It’s been fun so far, eh?
Into the third round of the National League and a Division 1A where the margins and fine lines are making Kate Moss look positively obese. Clare losing narrowly to Waterford before scraping past Galway. Waterford scoring two late points in the teeth of a gale to draw with Cork. The reigning league and All-Ireland champions playing well twice and losing on both occasions.
Omit the Cork/Tipperary game and the average winning margin over the first two weekends was 1.4 points. That fine. That slim. That tight.
“Awful, awful competitive,” as Anthony Cunningham declared last Sunday.
It should be fun today as well. Tipperary in Salthill and Waterford, the surprise packet of the competition to date, travelling to Nowlan Park. Sure what else would you be doing of a Bank Holiday Monday? A win for Waterford and they’ll go outright top of the table. Don’t lump your Cheltenham winnings on it, for the visitors are due an off-day and Kilkenny are due a win. And no, obviously it doesn’t always work out as neatly as that. But fail to win and the semi-final ship will have sailed for the holders.
Much has changed on Suirside these past few months. Frankie Walsh, captain of the 1959 team, and Tony Mansfield, manager of the All Ireland-winning U21 side of 1992, are sadly no longer with us. John Mullane is authoring a newspaper column (and, bizarrely, correctly predicting Champions League scorelines).
But Seamus Prendergast, who hit the levelling point against Cork last weekend, is still plugging away, and that’s an item of note in itself. In all the praise we rightly heap on Tony Browne, it is easy to overlook the continued devotion of Prendergast, a far less naturally gifted hurler but an equally doughty competitor, to the cause.
Where would the Déise have been these past 10 years without the contribution of the men from west Waterford — the Prendergasts, Brick Walsh et al? It is no less heartening, meanwhile, to see Brian O’Halloran, a Leaving Cert student sent to do a man’s job as the point of the attack against Tipperary in the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final, return to the fold after two seasons lost to injury. Their triggermen of the noughties all now departed, Waterford will continue to struggle for scoring forwards in the next few seasons. All the better, then, if O’Halloran can help share the burden.
Still, Kilkenny’s greater need should sway the issue this afternoon, and defeat would have greater implications for Michael Ryan’s men than meets the eye. Lose today, lose again to Tipp next Sunday and they’ll suddenly find the ground gone from under their feet and a prospective relegation battle looming. Those narrow margins again.
Granted, it isn’t a perfect league structure, not least because it keeps all but one of the teams in Division 1B in a holding pattern. Ask Limerick, who discovered in Thurles last July that a springtime spent in the second flight was no preparation — how could it be? — for 70 championship minutes against Kilkenny. Yet at least the current format, unlike previous models, guarantees that every match in the concluding round of the qualifiers will have something at stake. Nor is the absence of quarter-finals any cause for angst. One of them was always a dead loss.
Galway versus Tipperary in the afternoon’s other attraction? Who knows?
Tipp will go west in considerable peace of mind. Under Declan Ryan they produced successive supine performances in the league against Kilkenny, a springtime lack of spirit that presaged summertime passiveness against the same opponents in Croke Park. On last weekend’s evidence in Semple Stadium there will be no white flag waved come the business end of the 2013 championship.
Tipperary’s bottom line was supplemented by a host of less obvious pluses. Brendan Maher looked like the Maher of 2010 until fading slightly in the closing stages, while Noel McGrath was in the hurlyburly to productive effect from the off. One suspects that Eamon O’Shea, in an effort to get him into the game, instructed McGrath to go where he liked. Smart.
Talking of people going where the mood took them, Lar Corbett’s goal may not have been the perfect illustration of Gary Lineker’s maxim about the duty of a striker to be in the right place — not just at the right time but all the time — but it certainly demonstrated the damage that can accrue when the Thurles man flits in from out the field.
The goal arose partly because the Kilkenny defenders weren’t sure who was supposed to be marking him. Expect to see Corbett hitting the enemy 20-metre line from deep as often as practicable in the championship.
One last thought. Although one hesitates to be critical of Michael Wadding, who in the underfoot circumstances had a duty of care to the players, the second yellow cards for McGrath and Tommy Walsh were risible. Walsh, however, had given Wadding his pretext by needlessly stirring it with Eoin Kelly just before half-time. Walsh knows he’s a target for referees as it is. He doesn’t need to be handing them any more rope.
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