Six men who will shape the final two months of the hurling championship

Six teams left in the hurling championship and five games to go, barring replays. It may be shaping up as another Kilkenny/ Tipperary shootout in September – but then that’s what we assumed this time last year. Here Enda McEvoy takes a look at six men who’ll help shape the contours of the next two months.

Donál Óg Cusack. 

By reaching the All-Ireland series Clare have, in literal terms, improved on their form of the past two championships. Beat Galway next weekend and they’ll be entitled to point to the year as a success: a first league title since 1978 and a place in the last four of the championship. But Cusack would be the first to acknowledge that he didn’t go to Clare to reach All Ireland semi-finals.

They were unimpressive seven nights ago against Limerick, all the more so for being patently the better side. Nine points in a row had them in command at half-time yet they failed to kick on and didn’t try for the goal that would have finished off TJ Ryan’s men, the upshot being that they were – preposterously – hanging on in injury time. They won’t get away with no-goal showings indefinitely. Has Cusack a cunning plan to solve the problem? Also, one occasionally gets the impression with Clare that almost they’d prefer to win – and be seen to win - the tactical battle than to win the match. That’s not ideal either.

Jonjo Farrell.

The springer of the summer. For the past two years he was regarded in Kilkenny as nothing more than a handy lad to have around the place, a chap with a certain nuisance value, a good but limited - and excessively one-sided – trier. The kind of competitor Brian Cody likes to have around the place to spice up things in training, to be sure, but scarcely a championship natural. No longer.

Farrell’s 1-5 against Dublin seemed like a one-off. His 1-4 against Galway gave pause for a rethink. He doesn’t do anything remarkable but for a smallish man he throws himself around with gusto and has given the Kilkenny attack the kind of zippy presence the injury to Ger Aylward robbed them of. Obviously it could all go wrong for him in Croke Park next month or the month after. If it does, though, rest assured it won’t be for lack of effort on his part. In any case it’s long past time for Kilkenny to have a regular from Thomastown. The piratically bearded Dick O’Hara was the last.

Micheál Donoghue.

Other than the fact that he’s young and personable we know little of Donoghue. What’s his hurling philosophy? Has he a vision for Galway? If he has he now has the opportunity to start putting it into practice. Up to this he was required to make do with the team he inherited from Anthony Cunningham; Semple Stadium tomorrow week marks the moment for Donoghue to take ownership of it and begin putting his stamp on it. Galway may not win an All-Ireland on his watch – okay, Galway surely won’t win an All-Ireland on his watch – but that doesn’t preclude them from becoming Donoghue’s team. He’ll want to lower the average age, given that three of the four subs he brought on in the Leinster final (Cyril Donnellan, Fergal Moore and Andy Smith) had a combined age of 97. It’ll be interesting to see if he goes for broke and drafts in a bunch of youngsters against Clare, while getting a tune out of Joe Canning is the obvious other item on his To Do list.

Michael Breen.

The pathfinder for a new tactical concept: the midfielder as goalscorer. Not content with hitting the net twice against Limerick the Ballina man charged forward to raise another green flag last Sunday. It’s becoming a habit, and what a habit for a midfielder to have. Breen’s capacity for devouring the pitch has a secondary advantage in that it allows his partner Brendan Maher, who’s more defensive minded (in his first All-Ireland minor final he wore the number four jersey), to sit back and tend to the house. Much has been written about Tipperary’s harder edge under Michael Ryan; Breen is its clearest embodiment. In his case the long-term plan is obvious: he’s there to soften Michael Fennelly’s cough at Croke Park in August or September. In the meantime, and on the basis that he won’t be making the rigging billow every day, the occasional simple point wouldn’t go astray.

Conor McDonald. 

Wexford do not as a rule produce classy forwards; it is their pathological weakness as a hurling county. Wexford don’t even produce handy but lightweight young forwards who flame out by the age of 21; if they did they wouldn’t still be waiting for a first Leinster title since 1985. Anyway. McDonald is the exception to all of that. He had 14 shots at Semple Stadium this night week, missed with the first but directed the next 13 between the uprights. Three of them were from play, none of them more important than the one that put his county back in front shortly after Daniel Kearney’s goal. McDonald is strong off both sides, excels at finding space to take a pass and like the very best forwards always seems to have time on his hands; he doesn’t rush his shots. While Wexford will need Lee Chin at his best if they’re to overcome Waterford they’ll also need another scoring tour de force from McDonald.

Austin Gleeson.

Everything one says about the current Hurler of the Month has to be informed by the fact that he only turned 21 on June 27th. He’s learning the intercounty ropes, and making his mistakes, before our eyes. He has to be allowed to continue to do so. Sometimes Gleeson’s shooting is hit and miss (literally), as was witnessed at the Gaelic Grounds last Sunday when he did the hard part by nailing two sideline cuts but also drove four wides, one of them a gimme of a chance when in space in front of goal 50 metres out. It was the second of three chances Waterford spurned in a 45-second spell midway through the first half and they never quite recovered. Happily he was back to his imperious best for the under-21s on Wednesday.

The debate about where Gleeson is best deployed will continue for some time. In the meantime, do bear in mind that he will not win games on his own for Waterford at the very top level. Not just yet at any rate.


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