna Morey, and the impact from the Clare bench. Aaron Cunningham, Jason McCarthy, and Ian Galvin when reintroduced, all got crucial late points to nudge Clare over the line.
Clare’s win sets up their clash with Waterford in two weeks with a dash of intrigue. I watched the Waterford game when I came home from Ennis and Derek McGrath will have to be disappointed with that performance. Maybe the coffers aren’t flush with the county board but the Walsh Park pitch was in dire shape. Waterford have now lost their two home games and I honestly think the surface in Walsh Park is holding this team back. Some of their younger players are craving the kind of carpet that Tipp are used to above in Thurles. Barry Kelly was dishing out cards like confetti but a lot of that was down to the staggered and fractured nature of the play consistently breaking down on such a poor pitch.
Macdara MacDonnacha used the phrase ‘ciúnas na marbh’ in his TV commentary. I’m no expert in Irish but the deadness in the ground reflected a bloodless and lifeless performance. On the other hand, you have to give credit to Cork for dictating the mood and tempo of the match, and ultimately dictating the melancholic home atmosphere.
The critics were out in force after the last two games but sometimes those days are just inevitable when you’re trying to build a new team. Inconsistency is a by-product but that’s the risk you take from the approach Cork have to take with the quality of young players they are trying to bed in. Some guys have already got their chance but Michael Cahalane finally got his, after such an illness enforced layoff, and was outstanding.
The young guys have also forced the older lads to step up. Conor Lehane has finally shown the leadership that Cork have craved from him for so long. I think putting number 11 on his back has been a good move too. The position is no longer a Timmy Crowley/Brendan Lynskey job of breaking lads, and the play, up for fun. That position is a completely different world now and Lehane finally seems to be adjusting to its demands.
With three teams now on four points, Kilkenny on three, and Dublin still in with a chance of making the quarter-finals, the final round is just what we were all hoping for. After the drama of Saturday night though, hoping for another epic of that quality so soon might just be too much wishful thinking.
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