National Hurling League: Everyone’s scrambling for points already

Tonight in Páirc Uí Rinn could be a tinderbox, with both Cork and Clare under serious pressure for the simple reason that whoever loses is staring a relegation final in the face. 

National Hurling League: Everyone’s scrambling for points already

Defeat will always wreck your head but when you lose your first game in a league as unforgiving as this one, it can attack your confidence like a free taker missing a tap over point in the first minute of a crucial game.

Driving home to Clare after Dublin got hammered in the opening league game last year the 60-odd miles home from Galway seemed to pass like a blur.

The doubts and hard realities came at me in waves; why were we so flat? Where were our leaders? Are we doing the wrong type of training? Even though you have only one game played, you’re already fire-fighting in your own mind.

‘We have to beat Clare and Kilkenny at home now to have any chance of staying up’. We did win both of those subsequent matches but we still ended up in a relegation final.

Dublin got such a hiding from Galway last year that they effectively lost three points — it was points-difference which ultimately plunged us into a relegation dogfight.

Almost winning last year’s All-Ireland will have granted Eamon O’Shea plenty collateral after last weekend’s beating from Dublin, but effectively losing three points does put you under uncomfortable pressure when everyone is desperately scrambling for points.

No matter what anyone says about the championship, nobody wants to get relegated in the spring. It breeds doubt and affects morale coming into the summer.

I remember talking to John Allen a few years back when he was Limerick manager. They had got a trimming from Tipp in a Waterford Crystal game and there was immediate negative talk in the county despite the fact that they had experimented heavily.

‘There was a big headline in the paper the following day,’ John said. ‘When are we supposed to experiment now?’

With social media, everything is scrutinised. You get a bad bating in a challenge game and some lads are nearly calling for the manager’s head.

If your back is to the wall after losing a couple of league games, when are you going to throw in a young fella now? If you do and it backfires, the young fella’s confidence takes a hit, and you’re bulling with yourself because you’re getting stick for throwing him into a cauldron.

This evening in Páirc Uí Rinn could be like a tinderbox because there is a lot of heat on both teams for the simple reason that whoever loses is staring a relegation final in the face. Both Cork and Clare ended up in a relegation final in 2013, and also ended up in two epic All-Ireland finals, but that’s not a prospect Jimmy Barry-Murphy or Davy Fitzgerald want to entertain in year four of their managerial reins.

You could already see signs of frustration on the demeanour of the Clare management as the walked off Pearse Stadium.

It is rumoured up this way that Davy wanted to give the Cratloe lads – Conor McGrath and Conor Ryan – as much of a break as he could afford because of their autumn club exertions, but how far can he stretch that luxury now?

McGrath was sprung off the bench last week, nearly winning the game for the Banner and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t start tonight. I certainly would. Start him, get the win and then give him a break.

Clare are still clearly trying to experiment as much as they possibly can. I understand the thinking behind Pat Donnellan’s move to wing-forward because of the work-rate and battling qualities he brings to the sector, but he just doesn’t look comfortable there. In my mind, he was always a defender-cum-midfielder.

I tried Frank Lohan at full-forward for a while with Clare and you have to give it a few games to see if it can work.

JBM also has some big questions to answer. It’s unfair to be dropping the hammer on some guys after just one game but a couple of the fairly experienced Cork players have been out of form for too long to justify the faith being consistently shown in them. It’s already coming near the ‘end game’ for one or two of those senior players.

I’m pretty sure there was also some soul-searching done in Tipp this week. On the Tuesday night after Dublin lost to Galway last February, we had a fairly hard-hitting meeting. Some guys weren’t spared.

There can often be too much rubbish talked in those meetings but there has to be a baseline standard of honesty and application.

Kilkenny are the barometer in modern hurling by which everyone else judge themselves.

Some teams have made the mistakes of trying to ape Kilkenny too much, and ended up losing their own identity in the process, but the one quality that everybody strives to match is their exemplary attitude. They always turn up. Kilkenny work as hard in February as they do in September.

Apart from Brian Cody, the search for that consistency of attitude and application will be going through the heads of the other five managers in Division 1A this weekend.

Even Galway and Dublin have to prove to themselves now that they can back up last week’s performance.

Whoever loses tonight is going to need three results in the last three games to avoid a relegation final. Being at home again puts huge pressure on Cork but I fancy Clare, purely from the point of view that I saw more flashes of potential and room for optimism from them than Cork last week.

Shane O’Donnell looked capable of cutting loose at times. Nobody in Cork posed that goal threat although you would have to imagine they would hardly be as flat in front of a Páirc Uí Rinn crowd two consecutive Saturdays.

Tipp need the points at home and I expect a backlash from them. Dublin are on a roll and I actually fancy them to bring a result from Nowlan Park.

After being favourites for relegation, Dublin could be top of the league by tomorrow evening. Or else, they could be looking over their shoulders again.

In this league, anything goes.

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