In recent years, the Leinster SHC has being seen by many as a championship lacking significant competition with Kilkenny and Galway ahead of the chasing pack in the province. This year looks different with question marks posed over Kilkenny’s squad depth with notable departures in the off-season, a resurgent Galway who won the league crown and the dark horse which is Wexford led by Davy Fitzgerald. It looks quite the compelling provincial championship and will provide clues as to who will be in contention as serious contenders for Liam McCarthy. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.
I always chuckle this time of year when the national broadcaster officially launches their summer coverage even though the All Ireland SHC championship has in fact being in full swing for a couple of weeks. The Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher are already into their knock-out rounds after round robin games and Leinster SHC Qualifiers are already two games in. Sure, Connacht SFC has already started but never mind, the championship really starts next weekend. It is a great shame that no-one is covering these games on television.
I was in attendance for the pivotal fixture between Kerry and Laois in Austin Stack Park, Tralee. The O’Moore County backroom staff is impressive. Eamonn Kelly has added the experience of Ollie Moran (hurling skills and selector) and Armagh football maestro Oisin McConville have arrived and after today’s performance, you can see the contribution they are making.
After Shane Nolan’s quick goal brace before the interval, Kerry were four points ahead but Laois showed massive resiliency and fight to turn the fixture on its head within the first ten minutes of the second half. Even though, Kerry fought back gallantly despite losing their corner back for a second yellow card after forty-five minutes, Laois never genuinely looked like relinquishing their second half lead.
Laois have several standout talents in the likes of Stephen Maher who has played superbly for college and county. The midfield duo of Ross King and Patrick Purcell have come to the fore this season; King scored thirty-three points in his last three games. You can add other 0-13 points to the tally after today, unerring from free taking. Purcell scored 3-6 from play against Meath in the last round; attacking options from deep for any opposition to counteract. Purcell contributed with several scores from play again.
The issue has being defensively for the O’Moore County; the league defeats exposed serious issues defensively as the likes of Limerick, Galway scored at times at will. The first two qualifier scores conceded of 2-17 conceded to Westmeath and 2-13 to Meath indicates that improvements still are needed without the ball. There is more to mull over for Kelly and management with today’s cameo. The back line had looked comfortable in the opening period but then were rattled with two individual pieces of brilliance from Nolan at the end of the second half; the first a great catch for the lead-up to the goal and the second a superb piece of individual skill; glorious first touch before dispatching to the net. Laois back line will assess where that went wrong but the pressure up the field for the lead-up to both goals was more. Lapses in concentration undermined Laois today; was not punished today but after the quarter-final draw, Wexford will be an entirely different proposition.
Such was the tightness of the qualifiers; any one of the four teams could have advanced to the quarter final stage. Westmeath advanced for a quarter final home tie against Offaly with a determined two point over a Meath side who never gave up. Westmeath ran Laois extremely close in the opening round but their tepid performance over Kerry at home raised questions of where Westmeath hurling was going. Michael Ryan issued the battle cry during the week and the players responded even coping with an opening half red card to win. A two point win and the usual suspects stood up. Tommy Doyle at full back and the Greville brothers coming up big particularly in the second half. Westmeath’s early poor form in this qualifiers has being put to bed hopefully to compete and perhaps upset a vulnerable Offaly at home.
The qualifiers have thrown up some exciting results, an interesting finale. Minimal television coverage means that the likes of Shane Nolan, Ross King, Tommy Doyle’s profile is not elevated to the general public domain. The standard of the game today in Tralee was good but there were times when the game management, shot selection at times was lacking in addition to some weak defending under the dropping ball. We will find out how good this qualifier series will be when Wexford and Offaly take on the victors from the group stages.
Laois after winning their three fixtures in the qualifiers were luckless in the quarter-final draw. Offaly privately will be relieved not to face the O’Moore County in Portlaoise considering their recent head-to-head record. It was a stinking draw for Laois truth be told. A charged up Wexford entering Portlaoise looking to set an early marker. Laois are a lovely hurling team with lots of potential but the lapses of concentration today will be ruthlessly exposed by Wexford and this fixture could get out of hand early if Laois produce a repeat performance. Hopefully, this will not be the case for a youthful hurling panel and impressive managerial / backroom staff who have made positive strides in the championship to date.
The qualifier teams will be eyeing up Offaly in the next round. Kevin Ryan has inherited a mediocre squad. There is over reliance on the established stars and the lack of any underage success has resulted in this decline. Ryan must be jinxed; he endured a torrid time at Antrim and has endured more in Offaly since taking over. A league campaign with significantly more lows than highs; the only high was beating Kerry on the final day of the regular NHL season but any optimism was wiped away a week later with a humiliating defeat to neighbors Tipperary at home. Shane Dooley remains a talismanic figure in attack but there are general issues in defense – massive scores have being leaked this season.
All the blame cannot go on the back line, work rate out the field at times has being extremely poor. Offaly are vulnerable to an upset in the qualifier finals; lack of championship game time may hurt them. If it faced Laois then they would have being under serious trouble but they should have just about enough to get past Westmeath but that will be that. A thumping Leinster semi-final loss beckons potentially and dependent on squad morale could signal a meek qualifier series elimination. The county are in serious trouble and I fear we have not seen rock bottom yet for the Faithful County — sad plight.
Can Dublin arrest the slide?
The standout early fixture of the Leinster SHC is the meeting of Dublin and Galway. Tullamore on May 28th should be a sell out for this tussle. Dublin under Ger Cunningham has waned; a disappointing league season with sobering losses at the start of league campaign against Tipperary and at the end with losses to Clare in Ennis consigning them to NHL 1B next season. In the middle of the league, the panel and management galvanized by critical comments stirred themselves to an excellent road trip win to Cork. This represented the only high point from a disappointing campaign.
The absence of the likes of Danny Sutcliffe in the squad is most disappointing; media reports of panel unrest from outside the camp add more complexity. Dublin will come into the championship with a point to prove; the youthful age profile of the squad will bear fruit long term but the cut and thrust of championship, you need more than work rate to advance deep in the championship.
Dublin enter the championship with many pundits not giving them a chance of making an impact in the championship despite Cuala winning the All Ireland SHC. Liam Rushe’s impact needs to be monumental for Dublin to upset the odds against Galway. One player cannot win the game on his own and suspect that Galway should have too much for Dublin but the level of performance from both sides will be closely monitored.
Consistency needs to be unlocked for Galway
Galway’s emphatic win over Tipperary in the NHL final showed everything that was good with the team when on top form. The back line was aggressive, worked in packs and did not give Tipperary any time to settle on the ball. Callanan, Burke, McInerney are physically imposing and lead by example. The midfield maestro that is David Burke oozes class in open play; contributing scores and setting up his inside forward line with intelligent passes into space.
The decision to play Aidan Harte further up the pitch has being a masterstroke with the Gort man reveling in the open space. Joe Canning – when Joe is on song, the rest of the forward line responds in kind. His distribution in the NHL final was sensational; he sees plays emerge before anyone else and has allowed the likes of Flynn, Whelan and Mannion to impose their influence on the game.
Flynn has the potential to be the game changer for Galway this season; he has all the attribute to score heavy for Galway – speed and eye for goal. Confidence issues in past seasons should be in the past given his performance against Tipperary. Whelan for a young player has massive power and strength. Mannion inside is a naturally gifted hurler, left and right hand which gives him the space to score at will.
The question for Galway is the consistency of performance something pundits have banged on about for years. One good game does not make a summer; the flat performances after impressive displays are baffling. O’Donoghue and management need to come up with answers, otherwise this talented panel will come short again for championship honors, a shame for the likes of Joe Canning who has being an excellent servant of the team.
Wexford – Opportunity Knocks
A new era has arrived in Wexford hurling. The excitement and media interest in Wexford hurling after the appointment of Davy Fitzgerald is most welcome. Leinster need a strong Wexford to make the provincial hurling championship competitive. The league campaign was excellent; promotion from the notoriously difficult NHL 1B was secured with two opening wins over Limerick and Galway where they battled back from the dead to win in Salthill with a stellar last quarter performance. No disrespect to the other counties in NHL 1B but Wexford professionally won their remaining fixtures with minimum of fuss.
The NHL Quarter Final victory over Kilkenny was a key milestone; first time Wexford had beaten Kilkenny in Nowlan Park since 2004. 2-18 to 0-19 score line was just desserts for a dominant display with the likes of Liam Ryan, Matthew O’Hanlon setting the platform defensively for the likes of Lee Chin, Conor McDonald to impose their influence in attack.
Chin and McDonald are key players for Wexford; their scoring threat needs to continue in the championship – McDonald is superb; his first touch and ability to find colleagues in space at times is a joy to watch. Chin has physical power and his aerial threat will pose problems for anyone in the championship. When you consider the likes of Jack Guiney, Harry Kehoe coming off the bench, Fitzgerald has aces in reserve. Wexford perhaps are missing one more standout performer in the middle
The question for Wexford is how much effort has the NHL campaign taken out of the panel? Clare last season tolled after a dominant NHL display; performances were lethargic and lacked spark or bite. Has Davy Fitzgerald learned anything from last season? If not, Wexford potentially will face up to a Kilkenny team with revenge on their mind. Wexford though for me are a team on the up and one hopes that they can make the necessary impact to the provincial championship and ultimately All Ireland Championship series.
The fact that Davy Fitzgerald is suspended due to his party piece against Tipperary at Nowlan Park may dampen the enthusiasm on the pitch but the move might prompt the team to take more responsibility to set the tempo themselves. Wexford may not win Leinster but they will cause a notable scalp in the All Ireland Series and one would not be surprised if the team are in the All Ireland Semi-Final come August. The semi-final tussle against Kilkenny has all the hallmarks of a classic; whoever wins could be set fare for a long summer.
There are question marks over Kilkenny. The manner of their defeat in the All Ireland Hurling Final to Tipperary was eye opening; their inability to stem the flow of Tipperary attacks in the second half was a major talking point. Cody and management did not feel they had the options on the bench to negate the threat. The core question of squad depth was seen during the league campaign as well; no genuine talent coming from the back line who struggled at times this season so much so that Padraic Walsh was deployed to full back during the league to see if the pressure could be lifted off Joey Holden who despite admirably filling the position is a wing back / half back option.
The template to beat Kilkenny is there; it is down to opposition to try to outwork and be smart with possession to create space to score. Clare in the NHL semi-final last season executed the perfect game plan; drew Kilkenny’s half-back line out the field and supplied endless ball into space for their inside full forward to score. Their searing pace inside was too much for Kilkenny. Tipperary also provided a variant on this trick; defensively dominant and created scores with intelligent passing moves. Callanan at full forward was receiving superb ball inside and with his pace and power, Holden had not a prayer.
This is all well and good but the fact of the matter is that Kilkenny still possess two of the major hurling forward of this era or any era. TJ Reid and Richie Hogan are consistency personified; these players will punish any defensive lapses and their technique means that the scoreboard keeps on ticking. Richie Hogan last season was sublime despite his injuries to his feet; training schedule constraints but still managed to produce stellar standout performances. Reid as a free taker is beyond reproach but his ability to create chances inside for Colin Fennelly, Liam Blanchfield, Ger Alyward (welcome boost) is a side to his play not given the credit that it deserves.
There is still serious talent in the starting lineup. Lester Ryan, Cillian Buckley and the potential return of Michael Fennelly (talisman) means that Kilkenny will not be far off but there are questions defensively with the full back and center position spots open for discussion. Michael Fennelly’s layoff from injury is a concern as well as the fact the likes of Eoin Larkin have called time on his glittering career. Who is going to win the primary / secondary ball in the half-forward line?
Walter Walsh will be the primary target but Larkin was adept at winning the breaking ball and chipping in with a couple of keynote scores. I am not seeing that option in the half-forward line. Squad depth has waned naturally given the fact that you cannot replace players of the ilk of Tommy Walsh, Eoin Larkin et al. Questions a plenty for Kilkenny to answer ahead of the championship and with a potential blockbuster semi-final against Wexford looming large in June, the squad will be tested massively even before the All Ireland series, something that at times did not happen in provincial championship of recent years.
- Laois vs. Wexford — Wexford by at least eight points. Laois to show potential but defensive woes will be exposed. Conor McDonald to the fore.
- Dublin vs. Galway — Galway class on show, seven point win. Dublin need to score heavy and I just cannot say this happening. Ger Cunningham on the brink.
- Wexford vs. Kilkenny — defensive woes for Cody. Wexford to win by three points.
- Galway vs. Offaly — resounding win for Galway. Ten points win.
- Wexford vs. Galway — Momentum will be Wexford ahead of this provincial final and could prove decisive. Three point win for Davy Fitzgerald’s charges. There potentially could be dancing at the crossroads again.
Several variables remain up in the air at this time. I think the winner of Kilkenny / Wexford will have a huge say on the championship. Galway are hotly fancied but there is still this nagging question on their consistency of performance. On their day, Galway can beat anyone but for now it could be a Leinster final berth with passage to the quarter finals. Wexford have beaten Kilkenny in the league but the championship is an entirely different animal; this potentially could be the game of the year. If Wexford win this fixture, then the momentum built will take them all the way to the Bob O’Keefe Cup. I will go with Wexford to surprise some and win the championship. Davy will have Wexford prepared; it all comes down to game management on the pitch and with Kilkenny looking vulnerable defensively, Chin and McDonald may have pivotal games and Wexford will only win this contest if they score goals against Kilkenny. Unless the hype in the county gets to the panel, Wexford are the dark horse here. If this comes to pass, Kilkenny will be in serious trouble to secure an All-Ireland semi-final berth with the likes of Clare / Waterford / Tipperary / Cork potentially coming through the back door.