After a brief lull the league series resumes with renewed intensity. It’s a three-game sprint from here to the quarter-finals on March 30 with all six teams locked on two points apiece. There’s perfect poise then as we head into the decisive phase of the series.
The visit by All Ireland champions, Clare, to the Stadium is surely a stand-out fixture. We coped comfortably with the visitors in the corresponding game last year but this time they carry the prestige of champions. For both sides the need for points should be a spur to maximum effort. The footballers of the counties make it a double header.
Last Saturday the hurling panel brushed off the hang-over from Nowlan Park with a brisk, high-scoring win over Wexford at Tom Morris’s venue. In the nature of these ‘friendly’ events it was loose and free-flowing, especially in the opening half; the second half tailed off quite noticeably.
Interestingly we had our strongest formation on duty for the initial half and opened a gap of nine points. Gleeson was untroubled in goal. O’Mahony was back and competent at full back – what a shame he missed the Kilkenny test where sterner questions were posed. Cathal Barrett in the corner maintained recent impressions – he has been the stand-out performer among the newcomers. Ronan Maher was on duty in the left corner; calm and composed in an unfussy type of way he does the right things and is definitely seen as one to nurture for the future.
Interestingly Michael Cahill was centre back where he showed to good effect; he really needs to find a more permanent base. Paudie Maher was left wing where he did some of his best hurling of recent times, an omen hopefully that he’s getting over the hump and back to the stellar player of past seasons. Shane McGrath was on the right wing; opinions remain divided on that experiment.
James Woodlock and Brendan Maher manned midfield, more adequate than brilliant. Noel McGrath was heavily involved in attack doing better as provider than scorer with the likes of Conor Kenny benefitting through his two-goal strike. Michael Heffernan was busy too but perhaps the most notable contribution was from ‘Bonner’ Maher at corner forward. He didn’t score but all the other beaverish aspects were present. Hopefully the thigh strain that forced his withdrawal isn’t serious. Callanan was quiet enough after his heroics in Nowlan Park and Jason Forde hit a few points.
We had nine changes for the second spell. Darragh Egan got his turn in goal, stopping a few tricky ones and perhaps unlucky on one of the two that got past. We had a new half back line with Padraig Heffernan in the centre between Tom Stapleton and Conor O’Brien.
Seamus Kennedy looked handy at midfield hitting over three points before retiring with another thigh problem. David Collins got on the score sheet also. The most notable in attack was Shane Bourke who hit four points – what a pity he’s not the same player every day he goes out. Kieran Morris had to retire after a brief spell, replaced by Tadhg Gallagher, scorer of our third goal. Ruairi Gleeson completed the second half line-out.
As to what line-out will face duty on Sunday I’m sure I’d have better luck guessing the lottery. We had alternating goalies last year so one wonders will Egan get a chance now after Gleeson played the opening pair of games. Will O’Mahony start full back this time? – illness kept him out of Nowlan Park. Ballina’s Michael Breen is apparently on the way back after injury; he’s viewed as a potential full back prospect though obviously he needs to build experience at this level.
Then there’s the issue of centre back. It was Michael Cahill on Saturday last though I’m told that James Barry was the option for Nowlan Park before injury intervened. Interesting to see how that one pans out against a team like Clare where Tony Kelly can be very influential; we put Conor O’Brien on him in the Crystal final. In all of this one would like to see some sort of stable structure emerging.
Brendan Maher and Woodlock seem obvious candidates for midfield. The attacking formation is anyone’s guess. Presumably Noel McGrath, Callanan and ‘Bonner’, if fit, are automatic but then you have a plethora of players for remaining positions. One wonders if Corbett or Kelly is ready for a return; will the Kieran Bergin experiment be persevered with? There are questions galore and we’ll have to wait and see what emerges.
Whatever formation is sent into action, this is a critical game for the team. Defeat here will pile on the pressure for the following Sunday in Salthill and we certainly don’t want to have relegation hanging on our final bout v. Dublin.
Clare had two very contrasting games thus far, out-battling Kilkenny in the opener but then coming up well short against the Dubs at Parnell Park. Davy has been opting for close to full strength sides in recognition of the competitiveness of this group.
We had very contrasting experiences of Clare at the Stadium last year, getting badly whipped in the Crystal final but then returning the compliment in the last league round in late March. Afterwards Davy seemed to be complimentary of Tipperary’s persistence when well ahead though later turning it into that tiresome old charge of unnecessarily trying to bury the opposition when the contest is over. I suppose that’s just Davy being Davy.
Anyway it should be interesting and instructive on Sunday. Clare have developed a reputation for fast-paced, expansive hurling though I think people are underestimating their toughness in the close encounters.
The footballers of the counties will follow the hurlers, which is a reversal of normal practice. Worries about the pitch, I’m told, are the motivation for the switch – easier to play football on a hocked-up surface than hurling, though I’m sure some will disagree. Interesting to see how many fans stay on to watch the football – it could be their biggest audience of the series. The double header presents the Clare dual-coders, such as Podge Collins, with an issue.
In other events last weekend Leinster took the inter-provincial series, Liam McGrath and Tossy Hamill sampled Fitzgibbon cup glory with WIT, and locally the clubs launched their season with opening rounds in the Challenge Cup.
The fate of those inter-provincials is a tiresome topic by now. Players and managers are all in favour but here’s the rub – the public couldn’t give the proverbial. It illustrates a stark home truth: without the fans the games are nothing and the fans have voted with their feet in this instance. Yet in the age-old tradition of the GAA I’m sure we’ll doggedly persevere with the life support.
On the local club scene two results last weekend caught the eye immediately. Silvermines had three to spare on county champs, Loughmore, and Brackens had an extra-time win over Sarsfields. They’re only opening salvos at the start of March but nonetheless noteworthy.
Finally, the advance fixture list for the hurling league has Tipperary entertaining Dublin at Nenagh in the final round on March 23. What genius came up with that one? Hopefully good sense will prevail.