A raft of important Allianz Hurling League ties are down for decision this weekend. Here Enda McEvoy marks your card about what to look out for.
Dublin v Limerick
A man lies in a room staring at the ceiling. An extractor fan whirrs. A helicopter’s rotor blades clatter. The man moves to the window and looks through the blinds to see a street scene. “Saigon... Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.”
TJ Ryan needn’t watch Martin Sheen’s opening scene in Apocalypse Now any time soon. He’s lived it. He is Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. “Division 1B... Shit. I’m still only in Division 1B...”
Whenever Ryan’s obituary as Limerick manager is written it’ll contain a footnote.
What division would they be in next year (or this year) if he’d had access to the Kilmallock contingent for last season’s league and the Na Piarsaigh contingent for this season’s renewal? An All-Ireland in any grade for a team from Shannonside cannot be other than warmly greeted. That doesn’t mean Ryan isn’t entitled to his own might-have-beens.
Dublin disappointed at Nowlan Park a fortnight ago, not helped by a puck-out strategy that backfired horribly. With three minutes remaining in the first half they trailed 0-13 to 1-1, with Kilkenny having registered 10 wides.
Thereafter it was damage limitation stuff, a job which they made a reasonable fist of, with Eamon Dillon a constant threat up front.
Maybe it was all down to nothing more serious than an inability to put four good performances together consecutively.
In the scale of these matters that’s a pretty venial sin, all the more so for Dublin. Come to think of it, no county puts four good performances together in a six-team division.
Clare v Tipperary
Match of the day, match of the weekend, match of the month and quite possibly the most interesting match to be played this side of the championship, give or take a putative Kilkenny/Tipperary semi-final.
When the counties met in the league semi-final at the Gaelic Grounds two years ago Clare ran a non-trier.
With the teams on separate sides of the draw in Munster they won’t be running a non-trier tomorrow, their injuries notwithstanding.
It’s not nearly as critical a challenge for the hosts as was the visit of Limerick a fortnight ago.
That was a must-win affair, or — to put it more finely — a cannot-lose whereas this is a snapshot of where they are right now under Davy and Dónal Óg.
An aerial shot shows that the location is no bad one, not after nine wins in nine outings, success in the Munster League and promotion clinched.
But tomorrow will be a close-up photo that reveals spots and blemishes hitherto undetected.
Tipperary were the highest scorers in Division 1A despite missing Seamus Callanan for all but the last 35 minutes of the qualifiers.
Naturally Patrick Maher and his lust for the fray will be missed tomorrow, yet at the same time the visitors will not want to commit too many bodies to the enemy half of the field in view of the inevitable traffic chaos in a densely populated Clare defence.
Wexford v Waterford
No county took more from the opening phase of the competition than Waterford. They never looked like returning to whence they’d come.
They didn’t follow a terrific league campaign with a rancid one. The blip against Dublin was just that, an understandable and overdue off-day after 10 successive wins in the competition dating back to February last year. Against Galway last time out Derek McGrath could afford to make 10 changes and field three debutants and still get a result.
Patrick Curran has settled in as comfortably as everyone who knew him believed he would. They’ve kept her lit alright.
That Waterford were the lowest scoring team in Division 1A can largely be attributed to the fact McGrath’s priority was to get a few early wins in the bag by maintaining the safety-first approach. Now that they can throw a degree of caution to the wind, tomorrow might be a good day for him to instruct his forwards to take an extra few steps and go for broke as opposed to popping their points as per usual. Good habits can become catching.
In Wexford, meanwhile, someone’s stirring it. Liam Dunne goes away for a few days and suddenly it’s back-page news in the national press. Cui bono? as the legal folk and Latinists like to muse. Who gains? Not Wexford hurling, that’s for sure.
Kilkenny v Offaly
At first glance this looks a fixture that would have been better off being played in Tullamore or Birr.
On second thoughts, given what ensued when Kerry travelled to Birr a fortnight ago, the venue may be irrelevant.
Either way, Eamon Kelly, the Offaly manager, merits his entry in the Book of Great Mordant Quotes for his effort after the Kerry match. “Our aim was to get to the quarter-finals, maybe not the way we got there...”
Although Offaly conceded 5-32 the last time they visited Nowlan Park, in the 2014 Leinster quarter-final, the context was rather different.
That was Kilkenny’s first outing of the championship and in recent years, as Wexford can testify, Kilkenny like to make a statement in their first outing of the championship — the kind of statement that invariably involves dropping a few bombs, just to let folk know they haven’t gone away.
However many points they ship tomorrow, then, the visitors shouldn’t ship five goals or anything like it.
Not against this Kilkenny forward line.
Five outings, three blanks, with the four goals they’ve managed arriving at the death against Tipp and Cork.
Score goals early on or halfway through and you ensure a match is played on your terms and nobody else’s.
Kilkenny are no longer shaping games with goals.
Galway v Cork
One safe prediction. Two safe predictions, actually.
First, Cork will concede more than 20 points, goals not included. Secondly, they’ll lose.
Is it that simple? With Cork these days it is.
They’re entitled to a pass for the defeat by Tipperary.
Cork had used up their physical and emotional petrol the previous weekend; Seamus Harnedy, who’d tied Kilkenny in knots, was missing; the result was irrelevant; they’d be meeting Tipp in two months’ time anyway.
But which of these was more worrying: The fact Tipperary managed 16 wides on top of their 2-25 or the fact that by far Cork’s best display of the qualifying phase had still seen them concede 2-23? Your call.
In real time, in front of our eyes, Offaly and Wexford have ceased to be hurling powers. Given their sheer depth of playing resources Cork will not go the same way.
But think of it thus. Reaching an All-Ireland quarter-final looks to be the height of Leeside aspirations this season — and that, near enough, is the Cork equivalent of the fate that befell Offaly and Wexford.
Galway haven’t done badly so far. Playing catch-up as a result of the Anthony Cunningham saga and its aftermath they’ve lost only two of their five outings. Granted, there isn’t anything new on the menu as yet but, realistically, if there is to be such an entity as “Micheál Donoghue’s Galway” it won’t manifest itself till 2017.
As for tomorrow, even Galway won’t manage to blow this one.
Kerry v Laois
“I hope they both lose,” Bill Shankly responded one year when Liverpool were going for the title and their rivals were playing one another.
It would take a heart of stone not to want to see both these sides win this play-off — Laois for the work Seamus Plunkett has done, Kerry on foot of Ciarán Carey’s work.
After all of which: Dublin, Tipperary, Waterford, Kilkenny, Galway and Kerry.
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