Early start yesterday morning. Kilmacud Crokes played the first round of the Dublin League against Craobh Ciaran. The match was played at 10.15am. Even when I played soccer with Turnpike Rovers, we never started that early. Welcome back to Dublin, not with a bang, but with a big, loud bong, an alarm clock hopping off the bedside locker at an ungodly hour.
I headed from the match to the RTÉ studios in Montrose because I was working for Sunday Sport last night with Henry Shefflin. After shooting the breeze together for a while, we watched the Clare-Wexford game live, before studying Kilkenny-Tipperary and then having a glance at Cork-Waterford.
For years, both with Clare and Dublin, I spent so long trying to take down Kilkenny lads that I am now spending so much time alongside in TV studios; Henry, Jackie Tyrrell, and Eddie Brennan with RTÉ, and Tommy Walsh with Eir Sport.
They are all seriously impressive guys but the one common thread with all of them is how much they love the game, and how passionate they are about hurling. I was in Thurles for the Cork-Wexford game nine days ago and this fella said to Tommy: “You’d make a bad Junior B football match sound good.”
Tommy’s unbridled passion as a player can be heard in his Tullaroan tones but you can see those similar traits in all of the Kilkenny lads, in their own unique styles they showcased on the field. Jackie is seriously polished, both with the threads and the opinions; Eddie is more hard-edged but his wit is well matched with his wisdom. Henry operates like he played: Studious, meticulous, observant. When he offers his opinion during the feedback afterwards, he’ll invariably notice something that nobody else did. Henry will deliver it just like he had drifted unnoticed into space for that killer score.
It’s no wonder that Kilkenny were so successful because those Kilkenny lads bring that professional attitude and approach to everything they do. They’re all top guys to work with but there’s real humility about them too. There is no snobbery or looking down their noses at anyone. They’ll find a different way to describe bad hurling. You won’t hear them saying how different it was in their time. They have truckloads of All-Ireland medals but you wouldn’t even know they had a Junior B medal from their demeanour.
You could see that all over Kilkenny yesterday because Brian Cody’s teams play like they have never won anything. When Mikey Breen had that late chance to equalise for Tipperary, Cillian Buckley strained every sinew in his body to launch himself and get the top of his hurley to block the ball. When Breen picked up the loose sliotar and took off towards goal, he was chased down by about ten Kilkenny lads before James Maher eventually turned over the ball.
It was another big win against the old enemy. Tipperary were down some of their biggest names but they had what they had, and it still wasn’t enough against a Kilkenny team with a fair share of rookies and greenhorns. With Cody’s culture, though, green never takes long to change to the bottom line of black on the roulette wheel.
The prophets of doom have had to dive for cover but the one thing you’d have to say after the defeats to Cork and Clare was that Kilkenny never stopped fighting in those matches. Cody lowered the blade in the first half against Clare with a raft of substitutions and Kilkenny’s performances ever since have been taken from the tone of demanding more, of always wanting more for the Kilkenny jersey.
Some of the peripheral players have certainly moved closer to the centre stage; Richie Leahy, Paddy Deegan, and James Maher were all excellent. When the need was greatest, though, TJ Reid and Cillian Buckley really steadied the ship. Leahy’s winning score in injury-time was vintage Reid and Kilkenny. Breen had just landed the equaliser when Reid put up his hand and demanded the puckout. While the ball was in the air, Leahy had taken off for the pass because he knew Reid would grab it.
Across the border, it was another big win for Wexford, especially for Davy Fitz against his old team. Wexford wanted it more but you could see Davy’s inside knowledge being put to good use. Mikey O’Malley was man of the match last weekend against Cork but Davy exploited Jack O’Connor’s height advantage on Mikey and Mark Fanning bombed nearly every puckout down on top of the two of them.
By all accounts, Davy had a minibus ready to take his DCU players straight from Mallow to Wexford to speed up their recovery after the Fitzgibbon Cup final on Saturday. Clare also had Conor Cleary back from the same game but they just didn’t have the same intent or purpose as their opponents, which was understandable considering that Clare had already qualified for the quarter-finals, and Wexford wanted to make sure they did too yesterday.
The main positive for Clare was another clean sheet. They have now shipped just one goal in four games but some old issues are still recurring; they’re still giving away too many frees; their own freetaking still hasn’t been fully sorted. Whatever about the result next Sunday against Waterford, Clare need to start addressing those concerns because, otherwise, those issues could be fatal in the championship.
I’ve been saying that Walsh Park isn’t suiting Waterford but with the state of the Páirc Uí Chaoimh pitch at the moment, it wouldn’t even suit a herd of camels out for a graze, never mind the Cork hurlers. Most of these Cork lads have an adhesive first touch but they’d nearly be better off with a shovel than a hurley with the amount of sand on the pitch.
It would even drive the herd of camels around the twist because the field is like the Sahara Desert in spots. Despite all the rain we’ve had in recent weeks, the place is crying out for a drop of water and a few bags of 10-10-20 fertiliser.
Seamie Harnedy’s sending-off did restrict Cork’s chances in the match but there was a conviction about Waterford yesterday that we haven’t really seen to date this spring. After the Kilkenny defeat last weekend, I wouldn’t be surprised if Derek McGrath got the players to form a circle with chairs last Tuesday evening and thrash out a few things. ‘Hi, we need to make a stand here now lads,’ Derek may have said. And they did.
Waterford are still in the relegation frame but they got the performance they more than likely targeted. Scoring 1-20 will have pleased Derek even more, especially when they had only averaged 1-11 in their last two games.
Cork were poor but it’s hard to know how much shadow-boxing is still going on. The league quarter-finals is normally the place where most of the shadow boxing takes place. I was at the Cork-Limerick quarter-final last year and it was nearly a case of who was more desperate to lose than to win. Yet teams still want to make the last eight and there should definitely be a rise in performance levels next weekend with Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary still not safe from a relegation final.
That alone will add more spice to Cork-Tipp. Extra-spicy now, anyway. For sure.