May 21st. Thurles. Field of Legends is the venue for the start of the Munster Senior Hurling Championship where reigning All Ireland SHC Champions Tipperary face up against old rival Cork. This is a provincial championship which should produce several key talking points and major clues on who will feature in the All Ireland Series at the end of the summer. Hawkeye Sidekick tries to analyze the championship and predict a winner.
Tipperary hold the aces but questions need to be answered?
Tipperary should enter into this part of the championship with confidence and swagger. They are the reigning All Ireland Champions. They possess several forwards who are capable of winning a game on their own. Serious squad depth so why the question marks?
Whether it was due to the exertions of the eventful and physical Wexford NHL semi-final or Galway performing at an extremely high level, Tipperary fell flat in the NHL final. Tipperary manager Michael Ryan was keen to stress his desire of winning this early season competition. The manner of the performance was worrying. The team collectively never got to the pitch of the game. Galway bullied the Tipperary forward line from the first throw in and with Canning and Burke providing excellent distribution inside, Tipperary were left exposed defensively and goals were promptly conceded. Perhaps it was the reality check required for the Premier County.
The news that Kieran Bergin has switched from the hurlers to the footballers is an indication that the Killenaule man was surplus to requirements. The training sessions have being on point in recent weeks and the return of Seamus Callanan is a massive boost. The Drom Inch club man is the perfect full forward target man; big, strong and with searing pace. His heavy scoring represents a massive problem for Cork this weekend. Does Cork focus their attentions on Callanan? If so, then John / Noel McGrath or Bubbles O’Dwyer will have serious displays given the space they will potentially get. It is a nightmare scenario for any manager who is trying to beat the Premier County. Tipperary will reflect on the NHL final as a blessing as the season progresses. It will be a reminder that they need to produce the work rate, tempo and game management to win.
The back line is immense. Barrett, Barry and Donagh Maher (potentially) represent a strong full back line to protect Darren Gleeson in the goals whose distribution from the back has being unheralded. The half-back line of Kennedy, Padraic and Ronan Maher can dominate matches with long range scoring another trait for this line. The midfield partnership of Brendan Maher and Michael Breen should provide the work rate and possession to set the attacking platform. Breen was a standout last season; his running lines and ability to win 50/50 ball was to the fore. Brendan Maher will game manage in the pocket potentially acting as sweeper at times. The half-forward may need to do without Bonnar Maher so the onus will be on the likes of O’Meara and O’Brien to win their individual battles. O’Brien comes with a big reputation; his aerial prowess should provide the McGrath’s and O’Dwyer endless opportunities. It is a quality side.
Cork – Jekyll and Hyde
The big question this weekend is what Cork side will turn up. If it is the side which produced stirring NHL performances against Clare and Tipperary then we are in for a superb contest. If is the side that did not show up in losses to the likes of Dublin and Limerick, then Cork will be in for an extremely torrid afternoon.
NHL 1A survival was a realistic target for Cork this season after a forgettable NHL campaign last term. The fact that Cork won several league games and secured a quarter final berth was progress. The wins this season in the NHL showed when Cork applied themselves to the contest, they were a match for anyone. Their tempo was on point and good early ball into the full forward line yielded rewards.
Cork have several magnificent players. Nash in goal is an excellent shot stopper and distributor. His back line have impressed at times. Cahalane has grown into the full back position and Mark Ellis is an excellent game reader from half-back. The midfield tandem of Cooper / Kearney and McLoughlin are solid players who are well capable of providing scores from play. The forward line has several ace marksmen who if given time and space can win games on their own.
Pa Horgan for me is their focal point. The full forward’s performance is usually indicative of how Cork are faring. An involved Horgan in open play suggests that Cork are well into the contest. His free taking is always on point. If Horgan is quiet in open exchanges, then Cork are struggling.
May 21st will be an excellent test for Cork to just show how far along the progression chart they are in this long term project. The work rate point has being mentioned frequently in previous seasons; the league campaign saw differing levels of work rate and defensively at times were exposed.
Cork need to settle into this contest early, otherwise the expansive attacking Tipperary style could open up massive holes in the Cork back line. Does Mark Ellis keep his position at half-back or does he follow his marker who will rotate and move around to create space for the inside forward line / score points at will? This is the scenario facing Cork. I think this game has come too early for this panel and a good qualifier campaign is realistically the route to take and evaluate this side.
Waterford – Now or Never
There is massive pressure on this Waterford team this season. The promise of recent seasons under Derek McGrath has to produce Liam McCarthy this season. With the emergence of a superb U21 team last season, squad depth is probably at an all time high for the Deise. It is time to deliver.
Waterford’s league campaign was very hit and miss. A superb win away at Nowlan Park and Croke Park would have suggested that Waterford were going to top the league but their home form was an issue. Losses to Tipperary, Cork were low points but it was the reversal to Galway in the quarter final which may have prompted some debate, losing a big lead in the second half to Galway at Salthill.
Deise have several superb talents. The back line is led by Noel Connors, a superb corner back whose work rate and leadership is to the fore. Kevin Moran’s ability to game manage and take the initiative when required is an immense asset. His ability to fulfill multiple positions defensively, midfield and half forward line is testament to his ability to win aerial ball. Brick Walsh is an institution. His career stats and individual accolades speak for themselves. His durability to transition from half-back to centre half-forward has being a huge plus for a Waterford forward line unit whose pace and power is incredible.
Bennett and Curran are players who will have a major say in this championship. Devine as an impact sub at full forward can add something different to the party. O’Mahony’s free taking will provide Waterford a reliable scoring source. However, the main man for this county is Austin Gleeson. The Young Hurler and Hurler of the Year is a mercurial talent; his ability to play anywhere and make an impact was to the fore last season.
Gleeson can provide the platform and leadership for Waterford to lift them to the next level this season but he needs to trust his colleagues more when with ball in hand. He was guilty at times last season for taking the spectacular long range score which would have being better served distributing to a colleague in space. Gleeson is an immense talent; no flaws in his play and his trademark runs from deep will provide the inspiration for fans and players alike.
Waterford are quietly preparing this season. The hype of last season in the epic league final is in the past and the Deise have being able to focus on their preparation with minimum of fuss. They will arrive to the provincial semi-final knowing that a big performance is required but this team needs to set the early marker. Time will tell.
Will a new look Clare Management make a difference?
A new era has arrived in Clare. Davy Fitzgerald was given the ultimatum and Moloney and O’Connor took the job. The significant development was the decision of Donal Og Cusack to remain with the county, a key move and providing stability with the newly installed management who have shown their credentials with U21 success.
What can we expect from Clare? Will the side change their style of play? Their short passing / sweeper system irked many in the game and they were exposed come the championship time last season (perhaps NHL exertions was a factor). Clare to be realistic All Ireland contenders need to change their game up, more quick ball into their forward line is a must.
Clare’s panel need to deliver this season. NHL season was underwhelming; a couple of key wins against Kilkenny and Dublin showed an exciting inside full forward line with Shanagher showing the promise from last season. There were some chastening losses as well most notably against Tipperary at Thurles where a competitive contest opened up in the last quarter with defensive issues surfacing.
Clare will look to several stars to at least advance to a provincial final. Tony Kelly is the main man for the Banner County; half-forward and midfield positioning results in the Ballyea clubman creating space to score at will. However, Kelly needs players to support him. Conlon, Shanagher inside should possess the physicality and pace to seriously threaten opposition full back lines.
The back line consists of several standout leaders. Cian Dillon has become a solid, no nonsense full back. David McInerney is a sublime hurler but question marks on where his best position is continues. Brendan Bugler and Conor Cleary provide half-back dominance.
A Munster final is the minimum requirement for a group who at times have failed to produce at the business end of the season. Clare if they can find form and tempo will be a team that no-one will want to face in the last eight of this competition.
Limerick are a work in progress. A new manager, exciting backroom staff containing Paul Kinnerk and introduction of several underage prospects means that Limerick realistically could enter the championship with low expectations. The goal from my perspective is for the team to perform well and identify leaders in the side going forward.
John Kiely has being keen to stress that this is the start of the project. NHL 1B results indicated as much. Galway (2) and Wexford losses showed glimpses of potential but the consistency of performance was not sustained enough to get over the line. The victory away to Cork was a pleasant surprise but the semi-final mauling to Galway in April was a chastening experience and one that focused fans, management and players minds.
The Limerick side contains a mix of youth and experience. Kiely has being keen to introduce several U21 stars from the 2015 All Ireland side. Potential defensive leaders for the future are Diarmuid Byrnes and Richie English. Hannan, McCarthy and Hickey will provide experience to the youngsters who will protect Nicky Quaid in the goals, a solid goalkeeper but would like to see the player out the field.
The midfield area will be interesting. Several players come to the fold. Dempsey, Browne, Ryan, O’Donovan come to mind. The unit needs to provide work rate and tempo to provide quality ball to a Limerick forward line who possess a couple of game winners. Cian Lynch has superb hurling skills, great game reader but was snuffed out due to the sweeper system. He needs space and quick ball to make an impact.
Na Piarsaigh will provide the main threat in the forward line. Dowling, Casey and Lynch will provide the main scoring threat. Casey in corner forward could be a potential star for the side with his pace and scoring threat. Hayes at full forward could be also a player for the future and has shown well in preseason games. Hegarty at wing forward will be a primary ball winner target. There is a lot of potential in these players but it might take a year or two to bed in.
I am not quite sure where Limerick are. I am hoping as a Limerick man compete well in the championship; they are the clear underdog in this championship but if a couple of young players can shine, I will be quite happy. A qualifier campaign to the quarter final is the aim realistically. Anything else is a bonus.
- Tipperary vs. Cork
Beware the wounded animal. Tipperary will throw down the early championship marker and with massive scoring threat, this is a game where Cork could potentially be on the receiving end. Tipperary by seven points after a competitive first quarter.
- Limerick vs. Clare
This is a fixture that Clare have to win. The panel are under pressure to produce. Davy Fitzgerald was the fall guy last season even though helping them to win the NHL title. Clare’s key players need to step up to the plate and I think they will just have too much for a Limerick side whose consistency performance levels during contests will come back to haunt them.
- Tipperary vs. Waterford
The marquee tie of this championship. Waterford come into the fixture probably as underdogs if Tipperary win convincingly in the opening round. Waterford will be lacking championship game time but I think this team will be keen to set the marker. I think this is the year where Waterford have to produce and this is the game that will set the tone for the rest of the season. Edging towards Waterford on this fixture. The hurt of last year’s’ provincial final will be a key motivator.
- Waterford vs. Clare
Two well matched sides. The momentum of the Tipperary win could be decisive for the Deise to win this contest. Gleeson to the fore.