Given that this league has, at times, been a huge phoney war, God only knows how teams are going to treat the quarter-finals, writes Anthony Daly.
I’m certainly not anti-football. I live in west Clare, which is the Clare footballing heartland. I played big ball with Clarecastle for years. I watch all the big football games on TV but when I travelled to the Cork-Limerick league quarter-final in Páirc Uí Rinn last April, the Cork-Down league football curtain-raiser was nearly more of an endurance test than the old days with Clare running up the hill in Shannon with Mike McNamara lashing us with the whip of his tongue.
The match was cat. Even though it went to the wire, most of the locals seemed remotely disinterested. I could almost feel the lactic acid building up in my jaw from all the yawning. Near the end, everyone seemed to be just hanging for the hurling to take us out of misery.
We were all wasting our time. The hurling game was just as lifeless, which is saying something after watching a bad football match. I got the impression that both teams were more concerned with not winning, than winning. Then again, it was a league quarter-final. Should any of us in the attendance that day have been surprised?
There is no point going into the detail of all that is wrong with the system; Dublin beat Antrim and Laois and they get a shot at Tipperary tomorrow; Waterford have two big wins against Cork and Clare and they’re fighting it out with Cork in a relegation final. Along with today’s All-Ireland club final, the Cork-Waterford game is the biggest match of this weekend. Full stop.
Given that this league has, at times, been a huge phoney war, God only knows how teams are going to treat the quarter-finals. You know what Kilkenny will do, but after that? Mentally, Limerick may think the hard work is done now. Clare could do with winning the league but it didn’t do them any favours two years ago. Wexford will want to lay down a marker against Galway but will they really want to meet Kilkenny again in a league semi-final before they play them in the championship?
As far as I see it anyway, there is a lot more going on here than just results. For Galway, the biggest plus of this weekend is getting to travel to Wexford Park. That might sound like a mad statement, especially when its making bits of St Patrick’s Day for the Galway players and management with a long journey south, but this is an ideal dress rehearsal for the championship. I’m fairly sure none of the Galway players have played in Wexford Park before. In some ways, the result is almost irrelevant for Galway and Micheal Donoghue – they’re getting out of this exactly what they wanted.
It’s almost the same with Clare-Limerick. As a Clare-man, I was glad when I heard Clare lost the toss and have to travel to the Gaelic Grounds. A good few of these young Limerick fellas played in a big Munster U-21 final in Ennis in 2015. A lot of the squad were there for the big league promotion decider in 2016. But that’s a couple of years ago. The Park has changed in the meantime. There are new dressing rooms, The players come out a different tunnel now and the pitch is quicker. All of that stuff might sound completely irrelevant but why give Limerick a dry run of the place ahead of the big championship match in June? Keep them guessing. Give nothing away.
Why show your hand now with some puckout strategy that maybe you want to keep under wraps for the championship? When you’re a manager, and with everyone else forensically studying each other, that’s the kind of detail that is often far more important than winning a league quarter-final.
Even the relegation final is diluted by the new championship system. There is pressure on both teams but nothing like the strain that was there in previous years. Maybe the winners will reveal more of their hand tomorrow that they would ideally like to have concealed before their championship meeting in a couple of months. If the losers feel that they have spotted some chink which can be exposed in June, it will definitely soften the blow of the loss.
The two most attractive quarter-finals are Clare-Limerick and Galway-Waterford. Limerick are on a high. Clare are coming off the back of two defeats, and will be more pumped up, so I fancy Clare. I expect Davy Fitzgerald to have Wexford wired to win in Wexford Park and exact some retribution for last year’s Leinster final defeat.
Dublin won’t beat Tipperary but it’s a chance to see if Parnell Park can be the fortress Pat Gilroy and his side will want, and need it to be in the summer. Kilkenny will overcome Offaly but it’s very difficult to predict who will win between Cork and Waterford.
I thought Cork were poor again last week whereas Waterford have momentum now after two wins. I wouldn’t be surprised if it took extra-time to separate them but maybe home advantage might sway it for Cork in the end.
Finally, the biggest, and certainly the most attractive game of the weekend is today’s mouth-watering Cuala-Na Piarsaigh club final.
Cuala are a super team. It’s an incredible achievement for them to get back to the final again but they’re coming up against a side now with firepower that some inter-county teams don’t possess. Na Piarsaigh also have the depth to match an inter-county team. Tommy Grimes and Conor Boylan are out today through suspension but what other club team could replace them with Shane Dowling and Kieran Kennedy?
And yet, much of this will come down to Con O’Callaghan. If he scores 1-3 or 2-2, Cuala win all day long. In last year’s final, Cuala managed to isolate Con O’Callaghan on Jack Browne. Jack did OK but when Con gets that space, and that fast early ball, he is almost un-markable. How Na Piarsaigh counter that tactic, whether it’s through a sweeper or a dropping half-back, will go a long way towards deciding the game.
I have a sneaky suspicion that Na Piarsaigh will edge it. Cuala have managed to maintain their momentum from last year but, aside from potentially being fresher, that year of hurt may provide more fuel in Na Piarsaigh’s tank if this goes to the wire.
Whatever happens, I can’t wait for it.
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