Hurling’s greatest win 34th title

We ALL left Croke Park three weeks ago somewhat confused, not knowing how the team, mentors and even supporters would handle an All-Ireland hurling final replay. Any concerns we had were unfounded as Kilkenny hurled majestically to take their 34th senior title on Sunday, writes Nickey Brennan.

We ALL left Croke Park three weeks ago somewhat confused, not knowing how the team, mentors and even supporters would handle an All-Ireland hurling final replay. Any concerns we had were unfounded as Kilkenny hurled majestically to take their 34th senior title on Sunday, writes Nickey Brennan.

Kilkenny were very much the dominant side over the 70 minutes but we had a few anxious moments, principally through the concessions of the three goals, all of which might have been prevented.

Right from throw-in the attitude from the Kilkenny players was clear. The intensity and determination in the side’s play, which have been its hallmark, were now very evident and the ferocity in the tackling shook every Galway player.

The Kilkenny defence was razor sharp and tight in the early stages and the communications between the six defenders ensured every Galway forward received close attention.

Galway looked in trouble from an early stage as Kilkenny won lots of possession and the scoring conversion rate was high. Then, just like the drawn tie, Galway struck for a brace of goals which were very much against the run of play.

Both goals were the result of the Kilkenny defence being over-exposed as the Galway forwards roamed all over the pitch. After the second goal went in every Kilkenny supporter had reason to be worried.

Well focused

But on Sunday Kilkenny were extremely well focused and did not allow those two goals to upset them. The response was quick and emphatic and when Richie Power scored a goal after Eoin Larkin’s effort had been saved, Kilkenny had arrested back control of the game from the Tribesmen.

During the opening thirty-five minutes Kilkenny scored eight points from play.

Their opponents failed to register a white flag from play in that same period. When this game is being analysed over the coming weeks that statistic alone will sum up the ineptitude of the Galway attack.

The Kilkenny line out drew gasps of surprise from Cats supporters on Friday night. The comments I heard were mostly positive supporters feeling that the side had a fresh look that could trouble Galway.

It has long been a strategy of Brian Cody to play players on form and by all accounts Walter Walsh and Cillian Buckley were impressive in training. Once again the manager and his two colleagues came up trumps. Should anyone have doubted their selection?

Kilkenny might have had a second goal at the start of the second half from Richie Hogan but some desperate Galway defending saw the ball go out for a 65. That effort, though, once again emphasised Kilkenny’s determined attitude at the start of the new half.

Played second fiddle

Despite playing second fiddle to the Cats, Galway was keeping Kilkenny within its sights, but a couple of second half incidents knocked the Westerners for six.

First Cyril Donnellan scored a brilliant goal, but the referee had blown his whistle for a free in just seconds earlier. A Joe Canning blaster hit the butt of the post and came back into play and then Donnellan, perhaps feeling frustrated that his goal had not been allowed, took out his revenge on J.J. Delaney.

That finished the Galway forward’s involvement in the game and his departure ended any chance his side had of overcoming the champions. Take away the three Galway goals and this was a very comprehensive win by Kilkenny.

The team was terrific, none more so than the new kids on the block Cillian Buckley and Walter Walsh. The icing on the cake was the winning of the ninth All-Ireland medal on the field of play by Henry Shefflin.

How privileged we were to be present to see this achievement by the greatest hurler the game has known. Congratulations to Noel Hickey too, who also claimed his 9th winners medal and he got to see some action.

Requires immediate overhaul

Last Saturday was a very important day for a number of Kilkenny clubs with the staging of four under-14 county finals. There is something very special about this grade as it is the first formal club championship which young boys experience.

Most will have come through Cumann-na-mBunscol competitions but for a variety of reasons some children cross parish boundaries for their early education and play with a school which is not in their club’s catchment area.

The two best teams in the county, Dicksboro and O’Loughlin Gaels, headed to Nowlan Park for the Roinn ‘A’ final. It was an unusual final in that it was the one and only knock-out game in this year’s Roinn ‘A’ championship.

Stand out team

A draw between the city rivals will result in a replay and, consequently, we will have another knock-out tie.

The Kilkenny under-14 championship commenced in 1940 with St Patrick’s defeating Thomastown by 2-0 to 1-1. I doubt (but I stand to be corrected) if we ever had a situation which the Roinn ‘A’ championship contenders experienced this year.

At the start of 2012 nine teams participated in the Roinn ‘A’ league. James Stephens was the stand-out side, winning all games with O’Loughlin Gaels, Dicksboro and Conahy Shamrocks in the following three positions.

Every team in the Roinn ‘A’ league ended up winning at least one game and while the top four sides had an edge on the other five participants, the overall scores by each team would indicate that the Roinn ‘A’ league was well structured.

Like all the other sections at under-14 level, the expectation was that the nine teams in Roinn ‘A’ would enter an open draw for the championship. Inexplicably that did not happen.

For whatever reasons Bórd-na-nÓg opted to put the bottom five teams from the Roinn ‘A’ league into the Roinn ‘B’ championship (team were also moved to the Roinn ‘C’ championship having participated in the Roinn ‘B’ league).

This left four teams to contest the Roinn ‘A’ championship, hardly a positive development for Kilkenny hurling.

The three city teams and Conahy Shamrocks were then fixed to play a series of round-robin games to determine what most people assumed would be the basis for determining the semi-final pairings. But that was not how it turned out!

After the round-robin series Dicksboro and O’Loughlin Gaels held the top two positions followed by James Stephens with Conahy Shamrocks in fourth place.

Unsatisfactory

To operate such a prestigious championship with four teams was disappointing, but to have the top two sides meet in the Roinn ‘A’ county final and the bottom two to play in the Shield final was not how this competition should have been concluded.

The county final pairing may not have been any different, but two semi-finals in which the first side played the fourth and the second played the third would have made for a far more sensible conclusion to the championship.

In many ways it is far more disconcerting that five teams were allowed to drop down a grade for the championship. Far greater cognisance should have been taken of the performance of these teams in the under-14 league, the previous year’s Cumann na mBunscol competitions and the Lisdowney Sevens over recent years.

I can only imagine how the teams that operated in the Roinn ‘B’ league must have felt to have five clearly stronger teams imposed on them for the Roinn ‘B’ championship. Their worst fears were well founded when one looks at the results of the Roinn ‘B’ preliminary round games.

I am certainly not against the notion that a team’s championship grading cannot be altered after the leagues have been completed but what happened this year was far from satisfactory.

The lesson

The lesson from this year’s experience is that a far more robust and fairer process must be put in place to handle all regarding requests, including the specific criteria to apply mid-year when the leagues have concluded.

On Saturday a team that contested the Roinn A league won the Roinn ‘B’ championship, and a team that contested the Roinn B league won the Roinn ‘C’ championship by four points and 15 points respectively.

The Roinn ‘D’ championship this year was a 13-a-side competition (reflecting the reality in which some clubs now find themselves) and the winning team had 24 points to spare at the finish.

There is enough evidence in one day’s hurling to realise that the under-age regarding strategy needs a serious overhaul.