New Zealand / Lions: Second Test Team Selections

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Do or Die for B&I Lions

In the early hours of the morning in Great Britain & Ireland, Warren Gatland and Lions management announced their side who they hope will level the test series. A team selection with plenty of talking points but Hawkeye Sidekick wonders if the changes will matter at all.

 

The Fall Guys

Warren Gatland’s fall guys were Peter O’Mahony and George Kruis who are omitted out of the twenty-three man squad and Lions center Ben Teo who has to make do with a place on the bench. Gatland was at pains to praise all these players during the team selection press conference but some of the moves do not make sense.

As mentioned in blog earlier in the week, the understanding and relationship between the Saracens players in the pack would be vital. George at hooker executing the lineout to club colleagues Itoje and Kruis would have provided stability in the set piece. With Alun Wyn Jones in the mix, it means that there is instability in the line out and the lack of a third jumper in the pack is galling.

Warburton comes into the back row to resume the captaincy. His cameo last weekend hardly set the world alight when replacing O’Mahony and the breakdown battle deteriorated for the Lions in the final quarter. The lack of back row lineout jumpers is a clear advantage to New Zealand who will look to systematically target and exploit the lack of options in the Lions set piece. Does Faletau and Warburton become lineout options in a week? I don’t think so.

Jones in the second row must consider himself incredibly lucky to hold down a test match starting berth. Ineffective in the open exchanges, unforced errors with ball in hand – rather mixed bag truth be told. Kruis has taken the hit for the ineffective second row display last weekend. Itoje is an obvious addition with his pace, power and physicality in the loose so Jones needs to complement the Saracens powerhouse accordingly; have my doubts this will happen which then questions why Gatland was not brave enough to name either Lawes or Henderson in the starting lineup.

Lawes would complement Itoje in work rate and tempo in the pack. Henderson’s ball carrying comes into the mix. The Ulster lock had an excellent outing midweek but perhaps his yellow card spelled the end of his selection hopes this weekend. Jones was average last weekend and a repeat performance will see derision from the press corp.

The front row is the same as last weekend. No genuine arguments, thought fresh legs would be an option but continuity is the theme here. George at hooker will be tested in both scrum and line-out which had good and bad moments. Furlong and Vunipola will look to assist the Saracens hooker but the unit had lapses in concentration at scrum-time which led to penalty concessions.

A pack whose back row mobility is questionable, a second row partnership untested on this tour so far and a front row where fatigue may play hugely in this test. It is a gamble from Lions management.

The half-back partnership is intriguing with the introduction of Sexton at ten to allow Farrell to move to twelve. Sexton is a fabulous footballer but I really do fear for the Leinster player this weekend; the pounding that he will receive defensively from the first New Zealand ball carrier will be tough to watch. Sexton will need the support of Faletau but the Welsh international was anonymous in the second half, protection of Murray at ruck time non-existent. Best of luck to Sexton, he is going to need it.

The center partnership on paper looks like two ball players to create attacking space for an exciting back three but defensively they look vulnerable. Teo’s crash ball carrying was one thing but he was defensively on point last weekend. Davies will need to step up defensively this weekend in Teo’s absence; a couple of missed first time tackles last weekend were noted due to the speed of New Zealand on the outside. A repeat and line breaks and tries will follow.

Farrell’s fitness remains a question mark. His game management at twelve and ability to create mismatches will be key. Can Farrell identify when Naholo, Ioane push up and place kicks in behind to test them defensively? Defensively, Farrell will be put to the pin of his collar and despite his best efforts, line breaks are going to happen on Saturday.

The back three continue. Williams will look to build on a good performance with ball in and and try to improve defensively in his aerial ball taking duties. Daly and Watson will need to vigilant throughout defensively and look to execute better than last weekend when opportunities arose. Clinical execution required from the back three but again it is more hope than expectation.

The sub bench contains ball carrying ability in abundance with Teo, Nowell and Stander in the mix but the fear is that New Zealand may have already imposed their will on the game before their arrival. A team selection with plenty of gambles contained. Whether the chips check out for Gatland is another story?

New Zealand focused on performance more than opponent

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Hansen and NZ performance key

It has being a strange week for New Zealand leading up to this test match. Gatland’s barbed comments on Kaino’s late hit on Murray earlier in the week prompted Steve Hansen to go on the national airwaves to defend his player and team.

The mantra this week has being two words: focus and performance. New Zealand management and team have being quiet from Tuesday onwards; ominous signs for the Lions and you would expect adjustments to be made to improve their performance which was good but worryingly could have being better according to Steve Hansen and players post-game last weekend.

Two forced changes for the All Blacks as Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty are injured. No weak link in the replacements; Naholo and Lienert Brown are physically imposing players who will challenge the Lions fringe defense.

Naholo is such an exciting talent; his cameo against the Lions on tour has being duly noted. Lienert Brown at thirteen could potentially have a defining game in the NZ jersey as he will look to expose the lack of three quarter continuity of the Lions. His pace, power and offloading game is on point. The signs are not good for the Lions.

Ben Smith’s absence means that Israel Dagg shifts to the fifteen jersey. Dagg will be solid under the high aerial bombs which will no doubt be launched into his direction early doors but his line running from deep will pose more problems for the Lions outside defense particularly if Barrett / Smith get quick ruck ball.

The pack is as you were. Cody Taylor (an apparent weak link from this blog lol) excelled with a display full of pace, power, tempo and work rate. The NZ front five stuffed the Lions upfront in the set piece and their defensive maul (bordering illegal) nullified any Lions attacking threat from the pack. The scrum yielded a couple of penalties which Barrett slotted over.

The back row were ferocious throughout last weekend. Kieran Read belied a player who was out of action for any considerable time with a barnstorming performance. Eighteen carries, some superb offloads in contact exposed Lions in both departments. He was ably assisted by Cane whose mobility and intelligence to commit to the breakdown is sublime. Kaino’s toughness and physicality to proceedings set the tone for the rest of the pack to follow. Similar performances will be expected and enhanced this weekend.

A defining weekend for the British & Irish Lions. A weekend which will expose team selections in key positions. New Zealand look ominously placed to improve their performance last weekend and I sense that the B&I Lions have had their chance to upset the odds. This could be a slog for Warren Gatland’s side and players such as Jones, Warburton and Sexton could be isolated and exposed for maximum reward. New Zealand to win this fixture going ahead. 20+ point win if a dry track is forecast.

 

Inter-county Hurling – Where now?

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Key decisions on hurling loom large on the horizon

Picture this. Imagine the English professional club soccer season. Imagine if only the Premier League teams played fixtures after next October for the remainder of the season while the rest of the football league (championship, league one and league two) wrapped up after only eight games.

Now picture this. June 27th and at the time of publishing this article, we have only twelve counties still playing competitive inter-county hurling championship games while all other counties including the likes of London, Warwickshire and Lancashire are done for the year with the bleak prospect of not playing another competitive inter-county hurling game until 2018.

With the rumors and speculation on an impending Hurling Super Eight format to be proposed at the specially convened congress soon, Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the proposal and wonders have the powers that be at Croke Park and the big hurling counties realized the ramifications of the move.

The Proposal

As part of the proposal, five teams will play in each provincial championship – with each team guaranteed two home and away games. Significantly, it guarantees home games for Galway in Leinster for the first time.

The top two teams in each group will contest the provincial finals, while the two third placed teams will face the losing provincial finalists in the All-Ireland quarter-final. The two provincial winners progress to the All-Ireland semi-final.

These round robin games will take place in the early stages of the championship, meaning knock-out games from quarter-finals onwards.

Hypothetical Draw

Munster Leinster
Clare Dublin
Cork Galway
Limerick Kilkenny
Tipperary Wexford
Waterford Offaly or Laois or Carlow

The Merits

For the teams involved in this new round robin format, increased revenues as all teams will be guaranteed two home games. It is particular good news for Galway who have had to travel to various Leinster venues to fulfill senior hurling fixtures in recent years with little financial reward.

Galway issued their intention to leave the Leinster provincial championship but probably seen the Munster situation and realized quite quickly that only Cork, Tipperary and Limerick have a home and away arrangement in place. Something had to change and this is the perfect solution for Galway to address their revenue stream issues in the Leinster SHC.

Clare and Waterford fans will now have championship games in their own backyard. Superb opportunity for these teams to promote the sport further within these counties with hugely competitive games in home grounds. You only have to see the scenes in Wexford a couple of weeks ago when the Model County defeated Kilkenny to get a sense of the upturn and interest in the game. It can only be good for those two teams.

There are equal number of games for teams to play in the round robin format for all participating teams. It has being leveled that Leinster SHC has favored the provincial champions with an automatic bye to the last four compared to Munster. Take Cork this season; an arduous journey to the Munster final having to beat Tipperary and Waterford was taken. Equality in fixture scheduling, the same number of preliminary games with the promise of consistent competitive encounters.

The Drawbacks

Gap between the big and small teams to widen even further

A concept which will boost the coffers of the big hurling counties and turn a blind eye to the interests of the emerging counties looking to improve in the sport.

The emerging and minnow hurling counties have reached crisis point. Fixture scheduling resulting in sparse attendances, low gate receipts and significantly minimal media coverage.

The fact that RTE did not feel compelled to televise the latter stages of any of these competitions was a massive disservice to all involved, competition organizers and the organization truth be told. The station ran lavish commercial adverts about the upcoming GAA championship while these competitions were on. A bit rich to be honest.

Why not give televised media coverage to these competitions? There were many compelling stories in these competitions such as Liam Watson lining out for Warwickshire after an illustrious career with Antrim,  Leitrim hurler Zak Moradi originally from Iraq and the re-emergence of the Cavan hurling team after a couple of years in hiatus.

The Cavan story was a magnificent effort from the Cavan Hurling Development board whose determination and hard work has led to the side back playing inter-county and establishing solid foundations for the game underage going forward in both hurling and camogie. Special kudos to Mark Hayes who was a vocal supporter of this initiative throughout either on social media or on the ground in Cavan!

We probably witnessed one of the best All Ireland Hurling final performances in the Christy Ring Cup final when James Doyle hit  a superb 4-1 to inspire Carlow to victory over a well fancied Antrim outfit. Carlow’s progress this season has being admirable with Colm Bonnar at the helm but zero national coverage on their progress until last weekend when they bowed out to Laois.

The Kildare team had an excellent season with Joe Quaid at the helm whose backroom team contained Adrian O’Sullivan who wrote a superb piece a couple of weeks ago on the plight of teams such as the Lilywhites. If you have not read it, strongly recommend the article to see the sacrifices that players and management put in during the year: What About Us?

Excellent progress has being made this season in counties such as Kildare. Investment has being put in by county boards like Kildare to promote the game but that hard work looks potentially lost because of no opportunity for emerging hurling sides to get to the next level and test themselves against the very best if this proposal passes.

Club Player

What about the club player? You hear so much from Croke Park about tackling the issues faced by the ordinary club player but these proposals will only alienate this inner fabric of the organization even further.

A senior club player is committing several nights during the week and weekends to train for the hope of county title glory but in some counties, senior club championship games are at a standstill.

Take Waterford for instance. Before their defeat to Cork in the Munster SHC two weeks ago, no county championship games in senior ranks for eight weeks prior to the fixture. This is absolutely scandalous for a senior club player to train for little reward in this time of the year which is the most suitable for hurling. I presume this was the same for IHC in the county as well particularly if county players were supposed to feature in these fixtures.

A winter slog beckons for many senior club hurlers again this season which would seriously demoralize the players and the club management teams nationwide. It is now a marathon club championship which incurs massive expense to clubs, some who are struggling to make ends meet. The big parish clubs have some hope but for the many, it is another burden on the coffers. CPA need to be swift and provide a voice to these players immediately.

Match Officials – Development

What about the match officials? What about the young referee prospect? The proposal looks to condemn any talent development in this regard with the same top tier referee panel appointments continuing to officiate the key games in the Super Eight format.

The young referee will be cast off to the hurling tundras, being assessed to an inch of their lives; common sense going out the window and multiple red cards being issued for incidents than in the bigger games would hardly warrant a stoppage in play.

The Super Eight proposal does little to garner and promote referee development and ability for a referee to climb the ladder to officiate key games. The fact that the hurling referees are the same makeup year in, year out does little to dispel this notion.

Ordinary Joe Soap – The Hurling Fan

The ordinary fan as well will need to stump up the hard earned cash to either go and support their team or have to buy a subscription to a terrestrial broadcasting network who have as much interest in the development of the sport as to retain Ireland customers. If Sky Sports could be brought on board like Lidl  (Ladies football) to invest in the game, launching grassroot programs then I would be enthused but this has not happened since their coverage started some years ago.

Limerick hurling fans potentially will have only two championship games all season; both games televised by Sky Sports. I need not say anymore with respect to the elderly hurling supporter living out in the county who has no way of getting to the games; cannot watch the coverage so the trusted hand radio in a remote farmhouse will be listened to.

Different demographics but form the backbone of the association. It has the potential to create a three tier hurling system; the big counties playing the Super Eight and essentially turning professional with increasing revenue streams; the emerging and minnow counties who will desperately look for fixtures during the year and the ordinary senior club player who trains tirelessly to the point where he gives up on senior, goes down to junior level to get game time or just quits the sport outright.

The Super Eight is a nice idea but there are fatal flaws to it, time to reflect and for county boards to challenge the proposal in depth. It would be galling if this proposal gets passed without any resistance or discussion.

In my next blog, will look at some proposals which could improve the current situation, hope this blog sets the context on my reservations for the proposed Super Eight format. I have mentioned this topic briefly throughout several blog postings this year but felt tonight was the night to deal with the issue head on.

 

Lions Selection: New Zealand Second Test

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Put up or shut up for B&I Lions

New Zealand enter the second test in buoyant mood hoping to build on their performance against a British & Irish Lions outfit who competed for fifty-five minutes of the first test only to fall off the standard required and allow New Zealand to hit with minimal fuss. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the upcoming second test.

Lions pack set piece key

The decision to name Jones over Itoje massively backfired. The athleticism and lineout partnership with Jamie George and George Kruis was sorely missed last weekend. Jones did try hard but the line-out was hit and miss, the maul was disappointingly average. Itoje’s speed and pace could have assisted the Lions back row to compete better against New Zealand who to be fair played the margins; not releasing the ball carrier, off their feet but Peyper failed to assert authority in the area. The breakdown area was a mess.

For the Lions to have any remote chance of winning this second test match, a much more cohesive front five performance is required. The scrum was inconsistent; a few lapses at engagement yielded New Zealand penalties which were clinically put away. The props potentially need to be freshened up. McGrath and Sinckler could be in line for starts to see if they can create momentum in the set-piece. Furlong and Vunipola have done little wrong but new prop options might potentially ask New Zealand more questions at scrum time.

Ineffective line speed

A keynote element of the Lions performance was their line speed; bordered on passive at times and allowed Barrett / Smith to establish territorial dominance. Lions need to provide tempo in their play on all facets.

The back row unit need require a rejig. O’Mahoney led from the front; attempted to disrupt the lineout but he and his back row colleagues were always under pressure in the breakdown from a New Zealand outfit who latched onto isolated ball carriers throughout. I suspect Sam Warburton will be asked to provide more breakdown capability.

If O’Mahoney is not starting, there is a question whether he features in the match-day squad. Back row fresh bodies are also required and does CJ Stander come into the equation? His direct running would provide New Zealand with questions to answer. I think Stander could slot into six for this second test.

New Zealand on this point were sublime. Their mobility and ability to support their line runners was on point throughout. NH rugby needs to learn from New Zealand in this aspect of play; mobility to evade the tackle and not engage in it is key which creates quicker ruck ball and forces defensive line breaks.

Defensive Organization

Teo and Davies need to start again this weekend. There were some good moments from the partnership last weekend and Lions management have made a conscious decision to name these players together. This is the test match three quarters pairing.

The defense out wide was exposed during the opening test match, more due to subdued defensive line speed inside to stifle ball carriers.

Daly and Watson at times were faced with massive defensive selections to make; do I come inside and support colleagues, try to intercept NZ passes. It was an unenviable scenario be faced. Liam Williams at full back showed his immense running ability; sublime run for the Lions first try but needs to provide more assurance in the aerial duels.

Defensive organization is key but it requires uptempo line speed and physicality inside to make this happen.

Murray Protection

Lions’ pack wholly failed to protect Murray at ruck time last weekend. Murray was targeted by New Zealand; tried to intimidate the Munster player with several late hits after the player had kicked the ball. The pack need to recognize this threat this weekend. Murray did as well as he could given the circumstances.

Gatland can issue as many sound bites on this point but the match officiating from Peyper has set the tone for the rest of the test matches; Murray needs to be protected by his colleagues, otherwise the pivotal scrum-half will get injured.

Opportunity Knocks

The British & Irish Lions had their chances against New Zealand last weekend but the lack of cutting edge and execution in the red zone (inside the 22) spoke volumes when you compared New Zealand and their opportunities.

Game management decisions and line running support needs to be better from the Lions. New Zealand and Kieran Read in particular emphasized when line runners are available and offloading is on point what can happen. Whether the Lions can improve in these facets of play in a week is questionable but it needs to improve massively.

Team Selection

Full Back: Williams

Wings: Watson, Daly

Three Quarters: Davies, Teo, Daly

Half-Backs: Murray, Farrell, Murray

Back Row: Faletau, Warburton, Stander

Second Row: Kruis, Itoje

Front Row: McGrath, George, Sinckler

 

All Ireland Hurling Qualifiers: Round 1 Preview

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The minnows look to have their work cut out this weekend

After all the hype, after all the talk of a potential match-up between the likes of Tipperary, Kilkenny and Waterford; it all fell a bit flat just after 08:30 AM when the first All Ireland Series qualifier draw was revealed. Underwhelming would be a better word. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the draw.

The Draw

If you have not heard the draw, the pick of the ties is at Nowlan Park where Kilkenny look to rebuild momentum with a fixture against a Limerick side with absolutely nothing to lose. Tipperary welcome Westmeath to Semple Stadium. Waterford travel to an Offaly side who were woeful against Galway in their last outing and Dublin entertain a Laois side who beat a gallant Carlow yesterday to get into the All Ireland Qualifier series draw yesterday.

Tipperary vs. Westmeath

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Brendan Maher

The fixtures look on paper to be favorites for the big guns so the ask of the underdogs will be to play with freedom, put their opposition under pressure and see where it takes them.

Westmeath travel to Thurles and it will be fantastic to see the likes of Tommy Doyle,  the Greville’s and Killian Doyle grace the famous sod of Semple Stadium. Doyle in particular has being superb at full-back catching the eye with several all action displays this season.

Tipperary will be relieved to start the qualifiers not to face one of the big guns. Westmeath will look to expose vulnerabilities in the full back line seen during their Cork defeat but the Premier County’s attacking options should unleash to devastating effect in this instance. Several players have points to prove and unfortunately Westmeath may feel the wrath.

The number of stories with regards to the Tipperary setup in recent weeks has being extraordinary; fake news is alive and well. These headlines should act as a spur and motivation for the panel and management to regroup and Saturday offers a first step to redemption and their attempt to retain Liam McCarthy.

You would hope that Michael Ryan’s Westmeath charges have a go during the contest. If the Lakeside county decide to sit back defensively, it will be a tough afternoon. Westmeath need to express themselves and I envisage an open contest on Saturday with some standout scores.

Tipperary to advance but the absence of Cathal Barrett will be felt later in the championship unless the likes of Michael Cahill and Donagh Maher step up to the plate. Tipperary to win by ten points or more but everyone associated with the Premier County will realize that the defining points of the season potentially could come in the second round of qualifiers.

Dublin vs. Laois

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Liam Rushe needs to lead by example

An ideal draw for Dublin but it is only going to extend the agony for another round when they will have to face one of the big guns.

Laois come into this qualifier grabbing a victory against Carlow yesterday. There was plenty of positives to come from yesterday; the panel was tested with several injuries and panel withdrawals.

This resiliency was tested even more when Ross King was sent off early for a late high hit. The O’Moore County refused to be denied and won with a brace of points at the death. Superb victory given the circumstances but defensively at times, Laois were let off the hook by a Carlow outfit who missed a golden goal opportunity in the second half.

Dublin’s season has being a nightmare. Relegation to NHL 1A and then a performance against Galway which lacked any resemblance of a good side. The rookies were thrown to the wolves; some battled gamely, others wilted due to their skill set limitations.

Dublin lacked threat upfront and were porous defensively against Galway. Liam Rushe struck an isolated figure throughout as he was moved this way and that by Galway, opening up space inside for Galway’s inside full forward line to exploit.

Ger Cunningham will continue to retain the faith and trust in the youngsters introduced against Galway. Others may say, he has no other option with the departures from the panel in recent seasons.

Dublin should advance here given that King will be suspended for the fixture; a key man for Laois with his scoring exploits. Dublin will look to the old guard such as O’Dwyer and O’Callaghan to get over the line and I think given their NHL 1A experience should win by eight points.

Laois will exit the championship but progress has being made this year. Maher, King, Healy have stood up when required but it is the defensive frailties which is the weak link which will be again exposed next Saturday. Eamonn Kelly realizes that defensive personnel additions are required next season but the current panel have given their all for the county.

Offaly vs. Waterford

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Derek McGrath’s charges should have too much for Offaly

Waterford come into this fixture with questions to answer. Their lethargic, ineffective performance over Cork was a surprise to many. Eleven weeks without a competitive match, eight weeks without a club county championship game may be factors but the manner of the performance cannot all be down to those factors.

Tactical naive, incapable of switching tactics to deliver good quality ball inside to Maurice Shanahan were key points coming out of their Munster SHC loss. Management must carry the can for the tactical setup on the day as they were unable to contend with Lehane and his positioning throughout.

However, the players on duty have to take responsibility as well. Free taking is such a crucial element of the game now and Padraic O’Mahony had an afternoon to forget with some uncharacteristically poor strikes. Waterford surely should have made a call to change free takers during the contest but this never happened.

Austin Gleeson was inconsistent during the outing; mixed the sublime with the poor. A gorgeous score on his knees in the opening period but then proceeded to balloon three efforts wide from distance when players inside were probably in a better position. Gleeson’s talent is undoubted but he needs to lead by example and make the right game management decision.

Waterford provided that the panel and management are united should have far too much for an Offaly side who were abysmal in their last outing. Shane Dooley has being their standout but he was snuffed out by Galway in their Leinster SHC exit. No other forwards made an impression as Galway cruised to a provincial final with a minimum of fuss.

The forward line issues were seen all over the pitch against Galway. Offaly defensively were all at sea against Galway; players not picking up runners from deep, players not tight enough to their man. It was basic hurling fundamental stuff.

As mentioned on this blog, Offaly in effect are a NHL 2A side and next season could be when they hit rock bottom if the likes of Joe Bergin and Shane Dooley decide to hang up their intercounty boots. Great county servants, owe nothing to the jersey but the distinct lack of quality in the ranks behind them is damning.

Waterford will learn little from this fixture. Even with their issues against Cork, their fitness and pace will be too much for the Faithful County. A ten point plus win is on the cards and Offaly will exit the championship with a whimper.

Kilkenny vs. Limerick

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Cody’s charges will look to build confidence

The hope is that the Nowlan Park will produce fireworks but the more I analyze the game, the more I fear for Limerick. This morning after the draw was made, I was of the opinion that Limerick had nothing to lose, no pressure and with a road trip into the backyard of Kilkenny to focus minds and produce a performance. I am not so sure now.

Why do I say this? Limerick’s NHL campaign and Clare championship defeat have shown the good, the bad and the downright ugly. Their lapses in concentration at key stages of games have being key themes this season. The Clare loss was predominantly self-inflicted; shambolic defending and goalkeeping, players not taking leadership when required.

Limerick have undoubted talent in their ranks but there are big issues in the full back line. The lack of pace in the full back position against Clare came back to haunt Limerick with the opening goal. Finn at corner back was the only full back line player to come out of the game with any credit.

The half-back line was mesh mash performance. Hannan was strong in the air but lack of mobility was exposed at times. Byrnes’ absence was massive and wing back areas were breached at various intervals with easy score concessions.

The midfield pairing of Browne and Ryan worked hard but the distribution and shot selection from the middle of the park to the inside full forward line left plenty to desire. Kyle Hayes was the only forward who threatened throughout from open play, not the performance to inspire confidence heading into the den of Kilkenny.

Kilkenny have their own issues at play. John Power’s exit from the panel is most un-Kilkenny like. A player walking off the panel, such annoyance and frustration is usually kept in-house. Power is a quality player but for whatever reason, Cody does not think the player can fulfill the starting role. The player has walked.

Wexford exposed defensive issues down the middle. The full back and center back positions are up for grabs after that Leinster SHC loss. Paul Murphy is a corner back and was exposed at times when asked to fill the six jersey. Will Holden be asked to play full back? No consistency in selection in either position.

The absence of Michael Fennelly was hugely felt in midfield when Wexford deployed Lee Chin to the middle of the park. Chin destroyed Kilkenny in that second half and his aerial dominance was a surprise against a side who prides themselves in dominating in the air.

The Kilkenny forward line misfired massively against Wexford. TJ Reid and Colin Fennelly showed well in the scoring stakes but the rest of the unit failed to fire. Richie Hogan had a most subdued game and was replaced like Walter Walsh.

The panel strength was emphasized with the decision to put on a reserve keeper Richie Reid into the forward line. The fact that Kilkenny played Padraic Walsh, even though the player was sidelined for several weeks prior to the contest confirmed more on the squad depth issues.

Limerick will look to produce a performance against Kilkenny. If Diarmuid Byrnes and Gearoid Hegarty are fit, then it will be a good boost but there are too many question marks on the consistent performance of this side.

John Kiely has marked this season as a work in progress and I would personally like more underage players getting game time. The campaign ends here for the Shannonsiders.

Limerick will have their periods of pressure but the more cutting edge will come from Kilkenny and a seven point win is not out of the question. Kilkenny to hit goals at various periods. Mediocre qualifiers beckon unfortunately.

 

 

 

 

New Zealand and Lions Team Selection

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Halfpenny omission a surprise

New Zealand and the British and Ireland Lions have announced their starting lineups for the first test match. Both teams have made unexpected switches, taking many pundits by surprise. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the team selections and wonders if Gatland’s gamble will pay off at the weekend.

British and Irish Lions

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Form over reputation selection

For Maro Itoje and Leigh Halfpenny, the first test team selection will be a disappointment. Both players looked like first names on the team sheet but management have thought otherwise. Jones gets the nod to partner George Kruis in the second row, a solid selection but question marks remain on match fitness as well as his lineout relationship with Jamie George linger for me personally.

The lineout is an area where the Lions cannot falter; this needs to be a solid platform and with Itoje familiarity with George for both club and country, it looked like an obvious choice. The jury is out on this selection as Itoje will patiently look for his chance to impress off the bench. Jones’ work rate is not the issue, more continuity of hooker and second row partnership built against the Crusaders and Maoris.

Halfpenny has being solid but perhaps has paid the price for the try concession against the Maoris when both he and North failed to deal with an innocous kick behind. Halfpenny’s kicking off the tee has being exemplary and his game reading overall has being on point apart from that Maori try which personally thought was more North’s responsibility than the Toulon player. Halfpenny can feel a little aggrieved not to be included in the starting lineup.

Liam Williams comes in as full back. An indifferent start to the tour but the Scarlets player took his opportunity superbly yesterday with a superb all action performance against the Chiefs. If Williams can continue in the same vain, the selection will be merited. Williams’ pace is superb and his kick game out of hand is usually on point. No issues with the selection; shows the strength in depth for full back. Imagine if Hogg was still on tour.

Daly inclusion was coming. North’s performance against the Maoris opened the door and the Wasps player took the opportunity yesterday to put his hand for selection with an excellent performance. His strengths are his pace and big boot which may come to play with long range penalty attempts. His ability to create openings was evident in the victory over the Chiefs this week. Daly, Williams and Watson provide an extremely pacy back three for Lions to use if the game gets very open and loose.

The rest of the selection I think was along familiar. Teo at twelve is no surprise, his cameos on tour with Davies at thirteen meant that Gatland and management had the former league convert in their thoughts for the test series. Murray and Farrell will be a solid half-back partnership. Murray’s box kicking game hopefully to put the likes of Dagg under immense pressure early to establish territory.

Farrell at ten will be targeted in his defensive duties. His game management is on point and it will be key for the Saracens player to set the tone early, establish territory for the Lions to potentially test New Zealand in the lineout.

Delighted for Peter O’Mahoney who has being named Lions captain. A player who leads by example. Gatland looking to target the New Zealand lineout with three genuine jumpers in the ranks. O’Mahoney will empty the tank and with the undoubted quality of Warburton coming off the bench, the breakdown area will remain competitive. The lineout disruption that O’Mahoney brings to proceedings cannot be underestimated and the lineout battle will be key for Lions to exploit particularly in this opening test.

O’Brien edges the battle for the seven jersey and Faletau was always favored for the eight jersey when Billy Vunipola withdrew from the tour. An experienced side on paper and one that will look to take the battle to New Zealand in the pack and hope to yield penalties and set a platform.

New Zealand

This is an imposing first fifteen announced by Steve Hansen today. Kieran Reid returns to the national side after a two month absence (broken thumb). Questions maybe on game time but no doubt, training has being massively intense. The pack for New Zealand is quite experienced with names such Franks, Retallick, Kaino, Reid. Cody Taylor will look to execute the lineout with efficiency; it will be interesting to see if the Lions can exploit any weak points in this set piece. The scrum looks 50/50 and match officiating will be key in the initial scrummages.

Smith and Barrett are a quality half-back pairing. Smith has put his off field indiscretions to one side and gets the nod to partner Barrett who showed his full array of skills in the trouncing of Samoa. Kicking was on point as well as making the right passing call at the right time. The center partnerhip of Williams and Crotty looks explosive. Williams was sublime for the Blues early in the Lions tour; his offloading was superb and it will be a challenge for the Lions to stop the momentum of Sonny Bill in this department.

Crotty is such a quality player; no fuss attitude and is well capable of producing a sensational line break from absolutely nothing. Dagg and Smith complete the side; not a weak point in sight. This is such a formidable outfit. Lions will look to stifle upfront and the back row battle will be key to slow down New Zealand ball. However, Lions are going to have to endure moments where Smith / Perenera gets quick early ball. New Zealand could be devastating. Hopefully, the Lions will learn from their mistakes on the tour so far and produce a stirring performance. Otherwise, New Zealand could quite easily hammer Lions. When you can afford to drop Milner Skudder and Julian Savea, life is good.

 

 

 

Lions Tour – Reflections

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Decision time for Gatland and the B&I Lions

This article was written last night before the Lions team announcement. Several keynote inclusions revealed today proving that no-one should try to predict what Warren Gatland does in team selection.

Introduction

Almost three weeks down on the British & Lions Tour and at last momentum and form is being generated by the tourists. A dominant victory over the Chiefs this morning means that the British & Lions party enter preparations for the first test match against New Zealand in renewed hope and confidence. Who has impressed, who has ground to make up and who will form the first fifteen for the first test? Hawkeye Sidekick reflects.

Front Row

Several players have stood out on the tour so far. The front row on duty against the Crusaders and Maori’s seem to have the upper hand in terms of test match selection. Furlong, George and Mako Vunipola look most likely to fill the front row spots. Their consistency over recent weeks probably gives them the edge over their midweek counterparts who have struggled at times for cohesion in set piece.

Second Row

The second row is very intriguing. Given that Jamie George looks to be ahead in the hooker position depth chart, will Gatland look to George’s club mates in Maro Itoje and George Kruis to retain continuity and set piece partnership which has being superb for Saracens this season. Obviously, Jones comes into the equation here. A natural leader of the pack. Ian Henderson has grown into the tour as well; his performance today was excellent. Gatland has options in this line so it will be interesting to see who he picks.

Back Row

The back row options is also an intriguing selection poser for Lions management. Peter O’Mahoney’s captaincy cameo has increased his chances of a test match this weekend; more strengthened by the fact that Sam Warburton is struggling for fitness.

O’Mahoney’s threat in winning opposition line-out is a real positive for the team. Warburton’s work rate and breakdown work is sublime. What does Gatland go with? I think it is far to presume that Faletau will be the number eight given the absence of the man mountain Billy Vunipola.

The other back row position is very much up for grabs. Plenty of candidates are putting their name up for selection. Sean O’Brien probably is in the box seat considering his performances over consecutive weekends but with the likes of Stander, Tipuric and Haskell in the mix, selection looks arduous. Why do I have a sneaky feeling that Justin Tipuric will be picked for this test match? Superb at the breakdown, stealing opposition ball. Gatland may conceivably go with two Welsh players in the back row.

Scrum-Half

The nine position is pretty much a lock at this time. Murray’s displays have being on point; his box kicking provides a superb platform for the Lions to exploit New Zealand back line in the air. Hopefully, the kick chase will be on point to win the territorial battle. The decision is who fills the backup scrum-half position. It looks like Laidlaw is second in the depth chart and his ability to kick penalties will be a plus. Webb has had flashes of brilliance but also flashes of indiscipline.

Fly-Half

The ten position is an area where discussion will reign. Biggar today had an excellent outing today; his game management and control were superb all game. Biggar is a different animal when he needs to prove people wrong. I think the performance today was for management to say that he wants to be part of the test match setup. A performance which will resonate with management.

If management decide that Owen Farrell will play at twelve, then the ten jersey is very much for grabs. Sexton looks to be in a good position to take the jersey given his weekend cameos but I have concerns that New Zealand will look to target the player with aggressive ball carrying. Sexton’s skill set is abundantly clear but whether he is able to ship more devastating knocks is a different question. His form is slowly coming together. The ten jersey selection is not as clear some may suggest.

Three Quarters

The three quarters looks like it will Ben Teo and Jonathan Davies unless there is a total change in management thinking. Gatland is an admirer of Teo; his abrasive ball carrying and potential offloading game looks to be catching the eye more for Lions management than the cameos of the likes of Henshaw and Joseph who have had flashes of brilliance. Davies is the all round thirteen; his game management will be key and his ability to game read New Zealand attacking plays will need to be on point.

Wings

The wings looked like a straightforward selection for management up until the start of the Chiefs fixture when the likes of Eliot Daly and Jack Nowell announced themselves to the tour. Nowell was all action throughout; his work rate and ball carrying were on point. His aerial dominance probably was the standout for me. Daly has it all to be frank. His speed, pace and kicking game means that he is guaranteed a spot in the test match squad. Whether the Wasps player is selected to start is a different story. George North has being put on notice that anymore mistakes like against the Maori’s will mean demotion from the starting lineup. I would expect North to start, the man for the big occasion tag needs to stick at the weekend, otherwise Gatland and management will get plenty of flak.

Anthony Watson has done little wrong in this tour. Lively with ball in hand and has performed his defensive duties with efficiency, the England winger is a cert to start unless management has a fundamental shift in team selection.

Full Back

The full back spot is a lock for Leigh Halfpenny. The Welsh star is so consistent in his kicking off the tee and is probably one of the first selections made by Gatland ahead of the weekend. It is a great shame that Hogg is no longer on the touring party. Liam Williams and Jared Payne had good cameos today but the loss to the Highlanders exposed both last week which has probably gone against them in test match selection.

 

Munster SHC Semi-Final: Cork 0-23 1-15 Waterford

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Slick Cork advance to the provincial final

The crowd invasion from the Cork supporters in attendance at the final whistle (could not hear it myself) told its own story. Cork had once again produced a stirring performance full of tempo and invention to deal with a Waterford side who struggled for long periods.

Defining Cork Victory

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Kingston’s charges delivered again

This is a defining victory for Cork hurling; a critical victory to backup the memorable victory over arch rivals Tipperary three weeks ago in the Munster Quarter Final. This result confirms the potential and answers the critics (including myself) who challenged and questioned this side on their performance consistency.

Those questions were emphatically answered. Each Cork player and management staff member contributed to this win. Management devised a perfect game plan to keep Waterford defensively off balance throughout; the decision to deploy Lehane around the half-back and midfield areas to strike points from long range exposed Waterford’s inability to track players from deep.

Cork management’s decision to move players around the forward line in particular Pa Horgan and Alan Cadogan reaped rewards as both marquee players played superbly. Horgan ended the day with ten points (seven from placed balls) while Cadogan won several close range frees with his selfless running. Harnedy was also prominent and his two point haul was just desserts for a superb outing.

The Cork rookies in the side again performed to a high level. I have to say the introduction of wing back Mark Coleman to the starting lineup has provided a massive upside for the team. His sideline cut in the opening period was nothing short of sensational but his all round game (game management, passing and defensive work rate) caught the eye. Ellis and Joyce provided superb support. Ellis’ game management was on point throughout and he nullified the threat of Austin Gleeson in the second half.

Cooper and Fitzgibbon chipped in with two points from a midfield. Even though Jamie Barron scored two points and Kevin Moran scored another, the Cork midfield work rate defensively and support outlets for their back line to launch attacks was pivotal.

This was a day where Cork confirmed that their win against Tipperary was no fluke; they controlled affairs for long periods of the first period without punishing Waterford on the scoreboard. All lines were firing well while Waterford were struggling to gain composure with possession. Lehane particularly in that opening period was key; his long range points oozed class and provided Cork with early confidence.

Decision Time for Waterford?

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Waterford potentially on the brink?

Despite Cork in the ascendancy, Waterford were somehow level at the break. Austin Gleeson with the pick of their scores; sensational pick up despite several Cork defenders around him to smartly dispatch the ball over the bar. The Deise will need to review and reflect on the game tape as several issues reared its head in this performance.

The lack of leadership on the pitch when Cork surged for the winning line in the third quarter was noteworthy; the key personnel were strangely subdued during this period. Veterans such as Brick Walsh and Kevin Moran struggled in the summer heat of Thurles and Austin Gleeson’s influence was perhaps negated by a leg injury sustained in the opening period.

With key players struggling for form in the contest, Waterford team colleagues started to panic with possession. The wide count for Waterford was incredibly high; several speculative efforts from long distance were never going to hit the target. Unfortunately, Padraic O’Mahony had a day to forget on placed balls. When Waterford required a steady free taker to keep the scoreboard ticking over, O’Mahony crumbled with several miscues.

Derek McGrath is four years in charge of Waterford. Progress has being made but the performance today looked lethargic and there did not appear to be the hunger or work rate as in previous years. Have Waterford players reached the peak of their powers under this management regime? Lack of competitive games will be touted but the lack of game plan and particularly the use of Maurice Shanahan was glaring from the Deise.

Shanahan was the only inside forward who threatened throughout. His goal may have being fortunate but his persistence to attack the Cork defense was rewarded. This should have being the cue for Waterford to distribute to the Lismore clubman inside but Waterford refused to change their short pass style of play. Incredibly frustrating day for the inside Waterford full forward line. Management must carry some of the blame for a blunt tactical display.

Waterford defensively were unnerved throughout. De Burca, O’Mahony and Fives tried to establish a platform but they were harried and put under immense pressure from a Cork forward line unit whose work rate was on point throughout even in trying weather conditions. The pressure exerted meant that Waterford’s forward line were not getting ideal ball to create attacking opportunities and the expected runs from deep from Barron and Moran were negated due to this.

It was sad to see legendary players such as Walsh and Moran struggle with the pace of the game. The Waterford veterans struggled to impose their influence on the contest. Walsh tried hard to get colleagues into the contest but it was a thankless task. Moran was a step or two off it all day and I was surprised he was left on for the duration of the contest.

Cork’s self-belief was challenged when Shanahan struck for his second half goal but the Rebels composure did not waver and a quick response from the impressive Horgan (free) settled any nerves.

With Ellis controlling Waterford attacking reads, Cork started to keep the scoreboard ticking over and setting up victory. Sub Cahalane again made an impact off the bench with a smart point. This was the theme of the day. Cork players contributed and delivered. Waterford frankly did not and must go into the qualifiers with massive questions to ask.

Officiating Tough Day

Barry Kelly had an extremely tough afternoon. The pace and tempo of the contest was awe inspiring as both sides were unrelenting in their speed. The officiating consistency topic again was to the fore; when you compare how Wexford / Kilkenny was officiated last weekend by Fergal Horgan, the officiating style was quite different.

Colin Fennelly’s penalties last weekend vs. Maurice Shanhan being pulled down by Cahalane in the second half today. Defenders holding and hand on the back was not pinged today. Shanahan’s penalty incident looked harsh on Waterford but how Kelly and his linesman missed Bennett with a clear helmet pull on Cahalane was staggering.

Kelly will say that he attempted to let the game flow but those incidents look glaring. Both sides will point to incidents not pinged as well. Who knows how the Munster SHC final will be officiated? It is a serious issue entering into the All Ireland Series. Credit the umpires who did their job diligently but the linesman at times did not help the man in the middle.

Conclusion

This is a day which Cork announced themselves as a viable contender in the Liam McCarthy race. Kingston and management will be keen to find out the extent of Lehane’s injury which forced the forward off late on. July 9th, Thurles and a final against Clare should be a superb occasion.

The level of Cork support today was incredible. 3-1 ratio over Waterford. Expect more Rebels to come on board as the county fully backs the team to potential provincial success. Hurling needs Cork back at the top table; that statement is emphatically true this evening despite having to play with fourteen players late in the contest!

Munster SHC Semi-Final Preview: Cork vs. Waterford

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Thurles to witness another classic?

The second Munster SHC finalist will be revealed (provided no draw) on Sunday afternoon when Cork fresh from their thrilling victory over reigning All Ireland Champions Tipperary take on a Waterford side who enter the competition as one of the main All Ireland protagonists even before they hit the sliothar in anger. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

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Cork consistency the main talking point

Cork resurgence to continue?

Cork came into the Tipperary contest pretty much under the radar. Pundits identified that Tipperary were in a vulnerable place but doubted (like myself) that Cork would have the tenacity, physicality, work rate and defensive nous to cause the upset. All those traits were emphatically answered with a stirring performance at Semple Stadium.

A superb victory but it was only a Munster SHC Quarter-Final. No silverware secured. The result will mean nothing if Cork cannot advance to the provincial final and it will require another consistent high level of performance to deliver the goods, something that this Cork side has struggled to do in recent seasons.

NHL 1A survival looked like an arduous task for Cork but the team hit the ground running with a comprehensive win over Clare in the opening game of the league. However, the inability to string consecutive quality performances eluded the side during the league campaign; evident in their final regular league season home win over Tipperary and then followed up by a meek home loss to Limerick in the NHL Quarter Final a week later, a result which was a shock to many.

For Cork to win on Sunday, all lines need to fire on all cylinders like against Tipperary. The pace and tempo from the Rebels caught the eye throughout; the debutantes were fearless and provided the platform for the likes of Harnedy, Horgan and Lehane to shine. Cork defensively stood out as well with Ellis and Cahalane providing solid platforms down the spine. When the back line was breached, Nash in goals was sublime and his puck-out strategy a vital component to victory.

Cork’s surprise performance and victory over Tipperary means that they are now out in the open, in full view. We will know an awful lot more about this Cork setup come Sunday evening. If this side deliver anything, then they have to be taken seriously as a Liam McCarthy contender; otherwise with a dangerous qualifier route, they could be in danger of being eliminated before August. High stakes indeed.

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Now or never for the Deise

Waterford’s Golden Opportunity

Given the struggles experienced by Kilkenny and Tipperary already in the championship, Waterford will not have a better chance of advancing to an All Ireland final and potentially winning the coveted Liam McCarthy. Deise manager Derek McGrath has assembled a squad with the right balance of youth and experience and it will be interesting what is different between this team to other seasons.

Waterford’s fitness and conditioning has never being an issue. The adoption of the sweeper system in recent years saw criticism from certain quarters but it had the desired effect; nullifying to a certain extent opposition forward lines and preventing goals scored against them. Some pundits will point to Tipperary and Waterford last season who did score goals in the business end of the season.

The Deise have several standout performers. Noel Connors at corner back is one of the best defenders in the game. His man marking duties will be pivotal on Sunday. O’Mahony and De Burca in the half back line will look to set the defensive platform with astute game management and distribution. Jamie Barron excelled in the midfield area last season and his pace and scoring prowess will be difficult for Cork to counteract. His running lines from deep are a real asset for Waterford.

Waterford forward line units have the potential to let loose on Sunday. Cork defenders have another serious challenge on their hands. Do they focus their attentions on the likes of Austin Gleeson and try to double mark the current hurler of the year? If they do, they leave the risk of being exposed inside with the likes of Patrick Curran, Shane Bennett in the ranks. When you add to the mix the likes of Brick Walsh and Kevin Moran, there is an abundance of quality in this Waterford lineup to punish Cork defensive sloppiness.

It will be intriguing to find out how Waterford have evolved from last season’s championship. The sweeper system limited Waterford’s ability in the inside full forward line to provide a serious goal threat. Goals win championships and if Waterford are to reach the Liam McCarthy summit, the goal scoring strike rate has to improve. Maurice Shanahan or Tom Devine potentially could be players to provide this threat but will they get the game minutes in an ultra competitive squad?

Verdict

A tough encounter beckons this weekend. Cork’s early win against Tipperary has provided Waterford with plenty of food for thought. Can Cork string back to back performances together? Waterford potentially may start this contest slowly but their pace and conditioning looks key in counteracting Cork’s key traits which beat Tipperary. Cork defensively were let off the hook on a couple of occasions by Tipperary; a second time looks unlikely and I expect Waterford to provide a marker for the rest of the championship to take note of. Cork looking to the qualifiers as the Deise will advance after an even first half to win by at least six points.

Waterford know that time is running out for certain key individuals in the panel; this should be the spur to see them over the line and avoid a treacherous qualifier series route. Austin Gleeson potentially could be the key individual of the contest and Mark Ellis’ will be asked to roam the pitch to counteract the talisman; expect space inside for Bennett inside to do untold damage. Bright skies in Thurles so this fixture should be an absolute cracker. Roll on Sunday!

Leinster SHC Semi-Final: Wexford 1-20 3-11 Kilkenny

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Wexford come through a thrilling semi-final encounter

The first Leinster SHC finalist was revealed at the weekend with Wexford dethroning current provincial kingpins Kilkenny by three points at Innovate Park. Hawkeye Sidekick pinpoints five main talking points coming from the contest.

Davy Fitzgerald Effect

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Davy Fitzgerald may have being perched up in his own corporate box at the weekend but no-one can argue about the positive impact the Clare man has had on this Wexford setup. Let us be quite frank, Wexford hurling was in a dark place twelve months ago. A poor league campaign and then a mauling at the hands of Dublin early doors in the Leinster SHC. There was a revival of sorts with a win over Cork in the qualifiers but it was short lived and an exit from the championship before August (business end of the season).

Davy and Wexford were a perfect match; both looking for redemption and success. Davy’s tenure with Clare ended on a massive sour note, an underwhelming performance in the championship last season after NHL honors cost the Sixmilebridge native his role as manager. Kudos to Wexford County board for stepping in and approaching the Clare man, a couple of counties potentially missed a trick (not looking at you Dublin).

The marked up improvement in fitness, conditioning and team work has being seen from early in the season. Resiliency was asked in abundance last weekend when Kilkenny threatened to take the game away from Wexford’s reach but the home side finished the stronger and deservedly won. A fantastic win for Wexford as a whole; time to refocus for the Leinster SHC final and a fixture with Galway.

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Lee Chin phenomenal

Hail Hail Lee Chin

A performance which was nothing short of sublime. Lee Chin was a player of note heading into this season but his performance against Kilkenny last weekend has put pundits and fans on notice that this player is a serious contender for hurler of the year honors.

Chin is all action and his ability to win the aerial battle for Wexford at key stages of this contest proved vital in the final outcome. Several catches caught the eye; the catch in the opening period (baseball style catch) was sublime but most importantly his catch immediately after Kilkenny had scored their third goal in the second half was massive. Another score for Kilkenny and Wexford may have hit the panic button. His catch was sensational and his distribution to Tomkins to dispatch over the bar was a massive moment in the contest.

His cameo in midfield was a masterstroke from Fitzgerald and Wexford management. He completely nullified Kilkenny’s midfield threat where Deegan was snuffed out after a promising opening period. The effect of this battle inspired others around him. A performance standard marker for others to follow; do not think you are going to find a more comprehensive display all season.

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Kilkenny and Brian Cody have to do serious soul searching

Kilkenny misfire in all facets of play

It is a bizarre statement to start with. Kilkenny are forever a team which is so consistently high in performance levels but last Saturday night exposed several massive issues at both ends of the park. This blog last week asked whether Kilkenny defensively were solid enough down the middle of the park. The answer was an emphatic no and was an area that Wexford exploited throughout.

The Wexford goal was a disappointing concession. Lack of defensive cover resulting in a melee in front of goal. Could Eoin Murphy have done better in his ability to clear the danger? No decisive leadership in the Kilkenny full back line to clear the danger either. Kilkenny with a Noel Hickey, JJ Delaney figure would have put bodies on the line to prevent the score; the same commitment was lacking in this occasion.

The half back line was consistently under pressure. The aerial battle, usually such a source of attacking platform for Kilkenny was non-existent at times with Chin spectacularly winning the battle single handed. Credit to Wexford half-forward line who worked tirelessly with or without the ball but Kilkenny lacked authority in this area of the pitch and it spread to the half-forward and full-forward line.

The shot selection and squandered opportunities in that opening period was another pivotal turning point of the contest. Kilkenny were so wasteful in front of goal. Padraic Walsh and Ger Aylward were hauled off for their attempted scoring contributions; Cody was clinical in his substitutions but the lack of squad depth was in full effect; minimal impact off the bench and the decision to bring on Richie Reid (backup keeper) for Richie Hogan was all you needed to know about the options that Cody felt he had at his disposal. The squad depth issues have being there for a while; Saturday night exposed the issue into a crisis.

The lack of scoring return from play was pretty abysmal. Take away the excellent contributions of Colin Fennelly and TJ Reid out of the KK scoreline, four points came from the rest of the side. Richie Hogan struggled to establish tempo or influence on the fixture. Walter Walsh was a peripheral figure; his aerial ability negated by a dominant Wexford back line performance where O’Hanlon and Ryan stood out magnificently. Walsh and Aylward had opportunities but squandered badly to the ire of Brian Cody.

The absence of the likes of Eoin Larkin were in full effect; going to be extremely hard for Kilkenny to regroup and the fact that Michael Fennelly did not line out for the side exposed further squad personnel issues. How Cody arrests the slide will be fascinating but his switches last weekend indicated that he has no serious confidence in certain fringe players.

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Kilkenny vs. Tipp Qualifier

Shark Infested Hurling Qualifier Series

There will be plenty of interested onlookers when the full hurling qualifier series draw is made next Monday. With Kilkenny now joining Tipperary in the qualifier draw, it means that the back door this season will be the most intriguing since 2013. When you add that one of Cork or Waterford and Galway or Offaly will be in the back door come next weekend, the qualifier draw could throw up some potentially explosive ties. No disrespect to Carlow and Laois who kick off this phase of the competition this weekend but the qualifiers proper will be thereafter. Roll on Monday week for the main draw!

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Wide Open Championship

Wide Open Senior Hurling Championship

The lure of provincial final glory looks more enticing given the teams in the back door already. The arrival of Waterford to the championship this weekend will shed more clues on who will be competing for Liam McCarthy honors this season. Galway and Wexford will be a massive contest; the key question is how both teams deal with the hype and excitement leading up to this final. Wexford’s celebrations were sublime but nothing has being won. Galway’s fanbase are increasingly getting confident in their outlook for their sides’ fortunes. It is a 50/50 contest for me; both sides have several threats and defensive leaders to edge the fixture. My Leinster SHC tips have held; not like Munster where Clare and Waterford / Cork will face off. I am fascinated to see what Waterford we get this season? Hoping for a more attacking focused Waterford but no habits may die hard with the sweeper system. Austin Gleeson’s positioning will be intriguing. Does he lead the side from half-forward / midfield or half-back? Cork should be in good confidence heading into this semi-final tussle; a magnificent hurling performance to beat Tipperary but that question of consistency comes into the equation this weekend? Several questions to be answered next weekend and I cannot wait. Given that the big two (KK and Tipperary) are under pressure to even get to the QF stage, it is a massive opportunity for the teams still left in the provincial championship. Roll on June 18th.

 

 

Leinster SHC Semi-Final Preview: Wexford vs. Kilkenny

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All on the line at Innovate Wexford Park

This weekend sees the entrance of a wounded Kilkenny side who will face a Wexford side who will come into the fixture in confident mood. Something has got to give. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

 

Where are Kilkenny at?

 

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Cody out to prove the doubters wrong

The big question entering into this fixture is where are Kilkenny at this season? An indifferent NHL season where Cody’s attempt to blood new charges had mixed results and was forced to rely on the tried and trusted to stave off relegation concerns.

How will Kilkenny cope with the retirement of Eoin Larkin, a half forward whose game management and ability to score a couple of points from play was always pivotal in creating the platform for Kilkenny victories. Michael Fennelly’s Achilles tendon injury as well will mean that the Cats are without one of their inspirational leaders on the pitch.

The question leveled and one which is probably unfair considering the superb talent in the ranks over the past two decades is that the squad depth is not as strong as it was.

There are a couple of questions to answer on Saturday night. Who fills the full back slot, a position where Joey Holden admirably filled two seasons ago but was exposed last season. Padraic Walsh’s name has being bandied around to fill the position but the Tullaroan man personally is better out the field in his favored wing back position.

The center back position will be an intriguing selection poser. Joyce is under huge pressure to keep his spot as Cleere looks in prime position to play the position, a player with huge potential but distinct lack of experience at senior inter-county ranks could be an issue.

Two central defensive positions with uncertainty a key theme, it will be an interesting fixture to see how Kilkenny do and management to react if those personnel decisions do not work out. All other defensive positions look water tight. Paul Murphy and Cillian Buckley who also position in the midfield area superb players and capable of snuffing out opposition threats.

The forward line still contains several potent stars who could win this contest on their own. Richie Hogan will look to set the tempo early hitting scores. A huge onus will be on Walter Walsh to provide primary ball for the forward line; a physically imposing player who is well capable of scoring as well. TJ Reid and Colin Fennelly will provide free taking nous and inside forward line threat to test out Wexford. Aylward’s return from injury will be a huge boost to the team as well; excellent goal threat as well.

Kilkenny have a point to prove this season. Pundits are writing them off at their peril and it will have to be a determined Wexford who will need to be at their very best to have any chance of victory.

Wexford – Moment of Truth

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No Davy on the sideline

Wexford enter this contest with confidence. They professionally dealt with a potential banana skin of Laois in the quarter final and it was a perfect introduction to the championship with some good and some bad parts to this performance.

Without Davy Fitzgerald on the sideline (match officials can breathe a huge sigh of relief), Wexford took time to settle into the contest but once they did, they put Laois to the sword with Kehoe, Chin and McDonald becoming prominent figures in the contest. Goal threat in abundance and more of the same is required from Wexford this weekend.

Mark Fanning’s fitness look like a crucial point for Wexford defensively this weekend as the Laois game saw a couple of defensive errors which led to scores. Fanning’s assurance in the goal should provide stability to a Wexford back line who are led by Ryan and O’Hanlon in the central defensive positions, an area which Wexford have no doubts on personnel.

The midfield area will be an unit which Kilkenny may look to exploit. A disappointing aspect of the Laois game was the number of scores conceded because of midfield runners not being picked up resulting in several scores. 1-17 to Laois was a high score to leak and conceivably could have being more given Laois’ wastefulness with some poor shot selections.

Wexford defensively need to be on point throughout this contest; any lapses will be punished and whether this will have being addressed in two weeks is debatable. The midfield unit will need to vigilant to the threat of Kilkenny and their ability to take scores from out the field.

The attacking unit is where Wexford need to impose their will early. Chin and McDonald need to come to the fore and set the platform for a home victory. With questions over Kilkenny central defense, it is imperative that Chin starts to ask questions of Kilkenny in aerial dominance. McDonald had an excellent outing against Laois and his ability to link play was immense; more of the same is required.

The work rate of the forward line units also needs to be on point. Kilkenny will relish a scenario where Wexford’s tempo / work rate wanes leading to territorial dominance and scoring opportunities. The question for Wexford is has the NHL exertions caught up with this side? Time will tell and Saturday is looming large.

This is a fascinating fixture to call. Kilkenny look to prove a point and set the marker for all others to match. Wexford are the dark horse of the Leinster SHC and a win here would propel themselves into a provincial final and a chance to advance to the All Ireland Semi-Final. The front door looks much more attractive than the back door this season.

Verdict

I have tipped Wexford to win Leinster SHC this season but the performance over Laois was lethargic at times and concerning in parts. Wexford to win will need to score goals and I think there is sufficient goal threat in the side to do this; question is whether the midfield and half back line can win their battles to setup the platform. Wexford midfield defensive responsibility cannot be underestimated here. Hesitantly tipping the home side but I expect a huge performance from Kilkenny who will look to go for the throat early doors with goals.

Wexford’s resiliency under Fitzgerald will be tested hugely on Saturday evening and it will indicate where this side is going. I believe that Wexford are a different proposition this season; their fitness and conditioning are superb and if they can force Kilkenny to call on their bench, then they have a great chance of victory. Wexford to edge a classic by two points. Younger legs will be pivotal on Saturday and Wexford have the advantage.