It is the middle of February, the pitches are still saturated with winter rainfall making hurling conditions atrocious for the start of the NHL season. Let us be frank, I am wholly against this competition starting at this time of year, surely it would make more sense for the powers that be to reschedule this competition for late March or early April when the conditions have improved to allow good quality hurling to take place and allow the Fitzgibbon Cup a chance to realistically showcase their competition at weekends and perhaps attract TV coverage. There will be more to these points in the coming weeks but this blog posting will focus on the second round of the NHL 1A and 1B fixtures up for decision. A series of games which given the small number of league fixtures look do or die for certain teams already.
There are two fixtures down for decision on Saturday night under the floodlights. After a trouncing in their visit to Galway last weekend, Cork host current league champions Waterford. This fixture usually provides plenty of fireworks and for Cork it is a pivotal fixture in their efforts to stay in the top hurling tier. Their performance last weekend was a continuation of last season’s shambolic Championship exit. Cork provided far too space for a Galway side who relished the space afforded to them passing to colleagues at will and scoring with ease. Cork were physically routed during this contest and a repeat this weekend surely will spell relegation. Kingston and Cork management have their work cut out to identify players who can fill the central defensive positions after some notable off-season retirements. The attack on paper looks decent but with Alan Harnedy destined to miss out, Cork are without one of their primary point scorers out the field. Cork realistically are in must win territory this weekend and the team should be revved up for this encounter.
Waterford come into this game fresh from a solid win over a Kilkenny team who showed ring rust early doors. The Deise performance last weekend had all the hallmarks of last season; solid defensively and launching counter attacks with pace and intent. With WIT now out of the Fitzgibbon Cup, Waterford management have virtually a full squad to chose from granted Padraic O’Mahoney still recuperating from long term injury. This fixture will be decided on who wants it more and I sense if Cork are to do anything this season. they need to send out a statement this weekend. Waterford management may decide to experiment during this contest and this could be enough to sway this tie in the Rebel’s favor. Cork and Pairc Ui Rinn is typically a happy hunting ground and suspect that the hosts will win by three points.
The second evening fixture sees Galway make the travel to our nation’s capital to face a Dublin team who like Cork were on the hands of a humbling defeat at the hands of Tipperary at Semple Stadium. The Dublin team on paper last weekend was strong with fringe players such as Crummy coming into the fold but they were outclassed by a Tipperary team who won the physical battle which set the scoring platform for an easy victory. Dublin’s off-season was marred by the news that Danny Sutcliffe decided to drop out of the panel; a shock move as Sutcliffe was a key panel member last season. Rumors of unrest between the player and management soon surfaced on the forums but it does not inspire confidence that a key county player thinks that he is better off staying away from representing his county.
Galway are Jekyll and Hyde of inter-county hurling; their performance in the All Ireland Hurling final spoke volumes. An inspired first half performance descended into a meek surrender in the second half and it is this inconsistency that Michael O’Donoghue and management need to address. Galway have the skills and the players to win a championship but the issue is how the players as a collective deal with adversity during games and how management (net new) support the team in making the right calls. Galway will come into this game full of confidence; their easy on the eye passing and shot selection impressed last weekend but they will not be afforded the same space and time by Dublin this weekend. Dublin need to win this weekend as their points difference already is at this stage a serious handicap. Ger Cunningham and his charges have received their reality check after a promising Walsh Cup campaign and I go for another home win on the basis of their need is greater. Galway like Waterford may experiment given that they won first time out and this is another factor as to why I am fancying Dublin to get their NHL 1A campaign back on track. Dublin by four to five points.
The last game of the weekend in NHL 1A looks like the proverbial game of the weekend. Tipperary travel the short hop to Nowlan Park to take on current All Ireland Hurling champions Kilkenny. Tipperary beat Dublin with surprising ease, their success was buoyed by a well balanced team performance whete the half-back and midfield dominated which allowed Tipperary’s inside full forward line to flourish scoring a collective 0-10 points. A fine return considering the absence of Seamus Callanan. The Tipperary half-back line last weekend looks like the unit that could start in the championship. James Barry at half-back is the natural choice; was wasted in the full-back line last season and his wing backs of Brendan and Padraic Maher are as accomplished wing backs as anyone in the game.
Kilkenny do not do panic and the performance last weekend in a physical encounter to near neighbors Waterford was a good first league outing. For many in the Black and Amber, it was their first genuine competitive game of the season and it showed early doors. Kilkenny started the NHL campaign slow last season and this season is no different as Brian Cody gave a couple of fringe players a chance to impress. The tried and trusted names will be back in Kilkenny colors come championship but the retirement of Richie Power and the season ending injury to Ger Aylward could seriously dent Kilkenny later in the year. This is a game which both teams will be looking to win. Michael Ryan and Tipperary management need to set down a marker to Kilkenny this year and what better way than to inflict a second successive NHL loss on Kilkenny who will be eager to get points on the board. I am edging this fixture to Tipperary as their physical display against Dublin last weekend was the best that I have seen from a Premier County in the league for several seasons. Their fitness levels were on the money and should see them over the line. Tipp to edge this by two points and it should be a cracker.
The marquee game of this division comes from Wexford as the hosts look to bounce back from a horrendous Limerick loss to entertain Davy Fitzgerald / Donal Og Cusack’s Clare outfit who eventually ran out easy winners against Offaly last time out. The Wexford camp need a boost after the shock exit of Jack Guiney from the county panel. It appeared that Guiney and Liam Dunne had settled their differences after a dramatic exit from the panel last season due to alleged disciplinary grounds but it all changed come last Friday when Guiney’s withdrawal from the county panel was common knowledge in Wexford. The Guiney situation was a distraction for Wexford as they lacked bite and physicality against Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds. The work rate and application was missing for long periods and a repeat on Sunday could spell serious danger for Liam Dunne’s tenure as county hurling manager.
Wexford need to produce a performance this weekend and Clare will be all too aware of this expected backlash considering the comments coming from Davy Fitzgerald whose pre-season preparations have being hit by the injuries to Pat Donnellan and Tony Kelly. Clare’s win against Offaly last weekend was routine and all the forward line unit got on the scoreboard. Peter Duggan at full-forward was a worthwhile experiment but the performance has to be guarded considering Offaly’s disciplinary self-destruction in the second half where two players were sent off in an eight minute spell. Clare will receive a stern test from an improved Wexford who should have some of the Oulart the Ballagh contingent back to the first team fold but the Banner men look like they mean business early doors in the season so it is Clare for me by five points.
Limerick travel to Killarney to meet Ciaran Carey and Mark Foley’s Kerry team who shocked Laois last weekend with a fully merited seven point win albeit I sense that this weekend will be a difficult task. Limerick hurling is on a fine run at present with the success of Na Piarsaigh in club and the third level college success of LIT, Mary Immaculate and UL reaching the last four of the Fitzgibbon Cup. Limerick’s performance last weekend was solid albeit Wexford were extremely poor. Several players took their opportunity with both hands and the scoreboard ticked over throughout. Limerick on paper should have too much for a Kerry team who will battle hard in the first fifty minutes but sense that Limerick’s squad depth in the last twenty minutes will see them home. Limerick to win by five points at least but Kerry will show anyone at this game why they defeated Laois last weekend, some tidy hurlers in their side and this experience is what they crave as they prepare for their debut in Leinster SHC in the summer.
The last game of the division looks like the proverbial must win to stave off relegation. Laois and Offaly come into this game on the back of two poor losses. Laois were beaten comprehensively by a rampant and hungry Kerry at home while Offaly were a long second best to Clare despite their red cards. It is going to be tough to pick a winner in this game as both sides showed precious little last weekend. Offaly get the nod more because there may be added incentive to beat Laois after last season’s reversals. Whoever losses is destined to prop the division table with Kerry looking menacing to add another victory to their name.