Bench strength may give Cats extra push to win the day

Jimmy Barry-Murphy

Jimmy Barry-Murphy can expect his Cork side to face a tough task against Wexford.

Four league quarter-finals at four different venues but only one place to begin: at a fifth venue where the most attractive fixture of the weekend takes place.

Should it have come to a relegation play-off for the All-Ireland champions and their immediate predecessors? Probably yes, even if both can point with some justification to narrow defeats in Salthill.

A six-team group and five-game campaign will inevitably yield a couple of hard-luck stories. This is not one of those tables that doesn’t lie after 38 matches because it cannot.

It is not a perfect system. Then again, will we ever get a National Hurling League structure that will suit all interests? In the abstract the current structure shouldn’t work due to its sheer illogicality.

Why should teams 1 to 4 and teams 7 to 10 — ie the leading quartet in Division 1A and 1B respectively — advance to the quarter-finals when teams 5 and 6 are condemned to a relegation shoot-out?

Yet it was such sheer perverseness that brought a splash of novelty to this stage of the competition last year. Tipp and Cork shooting out the lights in Semple Stadium. Wexford giving a decent account of themselves against Kilkenny at Wexford Park.

Laois hosting Clare, the MacCarthy Cup holders and a team that had beaten them by 18 points in the 2013 qualifiers — and very nearly winning. Only Limerick, quietly fancied against Galway at the Gaelic Grounds, failed to raise a gallop, a non-performance that we now know said absolutely nothing about the Shannonsider’s prospects for the championship.

As a one-off, attending one of the games that afternoon was all kinds of fun. Hurling as general election results day, with first counts and updates flying in from constituencies near and far.

Tomorrow’s fare won’t be as diverting. Not with three fixtures rather than four and not with one of the three featuring a team punching a couple of divisions above their weight. Granted,Offaly may play above themselves tomorrow — one certainly hopes so — and Tipperary may play below themselves, but the poles won’t draw close enough for an upset. That said, there can’t be too many Offaly fans who wouldn’t settle for a losing margin in the four to six points sector.

Cork versus Wexford may at first glance look as clear cut. It isn’t. Cork’s armoury isn’t as formidable as Tipp’s; Wexford have a good deal more about them than Offaly.

To posit that Liam Dunne’s side, with home advantage, were over-confident against Waterford last Sunday is overdoing it. More likely, and as is often the case with a team in their situation, they expected things to happen and forgot to make them happen.

At any rate they were cleaned out in the rucks. Of some comfort to them tomorrow, however, will be the memory of their sprightly display in Cork last season when they hit 1-20.

The hosts will win this but they should have to work for it.

Waterford versus Galway? Your guess is as good as mine. It’s Galway, meaning anything can happen.

All of which brings us back to Nowlan Park, a venue Davy Fitz specifically announced after last Sunday’s alleged dead rubber he didn’t want to be returning to.

Simultaneously a beaming Brian Cody was informing the world that he didn’t mind going to Ennis.

But a week is a long time in hurling as well as in politics. Moods can change in the space of seven days and do. There will be no fatalism tomorrow from Davy, who was remarkably zen on the sideline last weekend. He’ll scarcely be as contemplative this time around.

For Clare it’s a day for girding loins and sounding gongs and nurturing siege mentalities. The world won’t listen? We’ll show ‘em! The manager may decree it to also be a day for a return to a seventh defender. The potential advantage is two-fold: increased security at the back and a man breaking from deep to supplement the attack and shoot from distance. That would give Kilkenny something to think about.

Heaven knows the extra protection is necessary. With Richie Hogan, Kilkenny managed 1-13 against Tipperary, which was about as much as they were worth on the day. Without him they managed 2-20 against Clare, which was similarly about as much as they were worth on the day. Which of the three teams does this say more about? Easy. Clare.

Good defending isn’t about how many balls you hit; it’s about how many balls you stop the other lad hitting. In part it’s also less about winning clean ball in the air than about preventing the other lad winning clean ball in the air.

After last Sunday the visitors have no excuses for not knowing what Jonjo Farrell is capable of when the sliotar is at head height and of organising counter-measures.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Richie Hogan and Colm Galvin — the current Hurler of the Year and a prospective future Hurler of the Year, subject to travel plans — will end up in the same precinct at some stage. That would be one to watch.

Next time they do a bodymass check on Tony Kelly, meanwhile, they’ll almost certainly discover him to be composed in equal measure of flesh, bone and silk. Cody, though, has a couple of lads in the Kelly bracket, or near enough to it, on the bench.

They may be called on to drag Kilkenny through.

They’re likely to oblige.


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