While hurling qualifiers easily swerve into a labyrinth, that place of uncertainty and hesitations, Monday’s draw produced straight and narrow terrain, writes PM O’Sullivan.
There came immediate consensus about three of tomorrow’s ties: Dublin beating Laois, Tipperary beating Westmeath, Waterford beating Offaly. Formlines are stark, with the possible exception of Dublin, caught in a pronounced dip as regards both morale and personnel.
This dip intersecting with any upward arc generated by Laois, themselves understrength, remains doubtful. Dublin are straitened but surely not husked.
A friend texted to emphasize one county’s possible boon: “Tipperary could now make the All-Ireland semis by taking Westmeath, Dublin and Wexford.”
His logic is impeccable: A cruise control route leaves far more in the tank for August.
The rumblings from Tipp did sound more chipper in recent days.
His observation, possibly underrating of Wexford aside, underlines the significance of chance. Three knockout occasions in four weeks is attritional, in and of itself, whatever the opposition. You play this roster as much as any opponent. Any team needs hurling’s version of a St Christopher medal.
All the while, no doubt about the draw’s plum contest: Kilkenny at home to Limerick. There is plenty to intrigue. Unless Kilkenny recover composure and slot their chances, they will be vulnerable, Nowlan Park or no Nowlan Park.
Depending on what we see, they could be vulnerable for several seasons. Hurling’s beagles are yapping and yowling, the most elusive of quarries finally in sight.
Kilkenny created enough first half chances against the wind in Wexford Park to lodge corrosive doubts in their host’s mind. Those opportunities were squandered and Wexford swelled. I was impressed with how they saw out the second half, kneading and kneading the game into a shape that suited them.
Tomorrow counts as a hinge moment. Can Kilkenny take off again? They created a mystique over the last 18 seasons. Achievement after achievement led to implacable expectations of their performance level, expectations nearly always met in the Ziggy Stardust years, when gravitational forces seemed an optional extra.
All is changed. Not naming a team for Wexford Park bespoke unusual dynamics in the camp. There was a tincture of people getting entangled in the mind games favoured by Ger Loughnane and Davy Fitzgerald.
For sure, Kilkenny departed from the straightforwardness that served so well for so long. Starting Richie Hogan and Pádraig Walsh, both at best half fit, proved another swerve from silver practice.
Limerick confront their own difficulties following a costive showing against Clare. Without being impressive, Clare won by four points, deflating big time their neighbours’ senior situation. Limerick badly wanted last week’s performance by their U21s, who trimmed Tipperary by 11 points.
Bottom line, Limerick need to rearrange at senior. They must tighten up in the full-back line (where Richie English might re-emerge) and front up in the half-forward line (where Gearóid Hegarty would be a help). What changes is John Kiely now emboldened to make? Summarily, you could say Limerick hardly possess the defenders necessary for Kilkenny’s sharpest attackers. Unless, that is, changes generate unforeseeable momentum.
Then again, Kilkenny’s defence is a question mark. Their scattered outing against Wexford was no massive surprise in light of 2017’s NHL outcome. Watching that campaign, you often got the impression Kilkenny were still hurling the second half of last September’s senior final, trying switches in defence that might have been made against Tipperary that bruising afternoon.
For the first time in nearly two decades, Brian Cody does not know his best team. He certainly does not know his best back eight. The impressive Cillian Buckley, 25 this year, could well be a medium term solution at centre-back. Yet his gifts for making ground, for ghosting round tackles, might be better deployed elsewhere, if the luxury of such a deployment were available.
Bottom line, Kilkenny likewise need a rejig. Conor O’Shea and Robert Lennon, left flank of defence against Wexford, will do well to survive any freshening up process. There is talk of Joey Holden and Joe Lyng making the cut.
Most simply put? To progress, Kilkenny likely require less of an improvement than Limerick. Equally, local word indicates Michael Fennelly and Richie Hogan playing a part. These runes murmur: ‘Advantage Kilkenny.’ Still, this simplicity sidesteps a conundrum.
Tomorrow, certain Kilkenny hurlers are playing to revive their career. Leaders channel pressure as conductors channel electricity, harnessing potentially lethal energies into usable form. Thus far in 2017, Kilkenny are short of leaders and lack spark. Who will take off? Everything is on the line.
Sunday sees an inaugural pairing of Galway and Wexford in the Leinster final. Galway are favourites and rightly so. This season, they look more of an integrated team, playing for each other, than in a long while.
At the same time, Wexford will not fear Galway, in the phrase. Last February’s crucial NHL victory in Salthill, all but earning promotion to Division IA, is a touchstone. Wexford thrived even after a Joe Canning penalty put the home side ahead by six points with 16 minutes to run.
The Wexford of 2017 know they can absorb pressure. They enjoy a better chance than that text might imply.
Do they remain a touch short at corner-back? Galway field options, most notably Conor Whelan, who feast on such weaknesses. Canning is nigh as good a penalty taker as TJ Reid.
Not that Galway’s backs convince everyone. Paul Killeen’s injury pressures this sector. Centre back Gearóid McInerney can be a poor decision maker, with Lee Chin one of the few hurlers around both strong enough and skilful enough to rattle him.
All in all, Galway retain an edge. Yet favouritism is forever a double-edged affair. An upset here could ramify and ramify.
“Plagiarize/Let no one else’s work evade your eyes…” Tom Lehrer’s lyric is the eternal catch cry of progress. If Wexford triumph, every ambitious hurling squad in the country will feature a trainer demanding 160 sliotars per session.
Whatever about worms forgiving the plough, success devours every class of a reservation.
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