Forced to find balance between experimentation and survival
Once again, hurling’s top division has presented us with a thrilling finale, writes Dermot Crowe
DERMOT CROWE – PUBLISHED 23 MARCH 2014 02:30 AM
TODAY the bell tolls for the final round in Division 1A of the hurling league, with the field a familiar picture of congestion. Last year a bunched finish left only two points separating Tipperary at the head of the race and Clare at the rear. A year on, those counties have traded places on the grid, four points and a bit more air dividing them. But Clare’s distance to the main chasing group is two points, score difference partitioning one from the next
It sets up a thrilling finale. A year ago, Tipperary hammered Dublin in the league semi-final at Thurles. This afternoon they have Dublin at the same venue with their guests slightly better off but, typical of the division’s instability, still fragile. Dublin come with the hides of Clare and Kilkenny. Tipperary come seeking to repent for three defeats on the run and a defence that has been leaking goals at an alarming rate.
The match in Thurles is one of the decision-makers in a league that has slimmed down the margins between success and failure, six contestants meeting over an intensive five-week period. That heightened pressure is like a restraining order on experimentation. Trying to strike the delicate balance between self-discovery and self-preservation is a challenge for the entire group.
“It is so fecking tight,” says Anthony Daly, the Dublin manager. “You would love to try out lads. You’d love to have the chance to try out more. We had injuries to Paul Schutte and David Treacy and Paul Ryan that meant we had no choice but to try out a few but there’s so much pressure to win the games.”
Kilkenny have thundered on regardless but their risk-averse approach has in all likelihood cost them points. They could still end up in a relegation play-off if they lose at home to Waterford today. Only three players have started all four games to date: Lester Ryan, Wally Walsh and Jonjo Farrell, with manager Brian Cody being true to his pledge to be bolder in selection than he felt he was last year. Colin Fennelly gave one of the displays of the league in scoring 3-5 against Tipperary on February 23. In the next round against Galway, Fennelly stayed on the bench.
For the game in Parnell Park last weekend, Cody made 10 changes from the side that defeated Galway a week earlier. They lost the match and finished with Henry Shefflin, TJ Reid and Richie Power on the field, brought on from the bench. At half-time, they trailed by ten. In eight minutes, lightning strikes from Fennelly and Reid trimmed that lead down to a goal, but Dublin showed real mettle in winning from there.
Kilkenny undermined their own chances and good work with uncharacteristically slack finishing that let Dublin off the hook, but the amount of changes would also have had an unsettling effect. They have to look at the bigger picture though and while Kilkenny have never treated the league patronisingly, their eyes are on the summer and showing they still have the capability to win a championship.
The team is in transition and Cody has to try different formulas. A win over Waterford today will see him into the quarter-finals next weekend with a better appreciation of their team options.
Last year Kilkenny experimented in the league but more mildly. They lost their opening match to Galway and made four changes for the next tie against Tipperary. Defeat there led to five changes for the third-round match against Waterford which earned their first win. Five more changes followed ahead of the match against Clare, another win, and then four changes for the Cork game, also a win.
Greater stability was noticeable as they entered the knockout stages. For the semi-final against Galway, Kilkenny showed three changes. For the final against Tipperary, the changes were down to just two, the lowest of the campaign, with those in the half-forward line. All other lines remained intact and settled.
This spring has seen Cody revert to a level of unpredictability in selection that has surpassed even his own previous personal bests. After losing to Clare, the team had five changes for the Tipperary match and it was during this game, and after, that the players were shown why reputation counts for nothing. Tommy Walsh and Brian Hogan were replaced at half-time and then dropped for the next match against Galway. Cody made eight changes and didn’t play Fennelly or Shefflin. In this illustrious company, Jonjo Farrell has been an ever-present. Not the most naturally skilled, but obviously a player whom Cody admires for having the kind of characteristics that warmed him to others in the past who handsomely repaid his faith and loyalty.
The unsung players from the 1999 under 21 team leap to mind, the likes of Martin Comerford and current selector Derek Lyng. But whether a player emerges of that calibre or not, it won’t dilute the value of fostering an atmosphere around Nowlan Park where nobody is indispensable, not even Henry.
Dublin have been operating off a much tighter squad, with experimentation more contained. Daly has managed to get them back into Division 1A at the first attempt after suffering relegation in 2012 and is keen they don’t relinquish those gains. They looked in serious trouble after losing to Waterford, a second defeat in three rounds, but have resurrected spirits and prospects with their stirring victory over Kilkenny.
If consistency in selection could only be followed by consistency in performance. Dublin could, conceivably, lose today and still avoid the relegation play-offs, having a superior score difference to Tipp and being two points better off. But they need to show that they can nail two big performances in a row, which has been eluding them. The changes that have occurred have been minimal, Daly going with the tried and trusted. The obvious risk here is staleness which might explain some of their dips.
Contrast the changes in Kilkenny to those in Dublin. After losing to Galway, Dublin made four changes for the home game against Clare though one, Paul Ryan, was down to injury. After winning there they made two changes for the next round in Waterford, one forced by injury, and despite a poor performance and defeat, they made just a single change for the Kilkenny game; hardly a gamble, recalling Danny Sutcliffe who was their best hurler.
Colm Cronin has come into the team and gained useful experience during the league, and Cian O’Callaghan and Jack Dougan have been trialled in defence. Daly would probably argue that survival is important for morale, as is the standard of hurling available to his players next spring, and that the current league structure, while gripping for the public, leaves little room for cavalier indulgences and wild gambles when it comes to selection.
“If you have a bad first match, as we had in Salthill, that really puts extra pressure on you. If we get beaten and end up in a relegation play-off the following weekend, we are not paying again till the 16th of June. That is why I would be a strong advocate of having eight teams in Division 1, with two up, two down.”
Daly casts an envious eye on Clare’s “luxury” in being able to rest the Hurler of the Year, Tony Kelly, for league games. But Clare haven’t exactly been throwing caution to the wind either. For the first round against Kilkenny, they picked the majority of the side that won last year’s All-Ireland, 12 starting the match and another coming on as substitute. The same team started the next match against Dublin. Having lost there, the team showed three changes for the visit to Tipperary. Their victory led them to Waterford in the fourth round where four changes were made, one of those due to injury.
Their opponents today, Galway, are a team in a constant state of experimentation and flux. While changes from game to game have been minimal, never exceeding three, they are testing out new positional strategies, with Iarla Tannian playing centre-back and Ronan Burke given a run at full-back, with a temporary re-appearance by Shane Kavanagh for the Kilkenny match.
Tipperary left off Paudie Maher for the Clare match after they lost to Kilkenny, but he was recalled for the next round, one of six changes when Tipperary lost to the All-Ireland champions in Thurles. But the alterations failed to prevent a third straight loss. Waterford’s bright start to the league, with two wins in their opening three games, has been reversed and they go to Nowlan Park on the back of a whipping from Clare. Injury to Maurice Shanahan and suspension for Michael Walsh has hit them hard, notably the latter’s absence in Ennis, but new manager Derek McGrath has been liberal in his approach to selection, willing to dip into his squad. After losing to Tipperary in the first round, there were six changes for the next match, though one of those was the injury-stricken Shanahan.
Daly says the prospect of playing in Division 1B isn’t one to savour but perspectives differ. “I don’t think it worried Jimmy Barry (Murphy) that much (when Cork were relegated), that’s their psyche. But we were playing Carlow in Dr Cullen Park in front of 200; I don’t mean any disrespect to them, and we didn’t find it any help. The games were dogfights and no atmosphere. And you have lads who are not learning. Like, Cian O’Callaghan came on for 15 minutes the last day and got to mark Henry Shefflin; he will take that to his grave.
“I’d like to try out a few more but you have to get the points. We had Danny Sutcliffe in ice-baths recovering last weekend and had him recuperating on Tuesday so he can play the next match. We can’t afford to rest him, we have to have him.”