The Allianz Hurling League concluded yesterday with a resurgent Kilkenny upsetting the odds against favourites Tipperary, writes Donal O’Grady.
It was fitting that these two sides contested the final, as they had finished first and second in Division 1A after the five regular rounds.
But some anomalies still exist in this competition. Some counties have three home games while others have only two. There is a relegation game for the fifth and sixth teams while the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth teams see quarter-final action.
The CCCC wanted to end quarter-final games but Central Council failed to agree, probably for financial reasons. However, there doesn’t seem to be much point to quarter-final contests like the recent Dublin/Tipperary game. The competition began earlier and no free weekend was provided to facilitate the Fitzgibbon Cup final, as had been the case in other years, because of the much-publicised intention of giving April over to club competitions. Of course, third level colleges finals could be played midweek.
As in seasons past, counties adopted different attitudes to the competition.
Understandably, Galway and Waterford were late to the party due to winter team holidays. Derek McGrath indicated, in a recent interview, that this season is his last. Waterford illustrated through their early performances and attitude that their interest lies elsewhere.
Unlike Cork, who used the Allianz League to cast their recruitment net a little wider, the Waterford management are aware of who they have and need for a summer assault on silverware. Judging them on their spring performances, Shane Bennett, a league absentee, is essential to that cause.
Wexford, Clare, Kilkenny and Limerick were at the top of the fitness tree with the Treaty side hell-bent on promotion. Having achieved that ambition anything else will be a bonus. Of course, high levels of fitness in early spring are difficult to maintain throughout the season.
For players, the league is all about impressing management with their form, work ethic and teamwork. So who are those players that have impressed most in this year’s competition?
The goalkeeping spot came down to Cork’s Anthony Nash and Kilkenny’s Eoin Murphy. Neither played all the games and they weren’t flawless in their goalkeeping duties. However, they delivered an impressive level of consistency, particularly in shot-stopping.
Puckout accuracy and the extra knockout games gave Murphy further chances to impress and he gets the nod.
Tipp’s Alan Flynn occupies the right corner-back position. Comfortable on the ball, his ball-handling, positioning and support play was of a high standard throughout.
Liam Ryan of Wexford is my choice for full-back. He has improved steadily over the past two seasons and combines his effectiveness in defence with productive forays forward, while chipping in with the odd score.
Paddy Deegan of Kilkenny is named in the left corner, benefitting in some games as the ‘free’ defender. Originally a midfielder or wing-back, he has adapted well to the change in Kilkenny’s style of support play. He is comfortable in the role of first receiver for short puckouts and he links up well with his half-backs/midfielders in setting up attacks. Kilkenny’s Padraig Walsh and Limerick’s Richie English were other strong contenders for this line.
Barry Heffernan of Tipp, Paudie Foley of Wexford and Diarmuid Byrnes of Limerick were in contention for right half-back.The Eire Óg Nenagh defender was very consistent throughout and gets the vote.
Padraic Maher of Tipp is my choice at centre half-back for his overall play and leadership qualities.
However he is inclined to give away some poor frees at times due to a lack of tackling judgement and is in need of some coaching in this area. Cillian Buckley slots in at number 7, just edging Wexford’s Diarmaid O’ Keefe. Buckley was central to Kilkenny’s change of attacking emphasis this spring. They now move the ball from defence through precise short passing and support play rather than using long deliveries forward.
Richie Leahy picks up the first of the midfield spots. He played a big part in Kilkenny’s efforts in this competition. His work-rate, positioning, scoring power, support runs and link play were to the fore in his team’s winning campaign.
Ronan Maher did not play in this position in every game but he made a big contribution in general play and on the scoreboard from centrefield for the Premier and shades it over Limerick’s Cian Lynch and Kevin Foley of Wexford who will have their supporters.
Wexford’s Rory O Connor takes the right-half-forward position. He brought an extra dimension to the Model’s attack. Skilful, strong and pacy, he will be central to Wexford’s attack for many years.
TJ Reid of Kilkenny is at centre-forward. Reid continues to be not alone Kilkenny’s top attacker but arguably the top forward in the country at present. He had a great league last year but, understandably, his influence waned in the championship.
If he can maintain this level of performance he will be the prime candidate for hurler of the year.
Another top forward, John McGrath of Tipp, takes the left-half-forward berth.
Lee Chin of Wexford, David Reidy of Clare and Kilkenny’s Martin Keoghan were other strong contenders for this line.
Strong consideration was given to Limerick’s Seamus Flanagan, Clare’s Shane O Donnell (who doesn’t get enough good ball) and the Premier’s Michael Breen for the full-forward line.
However, Aaron Gillane of Limerick, central to their promotion and run to the semis, occupies the right-corner-forward position.
Kilkenny’s Walter Walsh, highly influential all through this competition, occupies the left while Jason Forde, the top operator at full-forward, gets the berth at the edge of the square.
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