PM O'SULLIVAN: The Ciotóg Side: Are Waterford and Wexford, through lack of economy, beating themselves in the long run?

The week in it, Leaving Cert week, emboldens thoughts about hurling and lessons learned.

Same as students all over Ireland, teams are now beyond the reach of improvement. Preparation time has come and gone. Ready or not, here come the attempts at answering entirely new questions, the prospect of being done and frosted and in the freezer by early June. Ready or not, your time might be up until after the New Year.

How avoid mention of officialdom’s low marks after last weekend’s action? Reaction got dominated by disbelief at the certainty with which Tipperary, chasing Waterford, were awarded a second goal when the Hubble Telescope might not have sufficed for clarity on the matter.

Worst aspect? Misadventure by inattention.

The situation was not that complicated. Jason Forde strikes a long free, plumb on goal. Before that passage of play could be anything else, his delivery ended up the clearest square ball possible. Before being barging or a penalty, before being a spilled goal, the delivery was a square ball, courtesy of Jake Morris’ position.

Austin Gleeson could have handballed the sliotar to the net. No difference and still a stone cold free out. The first foul, Tipperary forward arriving in the square before the ball lands, is the sovereign foul. Referee Alan Kelly and his umpires inverted the proverb about mountain and molehill. They went with the most complicated option when basic attentiveness would have saved later smirks, subsequent brickbats.

Will any lessons be learned? You would wonder, for all the reaction. Commonsense is a rare yoke. There is an egotistical tinge to quite a bit of officiating. Nothing drives away commonsense more swiftly than egotism.

I see there is a patron saint for prayer against infestation by mice or moles. His name is St Ulrich, a tenth century bishop in Germany. My frustrated side says prospective referees should offer a prayer to St Ulrich. There is certainly a need for communion with someone alert to the downside of poorly sighted creatures.

The last column, premature in broaching an obituary for Waterford, mentioned Derek McGrath’s grace and dignity under pressure. As if to bear out this comment, we saw his immediate response to those officials’ doings. There are other intercounty managers, suffering an adverse decision of such significance, who would have made like an outtake from The Exorcist (1973).

Waterford are still alive. McGrath will reflect on morals discernible in their sense of adventure against Tipperary when operating in an orthodox 15 on 15 set up. If nothing else, there was the ineffectiveness of Pádraic Maher, a figure typically at his zenith against Waterford. How goes Maher when not allowed a free role by the opposition’s defensive structure? His last performance could be a lesson for many managers.

This Sunday sees Waterford, more candidates available, take on Limerick. Kevin Moran moves free of suspension. Austin Gleeson, who could have been suspended for yet another yank at an opponent’s helmet, has a game under his belt. So does Pauric Mahony. Waterford should be in a better place for the third round.

True, Limerick are an improving side under John Kiely’s management. He has created a space in which a tyro like Séamus Flanagan can become a main man through the virtues of application. This rise is all the more notable in light of Flanagan not making last year’s champion U21 side. Beside him, Graeme Mulcahy, 28 and a seasoned campaigner, is operating with much more snap and bite.

Doughty and compelling against Cork, Limerick are on the up. Ger Hegarty, Kyle Hayes and Tom Morrissey comprise an intriguing half forward trio. While they might never win plaudits from pundits for all out style, their efforts mean Limerick can offer a brand of hurling not cowed by the goalkeeper’s fear of the puckout. As of now, this team is striking a sound balance between possession and tempo.

Limerick as rightful favourites, then. How would Waterford err in re-embracing adventure? They lost last Sunday’s 11-point lead in substantial part through grandstanding in middle third. That lead came about by flaying Tipperary’s full back line with enterprising deliveries. Waterford were misfortunate and spendthrift in equal measure.

Now, do not get me wrong. As Derek McGrath often emphasizes, the history of hurling is far from the history of 15 on 15 hurling. The great full forward Nickey Rackard rebuked himself bitterly after Wexford’s loss to Cork in 1954’s Senior Final. Rackard felt he had posed few problems for John Lyons, opposing full back, by hanging around the square instead of roving out the field.

Nickey Rackard was humble enough to learn. He outwitted Lyons in later contests, including 1956’s Senior Final, by moving around, setting different problems. Yet logic held. Rackard’s travels involved quite different calculations than the non 15 on 15 represented by going with two or three forwards.

Nothing illogical lasts because nothing illogical is humble.

Davy Fitzgerald’s final match as Clare manager ended up July 2016’s All Ireland quarter final with Galway. Playing with seven defenders and a crush of players in the middle third, Clare trailed at halftime by seven points, 1-10 to 0-6. This approach, cosmetically competitive, continued during a wind-assisted second half. Clare exited by a margin of six points, 2-17 to 0-17.

Last Saturday, Wexford were managed by Fitzgerald. They played with seven defenders against Galway, with the same middle third crush. Wexford trailed at halftime by six points, 1-12 to 0-9. This approach, scarcely competitive, continued during a wind-assisted second half. Wexford lost by nine points, 1-23 to 0-17.

Dry facts, scorelines and the like, can germinate into evergreen truths. Notice a contour, a lesson to be learned? The repetition can hardly be missed. Equally, Wexford failed to close the gap evident in 2017’s Leinster Final, when Galway won by nine points, 0-29 to 1-17. Negative hurling, of its nature, hinders sustainable progress, unless once off forces intervene.

Which or whether, I would always flunk an exam on sweeper systems. No one has been able to explain the logic involved in playing with seven defenders, breeze at their back, when harrying a considerable lead. Still, there might be ways in which it is preferable to be that bit obtuse.

This weekend’s encounter between Galway and Dublin is a dead wand. No one will be waving anything afterwards. Same time, the former are on the right road, aware they must do more to win more. The latter arrive in Salthill lost to the championship but aware 2019 should be and can be much better.

Kilkenny, uncertain of their standing, receive Wexford on Saturday evening in Nowlan Park. The hosts’ experience of Salthill, of finding themselves not quite at Galway’s racing pace, prompted much reassessment. If competitive for most of that contest, Kilkenny nevertheless departed trailing clouds of queries. Their prospects in 2018 seemed much reduced.

There is a sense in which Kilkenny’s rejigs over the spring, admirable and successful in vernal terms, could look beside the point. Although undeniable progress was made, those queries concern the direction in which progress travelled. Said rejigs were aimed at overcoming difficulties in combating sweeper-orientated systems.

Vernal terms are like Mocks, useful enough but far from the real deal. On one view, Kilkenny’s progress might well involve preparation for an exam no longer capable of delivering, however well negotiated, entry into the top circle. Is the county set on a path that grants best chance of medium term success?

Mark the context. 2017 saw Kilkenny outdone by the intricacies and middle third crush of Wexford and Waterford. These two counties were the two counties that beat them in the championship, a facet not to be ignored or tidied away. Nearest defeats, in that sense, are the dearest defeats. For a span, the most recent cuts remain the deepest cuts, the sorest point for confidence levels. But is there a sense in which Waterford and Wexford, through lack of economy, are beating themselves in the longer run? Viewed from this perspective, Kilkenny might be striving to meet tests history is already tearing up.

A mere year into John Kiely’s regime, Limerick were not sufficiently advanced in 2017. Even so, it took a remarkable performance by Michael Fennelly, now retired, to push Kilkenny over the line on an afternoon when the standard, on both sides, never rose above mediocre. But which county looks the more serious opponent in 2018? Is it Limerick, renovated and now far from mediocre? Or is Waterford or Wexford, resisually given in whatever degree to a web of intricacies?

For the moment, these questions remain unanswerable. While Kilkenny’s encounter with Wexford should provide clarification, we require a do or die occasion for definitive assessment. This audit is not long off.

One aspect is clear. A year later, Galway are unequivocally the toughest set of questions. Their power hurling is up a few notches. Meanwhile nearly every other contender is no better in 2018 or down a few notches. Limerick, the exception, aspire to Galway’s template but need time and a settled full back.

What should Kilkenny do? Including this weekend’s outing, they are guaranteed a minimum of three more games in 2018. One way, there is tomorrow, a Leinster Final and an All Ireland semi final/quarter final. Another way, there is tomorrow, a preliminary All Ireland quarter final and (barring an earthquake) an All Ireland quarter final.

Three championship outings is a massive slice of education for a new group of hurlers. Is Kilkenny’s experiment with Pádraig Walsh and Cillian Buckley as central defence still a cutting edge move? How will 2019 look, on the basis of 2018’s movements? Does 2017’s version of Waterford and Wexford appear more or appear less like the future?

Kilkenny must decide. Do they spend another three outings cogging for an exam sliding into irrelevance? Or do they build for a medium term future in which Walsh and Buckley are unlikely to remain the pillars in defence?

Tipperary and Clare in Thurles on Sunday is our plum tie. The summary query about Clare is forever their decision making when taking on a shot. Too often, their players seem to hanker after the false confidence gained by nailing a low percentage effort early in a game. For anyone young in the 1980s, Clare’s attacking play can suggest A-Team hurling, a ferocious amount of shooting but mystifyingly little damage done to anything or anyone, including to the scoreboard.

People gave it loads of ráiméis this week about a Senior title for Tipperary in August as sullied goods in light of officialdom’s myopia. That craic is silly stuff. A win would be a win would be a win. Ask any All Ireland captain.

Tipperary could yet recover their position, since they possess serious levels of innate talent. More than anything, there is the élan with which they plunder goals. Let loose in Croke Park, Tipp are well capable of producing the requisite splice of luck and genius. Still able to make the Munster Final, they can certainly move on via third place.

Perhaps the real danger for Tipperary hurling lies in the opposite direction. Perhaps this danger lies not in progress per se but in the curve ball represented by unexpected progress that might be undeserved progress. Said splice could end up the most fervent and deadly embrace of two entities since Cleopatra took that asp to her breast.

Think about it: spectacular glory can precede demise by poison.

Tipperary have been brilliant and brutal over their last four outings in a fashion recallable of no other team over the last 30 years. The closest case is probably the Clare vintage of 1999. There is the same willingness to die in however brackish a ditch, even if the Tipperary vintage of 2018 contains significantly better forwards.

I salute their efforts, the sweeping brilliance involved in recovering the day against Cork and against Waterford. Michael Ryan must possess special qualities as manager if he can oversee such resilience two days in a row. While Tipperary have won nothing as yet in 2018, their core tradition is augmented. Counties win all sorts of silverware without necessarily carrying off this distinction.

Yet there is an unignorable question. Are all Tipperary players offering optimum commitment? You would wonder. And what happens when you resume dependence on those players, short of that commitment? Who is in control, heel of hunt?

Shovel more coal into this train of thought. What happens if a county wins an All Ireland without optimum buy in from leading lights? What lessons do tyros, waiting in the wings of exam halls, absorb? What manager would ever have a firm grip on the Tipp reins in the coming years?

You heard it here first: All Ireland victory in 2018 would be the worst possible fillip for Tipperary hurling’s medium term prospects. This Sunday, Clare might do Tipp the not inconsiderable favour of heading off seeming cure as ultimate poison. To quote BA Baracus, petrified of flying but still getting somewhere important unbeknownst to himself: “Sure, I’ll have some milk.”

Strange positives hide in the most unpalatable scenarios.


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