ON Saturday in Hamilton, New Zealand, the Irish rugby team faced the reigning world champions. One week earlier the Irish almost pulled off a maiden victory against the famous All Blacks in Christchurch. Confidence was high that Irish rugby was on the cusp of history.
The Irish just came up short in Christchurch, conceding a late drop goal to lose the game and the series. The players knew they had come mightily close to a famous win. In fact, the New Zealand media deemed Ireland unlucky losers.
Although the series was already lost, the Irish travelled to Hamilton in bullish mood, confident that they could end the short tour on a high. The game started at 8.30am. Within thirty minutes Ireland’s fate was sealed.
An under-10 blitz meant I had to be in the Polo Grounds, Jenkinstown after 9am so when I heard the final score I was not surprised (although Ireland failing to raise a flag was a shock). The result in the words of captain, Brian O’Driscoll, was embarrassing.
Eight and a half hours later many miles away from New Zealand another all-conquering side was starting out to defend a title. Kilkenny are the world champions in their code and they share many of the same qualities as the All Blacks.
Mental and physical toughness, savage determination plus a ruthless approach to every contest are the hallmarks of these two great sides. In fact, the only difference between the teams is the colour of their playing gear.
We headed to Portlaoise on Saturday afternoon expecting a rousing encounter between hurling’s greatest ever team and a Dublin side which had prepared silently, but confidently believing that their greatest hour was on hand. If the fate of the Irish in New Zealand was sealed within 30 minutes, it took a little over half that amount of time for Dublin to realise that the back door would once again be beckoning.
It was a miserable evening in O’Moore Park and we wondered what impact the greasy surface would have on the players. In the end the weather was not a factor and Dublin cannot blame the elements for such an inept performance.
The only time Dublin competed with Kilkenny was during the opening five minutes. Even then the signs looked ominous as Paul Ryan shot an early free wide which would have been the first score. To have any hope of winning, Dublin needed to keep its goal intact during the first half.
The first crack in the Dublin rearguard came in the seventh minute when Richie Power gained possession and shrugged off a number of defenders before off-loading the sliothar to T.J. Reid. The roar of the crowd was enough to indicate that the first green flag was about to be raised. That goal was the start of what was an unforgettable evening in Portlaoise for the Dubs.
The points flowed for the Cats after that goal and from an early stage a rout looked a real possibility.
One man can never make a team, but the sight of Conal Keaney departing after 12 minutes must have disheartened everyone associated with Dublin, and particularly his fellow players. The game was very much in Kilkenny’s control by the time the Cats scored their send goal courtesy of Richie Power.
As the saying goes it was ‘goodnight Irene’ after that.
Dublin was ten points behind at the interval and facing the breeze in the second half. Surely matters could only get better for the Dubs! Unfortunately, for the team and its loyal following, it got worse and a lot worse at that.
From many different sources came the view that his tie would generate the hottest of atmospheres. It was going to be physical, intense and passionate. What’s more, it was being written about as possibly the match of the year.
From an early stage we knew that was certainly not going to be the case.
Real desire and passion
The first requirement for any side starting out in the championship is to show real desire and passion. Dublin is a decent side, but on Saturday the players looked as bedazzled as a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car.
Kilkenny won simply by being Kilkenny! The team and mentors were well aware of Dublin’s capabilities and prepared accordingly. The loss of two experienced players in Michael Fennelly and Michael Rice would seriously impact on most teams, but not Kilkenny.
If David Herity, Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly were the emerging stars last year, for 2012 it is Paddy Hogan, Richie Doyle and Cillian Buckley. It is a remarkable achievement to blood six new players to championship hurling in such a short period and yet see the team continue to perform to the same exceptional standards.
Dublin’s inability to control the sliotar and gain any meaningful possession over the 70 minutes was baffling. We have seen the majority of the Dublin players over the four years of Anthony Daly’s reign and they are very capable hurlers.
For much of Saturday’s game the players looked as if they had only been brought together that morning. It appeared also as if the efforts to improve their physical condition have been done to the detriment of their hurling skills.
Tactically Dublin was all at sea and for that the sideline must stand indicted.
Did they really think that Liam Rushe would outfield J.J. Delaney for the long deliveries into the heart of the Kilkenny defence? It was no different when the sliotar was delivered into the two corners where Paul Murphy and Jackie Tyrell were equally in control.
I could not fathom the Dublin tactics which concentrated on high deliveries and a short passing game. In addition, the deployment of a two-man full-forward line was never going to trouble a rearguard as skilful as the Cats.
No good memories
The tactic of playing Peter Kelly in the corner was also baffling, when he was the obvious player for the full-back position. Remember just a few months ago he was unfortunate not to have picked up an All Star award in that position.
With the exception of goalie Gary Maguire and debutant Danny Sutcliffe, no Dublin player will have left Portlaoise with any good memories of this tie.
Not for the first time Kilkenny faced up to what was expected to be a real challenge in determined mood. No side is invincible, but the current team is as close as it gets. Still, one must admire the huge respect which Kilkenny affords its opponents.
The telepathic understanding between the Kilkenny players had Dublin chasing shadows. The speed of thought and deft touches from each Kilkenny player was incredible on an evening when one expected the constant drizzle to make it tricky for the players to control the ball.
The launching pad for Kilkenny’s success was the defence. I have mentioned three of them already. The other three were equally effective.
Brian Hogan was brilliant, but what a championship debut we got from Richie Doyle. The Barrow Rangers player is a clone of J.J. Delaney in so many ways. He was terrific and in my view was man of the match.
For the opening five minutes I thought Kilkenny might have a problem at midfield, but all such fears were quickly allayed with powerful performances from two more emerging stars, Cillian Buckley and Paddy Hogan.
The Kilkenny attack was at its rampaging best with every player getting the best of his immediate opponent. But for the brilliance of Gary Maguire in the Dublin goal, the Dubs would have suffered an even more embarrassing defeat.
The game was the ideal re-introduction to serious competitive action for Henry Shefflin. He can be well pleased with his contribution. The game will have done wonders for his confidence after two injuries that would have ended the career of a lesser player.
Anthony Daly was brutally honest in his post match interview, stating that had he picked up 20 players at the Red Cow on the way to the game they would not have performed any worse.
Daly is a great motivator and hurling warrior, but he now faces his greatest challenge to pick up his players for a gruelling Qualifiers encounter against his own county, Clare in Ennis. Make no mistake, this was a trouncing that will haunt the Dubs. The character of each one will be seriously tested now.
As Daly headed back to his native Clare on Saturday night a multitude of thoughts must have went through his mind. His hurling passion may be undiminished, but even the great Clare man must now have serious doubts about the capabilities of this current crop of Dublin hurlers.
Hurling so badly needs Dublin to succeed, but after Saturday’s poorest display in years, something has to change in the Dubs camp or their season will be over very soon.