For the most part counties now take the National Hurling League very seriously thus making the competition more enjoyable for supporters, writes Nickey Brennan.
The first round games were generally entertaining and gave us a first indication of where the various counties stand as we move into the month of March. The biggest headline to emerge from the first round was the poor showing of
Tipperary against Cork.
By any measurement this was a dreadful performance from the Premier County. The result, or more especially the performance, was a disappointing start for new manager Eamonn O’Shea. He looked very despondent at the end of the Páirc Uí Rinn tie.
Tipperary supporters still have unhappy memories of last August when losing to Kilkenny. Losing the recent Waterford Crystal tournament final is hardly noteworthy, but it continued a trend of poor performances.
In addition the recent disappointing performance from Thurles Sarsfields adds to Tipperary woes. Without doubt Kilcormac Killoughey deserved to win the club semi-final, but the lack of heart shown by the Thurles men was a big factor in their defeat. On the day the team with the biggest hearts were deserving winners.
No better stage
Every Tipperary player must now start taking responsibility for his performance and there is no better stage to do this than in Semple Stadium next Sunday against their conquerors of last August.
Assuming the tie does not end in a draw, by Sunday evening either Tipperary or Kilkenny will be pointless after two rounds of league games. That scenario will make it very difficult for one of the sides to reach the league knock-out stages.
Kilkenny came away from Galway after a narrow three-point loss, but unlike Tipperary the Cats were right in the game up to the final whistle. In fact, had Kilkenny not missed a number of scoreable frees in the second half they may have taken the points.
The Westerners’ three first half goals were the big difference at the finish. I am glad to see that the GAA resisted the temptation to play the game under the Semple Stadium lights on Saturday evening. A Sunday afternoon throw-in is likely to see a big crowd heading to Thurles.
Most managers use the league to try out new players and this year the Kilkenny selectors hands are forced due to a long list of injuries. Against Galway the new men all performed well. Conor Fogarty looked assured and confident at left half back, while Lester Ryan gave a highly impressive display at midfield.
Tom Breen saw very little of the ball up to the time he was substituted and I hope he gets more opportunities in the coming weeks. He is a player whose hurling will certainly improve under the guidance of Brian Cody.
New goalie Eoin Murphy had no chance with any of the three Galway goals and like Tom Breen it is important that the Glenmore man gets further opportunities between the posts.
There is real competition for the Kilkenny goalkeeping spot, but Eoin Murphy’s dilemma is the amount of game time he will get in the position with his club Glenmore over the coming months. Murphy is an outstanding talent as both a goalkeeper and a forward, but goal keeping is a very specialist role.
If he is to be the regular goalie for Kilkenny this year he will have to work extra hard in training because I doubt if he will play in that position for his club.
There was good news for the Kilkenny selectors with the return to action of John Tennyson, Cillian Buckley and Walter Walsh for UCD in the Fitzgibbon Cup semi-final.
All three have been absent for some time with injuries, but they still have some way to go to regain full fitness. They may not be ready yet for competitive League action. One senses that the trio were brought back a little early, but last Friday’s Fitzgibbon Cup semi-final was a huge game for their college, so it was a case of all hands on deck.
Nevertheless, it is good news for Kilkenny that the three players are back playing again and hopefully they will enjoy an injury-free 2013.
Brian Cody expressed satisfaction with Kilkenny’s display against Galway, but it appeared that he saw the game as one that could and possibly should have been won.
Most of the players have seen little game time for a number of months so it was understandable that their striking was a little suspect at times. As each week goes by this will improve with training moving outdoors and the hurling forming part of each session.
Defeat in Pearse Stadium sees Kilkenny head to Thurles on Sunday determined to get back to winning ways. Standing in their path will be a Tipperary side with similar ambitions.
Irrespective of what anyone is saying publicly, confidence is low in the Tipperary camp at the moment. The county has an abundance of excellent young hurlers, but most are finding the transition to the senior team a major challenge.
Against Cork it took the introduction of Lar Corbett and Eoin Kelly to bring about a second half improvement. It is now time for others to start taking on greater responsibility. After the disappointment of last year the feeling in Tipperary was that someone of Eamonn O’Shea’s stature and track record was required to instil discipline in the players.
O’Shea, if he did not know it already, now realises the scale of the challenge that lies ahead of him. But these are early days for the new manager and I expect to see a big improvement in Tipperary’s performances over the coming weeks.
A big crowd, a good pitch and two of hurling’s greatest rivals will make for an exciting afternoon next Sunday in Semple Stadium. It may only be the month of March but there is already a lot to play for between the neighbours.
Michael Ryan was rightly pleased with Waterford’s one point victory over Clare. Some of the younger Waterford players performed very well, but the road ahead remains challenging.
They meet Cork next weekend and that will be a big test for the Déise. The Rebels looked very impressive against Tipperary but they will not enjoy the same freedom next weekend. The Cork men will be favourites to capture another two points, but it is their performance that will receive most scrutiny.
New team emerging
A new Cork side is emerging. A number of players have been around for a few years and they have now been joined by some really skilful hurlers. Perhaps they do not yet possess the physicality required to win All-Ireland titles, but for sure
they are heading in the right direction. This is a Cork squad with longer term ambitions beyond 2013.
It was obvious from Davy Fitzgerald’s demeanour after Clare’s defeat to Waterford that he was far from pleased with his side’s display. There is a lot expected of Clare this year and Davy is rightly concerned that his players are
listening to too much hype right now.
The only place for those players to get refocused is on the training ground. I suspect some harsh words were spoken in Clare this past week. I met a former Galway All-Ireland medal winner last weekend and he spoke very positively about Anthony Cunningham’s work with the players and how he fully expects the team to go one better this year.
The Westerner’s clash with Clare could well be the top match this weekend as the Banner badly needs the two points to remain in League contention.