Miracles never cease. For once, the National Hurling League finds itself not having to defend itself against charges of unfairness/irrelevance/pointlessness/boredom/all of the above as the fate of nearly every team went down, quite literally, to the last puck of the final round of matches. Had Waterford or Cork conjured up late goals in their respective games then the table would have spun like a top. As it was, there is some slight irritation to see the All-Ireland, Munster and Leinster champions in the top three places, giving an unfair impression of as-you-were. But overall it has been a rollercoaster contest, and given the usual denunciations of the League format for being all of the above, the authorities have much to be pleased about.
Sadly for them, and happily for those of us who like to be disagreeable for the sake of it, it’s never that simple. Each team’s performance will only be properly assessed in September. No doubt there was some pundit somewhere who wrote a preview of last year’s All-Ireland final and opined that Galway’s playoff torment last year when they only got past Dublin after a replay was really a blessing in disguise as it toughened them up for what was to come. Clare and Cork will be hard pressed to see those advantages from their current perspective. Then there’s Waterford, the only team without a game between now and the Championship. Will we be better off for coming into the Clare game fresh, or worse off for not having another game in which to iron out the kinks? No sod knows, but that won’t stop experts rushing in to fill the vacuum of knowledge with their considered opinions.
While I may scoff at the meanderings of pundits, all the while hopefully giving off a sense of awareness of the irony of a blogger scoffing at the meandering of pundits, there is ultimately no damage done by their retrospective know-it-all attitude to the League. More serious is what happens next. Not at the top of the League where Tipperary, Kilkenny and Galway will trip over themselves to downplay its significance, all the while skirting around the challenge provided by whoever emerges from the Limerick-Dublin promotion playoff, a team that will be as high as a kite from the relief of escaping the abyss that is Division 1B. No, the serious business is the result of the Clare-Cork relegation playoff.
I’m not one for conspiracy theories. It’s always amusing how people rub their chins in a told-you-so fashion about how they predicted the draw for the Championship, particularly the qualifiers, before it happened. Note that these predictions are never revealed until after the draw was made. It’s not as if you would need to put your prediction in a sealed envelope with a postmark on it or take a photo with the newspaper from the day the prediction was made for it to be a verifiable vision of the future. All that’s needed is to put it on a message board and viola! the corruption of those in positions of power is laid bare. Maybe those making these self-evidently foolish accusations of corruption are plants designed to distract from the true seers and their plaintive cries, lost in the wilderness of obfuscation. It’s genius, I tell you, evil genius!
Okay, that paragraph went off on a tangent too far. The concern from the Clare-Cork game is simple. If Cork get relegated and they change the format of the League then all suggestions that the GAA is hard-wired to bow to the needs of the Big Three will have found a solid example from which even the loopiest of conspiracies can claim validity. Despite the thrilling 2013 season, the current League format is not without problems. Tom Dempsey got a lot of stick from Waterford supporters for blithely talking around us on RTÉ’s Sunday Sport programme as if we don’t exist, but anyone who listened to him a lot through the spring will have heard his repeated objections to the one-up-one-down format of Divisions 1A/B, and he’s right. It’s simply not fair that Limerick should have to enter a playoff against Dublin to see who gets promoted, just as it was unfair last year that Galway had to playoff against Dublin last year despite winning two games to Dublin’s none, and finishing ahead of Waterford on points difference but losing on the head-to-head - they might feel some small sense of satisfaction that it was us who lost out to them on the head-to-head this year.
It’s unfair, but no one in authority cares as long as it’s only the grunts who count their All-Ireland successes in single figures that fall into its clutches. So you can well imagine the hysterics that will erupt in Croke Park should Cork find themselves in Division 1B next year. When Cork failed to fulfil fixtures in the 2008 NHL, their only penalty was to have the games awarded to the opposition, one of which happened to be against Waterford. There was understandable fury in Wexford as Waterford were effectively gifted two points while Wexford played and lost to a full-strength Cork. Had it been the other way around, and Waterford ended up losing to Cork in a playoff to see who got into the knockout stages, it would have been Waterford who ended up in Division 2 for 2009. Every action that was taken was designed to accommodate Cork – God forbid that they might be penalised for distorting the competition in the manner they did – and we were the lucky beneficiaries of those actions. With all that in mind, can you see the GAA accepting the status quo should Clare beat Cork and the Rebels find themselves slumming it with Antrim and Laois/Westmeath next year? Yerra, the League will seem ripe for another restructuring and the success of Division 1A in providing so many thrills and spills in 2013 be damned.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Headquarters will be pleased to see that no one is safe. Maybe they’ll respect the integrity of the process. I’m happy to be proven wrong, and it’s why I’m hoping Clare beat Cork. If this happens and Cork are banished to the quicksands of Division 1B, I’ll be delighted to hold my hands up and say I misjudged those who run the association and their motivations. Should Cork lose though and the League is rejigged to keep them in the standards to which they are accustomed, I may find myself donning a tinfoil hat with all the other kooks claiming that those making the Championship draws don’t rattle those balls/hurleys in the pot with sufficient vigour.
Mrs d has a great love for all things medieval and monastic, so on our second trip together to Ireland I suggested that Mount Melleray might be a nice place to visit. As we set out for west Waterford she inquired as to what state the buildings were in. A moment passed while I tried to work out what she meant, and then it hit me: she thought the building was a ruin. Her face when she realised that there was a working monastery in Waterford was even more of a joy than usual to behold.
And the Waterford County Board must be grateful for the existence of Mount Melleray as a place where they can carry on their deliberations on the identity of the next senior hurling manager. As with the departure of Davy Fitz the vacuum of information is total and we are left to rely on sources that might as well come with inbuilt inverted commas. A column from Dermot Crowe in yesterday’s Sindo typifies the genre, with Jason Ryan being touted as the front-runner. This is despite Ryan saying:
he had not applied for the job and that he wasn’t nominated by the clubs, while also stating that there were other candidates in contention who deserved respect and due recognition. However, as with any management appointment process, informal discussions can take place and it is believed that a six-man sub-committee has been in contact with Ryan.
“It is believed”? In other words, he’s guessing. About the best can be said for this is that Dermot has had a conversation with someone who is convinced that the six-man panel (whoever they are) are gravitating towards Ryan. Woodward and Bernstein it ain’t.
Still, articles like this do serve a function in that they give us something to talk about. And I have to admit that the notion of Ryan taking over is an intriguing one. His success with Wexford was built on neither a robust inheritance from underage teams (it was only this year that they won anything at those levels) or the talismanic powers of a great player (their run to the Leinster final this year was achieved without Mattie Forde). His achievements there far outweigh those accrued at inter-county level by the other people being mooted for the job. Yes, even those of Liam Dunne.
Of course, there is the small matter of him never having managed a hurling team, something noted by @LDelpiero on Twitter:
Why not ask Trapitoni if he is interested then? They are different games!
One is tempted to be glib and observe that Trap would at least stop the full-back line from leaking goals. On a more substantive note, anyone who has played Gaelic games in Waterford will be familiar with both sports at some level and Stradbally is proudly a dual club. What Ryan would hopefully bring to the table from his time with Wexford would be the ability to organise a team that can win what Nicky English referred to as the fourteen little battles. You’ll win more than half of the games where you are superior in eight positions, almost all of them where you are on top in nine, and where you win in ten or more positions you’ll have the 2011 Munster final. The Wexford County Board saw something in Jason Ryan four years ago that made them take a risk on the young Turk. Waterford would do well to take such a risk too. And if I’m wrong, I’ll become a monk at Melleray and take a vow of silence. It’s win-win!
Far be it for me to scoff at another website for giving out duff information after having the wrong date of our final NHL match against Galway on the site for, ooh, about six months. But you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t laugh at the Indo’s blunder on Thursday when they let a generic match report prepared in anticipation of the Leinster Under-21 football final between Wexford and Longford slip through the net. The link is gone, but with the magic of Print Scrn. . .
It was often said that losing at the semi-final stage of the English FA Cup was worse than losing in the final. There was a a sliver of validity to this notion in an era when playing at Wembley was a special experience but generally it was a comment made by pundits who couldn’t think of anything original to say. And the failure of yet another Waterford team at the semi-final stage doesn’t make it any more true. Given the beatings we’ve taken in finals, there might be a perverse relief to be had from De La Salle’s loss to Clarinbridge. Maybe O’Loughlin Gaels would have done unto DLS as Portumna did unto DLS in 2009.
Still, even putting aside the heart-breaking manner of the defeat, it’s disspiriting that we can’t seem to get over the semi-final hump. A Kilkenny contributor on AFR once ridiculed our efforts over the years on the basis that if you couldn’t even win semi-finals on a frequent basis you couldn’t claim to have come ‘close’ to winning the All-Ireland. This guy was a particularly vicious individual, the type of character who thinks that the excellence of his fellow countymen at hurling makes him a better person than anyone from Waterford, and would usually sprinkle his comments with asides on the moral fibre (or, as he saw it, the lack thereof) of the Suirside townies so it would be wise not to take his analysis too much to heart. But on this subject, he had a point. Nicholas Soames once observed that the Tories would not get anywhere while they persisted with their “mad obsession with gays, blacks and women“. It’s not the same thing of course, but the sentiment could be fruitfully rejigged for Waterford – we ain’t going anywhere fast if winning semi-finals remain a psychological barrier.
It was a happier weekend for the county teams, although if someone had said before Sunday that one team would win well while the other would squeak home, you would have put it down as happening to the hurlers and footballers respectively, not the other way around. One could charitably say that Wexford had their Oulart-the-Ballagh contingent back, but reading Giveitfong’s match report doesn’t inspire confidence. So let’s hear it for the footballers who stuck it to the team who beat them in the Division Four final and the Munster championship last year. The best result of the weekend coming from the big ball game. Who would’ve thunk?
(Giveitfong has long been a source of outstanding analysis of Waterford’s games, originally on AFR and these days on boards.ie. He (she?) puts much greater emphasis on reading the game than my golly-gosh style. He has allowed me to reproduce his match reports here.)
Waterford made very heavy work of beating a game but limited Wexford side in cold and blustery Wexford Park today. Waterford should have won this game pulling up based on territorial domination and chances created, but incredibly bad shooting left the game in the balance right to the end and I was almost waiting for Wexford to score a flukey last minute goal to really put the hat on it for Waterford hurling this weekend.
Wexford had first use of the strong wind, but Waterford dominated the early stages, working hard all over the field to close Wexford down and getting plenty of good possession. An early goal by Seamus Prendergast whose flick to the net finished off a good move down the left seemed to put the visitors in the driving seat, but Waterford then seemed to slacken off and started indulging in too much passing around the middle of the field which regularly went astray.
On top of that, it was clear from early on that Richie Foley was not on his day and although he ended the game with four pointed frees to his credit he missed even more chances than that. In addition, Waterford appeared to have only one attacking strategy, which was to let in high ball to Seamus Prendergast on the edge of the square, a tactic which was persisted with to the end of the game and yielded few enough results as Prendergast was generally kept under wraps by new Wexford full back Matthew O’Hanon and whenever the ball did break from the tussles between the two, it was invariably picked up by a Wexford player.
Also, a lot of the ball played into the forwards fell short against the strong wind and was easily cleared by the Wexford defence. It was crazy that Waterford did not play a more varied game and put ball to the wings and corners for Tomás Ryan and Shane Casey to run on to, but that’s Davy Fitzgerald for you. To make matters worse, he once again had Stephen Molumphy playing in the corner where he was a spectator for most of the day (until he was eventually taken off) instead of having him in the engine room in midfield where he is most effective.
Anyway, Wexford came much more into the game in the second quarter and with Rory Jacob particularly effective picking up breaking ball or well-directed ball out of the defence, they went in at halftime one point ahead, 0-9 to 1-5. It could have been more but for a super reflex save by Stephen O’Keeffe from a close in shot shortly before half time. Other than that, O’Keeffe was never troubled by the Wexford attack.
It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Waterford owned the second half but hit wide after wide after wide. Richie Foley’s poor freetaking continued, including a poorly struck penalty early in the second half which was stopped and cleared easily. Wexford could make very little headway against a tight Waterford defence and only managed three points in all in the second half. The turning point for Waterford was the introduction of Maurice Shanahan with about 15 minutes to go. With his first touch, he landed an excellent point from out on the right wing and then convered two tricky frees to give Waterford the extra scores to get them over the line. Wexford made a mighty effort to save the game in the closing minutes but time and again they were repulsed by the Waterford defence.
Apart from his one save, Stephen O’Keeffe got very little to do, such was the cover provided by the defenders in front of him. I thought Shane Fives had an impressive game at full back. Noel Connors made a few mistakes but also showed his class on several occasions. Darragh Fives cleared a lot of ball but was unable to keep tabs on Rory Jacob who ended with five points from play.
Wayne Hutchinson had a very good outing at right half back and was very unlucky in the second half when his shot off the stick went inches wide after a great run out of defence for what would have been the score of the game. I thought that Brick Walsh was good in the first half and immense after the change of ends, repeatedly breaking up Wexford attacks. Jamie Nagle made a number of errors in the first half but improved greatly after the break and put in an excellent last quarter.
In midfield Shane O’Sullivan was excellent throughout and was Waterford’s man of the match IMO. However, his partner Philip Mahony was largely ineffective throughout. Playing at right half forward, Shane Casey did a lot of good work for about 45 minutes but faded out and eventually replaced by Shane Walsh. Richie Foley had a nightmare of a game, making little contribution (apart from one first half point) from general play to add to his wayward freetaking. Like Shane Casey, Paudie Mahony did some good work for about 45 minutes, a scored one lovely point, but also faded out towards the end.
Tomás Ryan knocked over two good points but otherwise, once again, things just did not work out for him. At one stage in the second half he got inside the fullback line but then stepped on the ball which got stuck in the heavy ground when a goal seemed certain. Early in the first half he used his pace to again get inside the full back line, but instead of shooting for goal opted to handpass across the goal to no one in particular and a really good chance was gone.
Seamus Prendergast scored a nice goal and earned a couple of frees but overall was not as effective as in recent games while Stephen Molumphy was simply wasted in the left corner. Maurice Shanahan, as stated, made a big impact when introduced for Molumphy. Stephen Power came in late in the game for Shane Casey but got no chance to have an impact.
Overall, this was a game which Waterford should have won easily. The worth of their performance the previous week was put in new light by Dublin’s defeat of Tipperary in Croke Park on Saturday night (although they did their best not to win it with their series of misses in the last ten minutes). It will be interesting to see if Waterford can match that when they take Tipp on under the lights in Thurles on Saturday week.
Waterford scorers: Richie Foley (0-5, four frees), Maurice Shahan (0-3, two frees), Seamus Prendergast (1-0); Tomás Ryan (0-2), Paudie Mahony (0-1).
It isn’t possible to give the Wexford team, as they brought in five Oulart The Ballagh players who weren’t in the starting line-out in the programme, and I didn’t try to figure out who they replaced. Their scorers were Rory Jacob (0-5), Jim Berry (0-2, both frees), Colm Farrell (0-1, free), Stephen Banville (0-1), PJ Nolan (0-1), David Redmond (0-1), Garrett Sinnott (0-1).
In the pre-match press conference before Ireland’s clash with Italy recently in Rome, Brian O’Driscoll was generous to the opponents that have yet to beat Ireland in the Six Nations. “It’s inevitable that at some stage Italy will beat us in a Six Nations game, let’s just hope it’s not this time,” said O’Driscoll. Heading back to the studio in Montrose, it wasn’t surprising to see a pundit go puce with rage at such defeatism. What was a surprise was that it wasn’t George Hook, drama queen extraordinaire, who lost his rag. It was the ordinarily more taciturn Brent Pope who denounced O’Driscoll’s attitude for carrying the possibility of being a self-fulfilling prophecy.
At the time this struck me as being slightly overblown. The match would be won on the pitch, not in a press conference, and what possible harm could come from being generous to game but limited opponents? If it had been Hook who spat his dummy out over O’Driscoll’s policy of appeasement then I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But Pope is a different matter. He’s a thoughtful and measured pundit, not given to flights of fancy. I’ve read somewhere in the past that Pope was on the fringes of the All Blacks XV but was kept out the team by the presence of no less a figure than Michael Jones. That’s a decent back story, yet one we never hear about from Pope. Can you imagine what Hook would be like if he just came from New Zealand, let alone came so close to playing Test rugby for them?
So there might be something to the notion of not treating your opponents with respect. Ireland’s lamentable performance against the Italians gave credence to Pope’s view. And that should be our view as we head down to Wexford for a must-win game in the National Hurling League. Yeah, every game is ‘must-win’ in its own way, but it’s not hard to map out a scenario should we lose to the Yellabellies that leads to our relegation. Imagine going into the second last game against Offaly with only one point having lost to Tipperary, Cork and Kilkenny. You wouldn’t want to be going into the final game against League specialist Galway needing to win, although even that might not be enough if Wexford, Offaly and Dublin manage to break even against each other. Win on Sunday, all that fretting should be moot. Just imagine the Wexford team as George Hook’s face.
Elsewhere, the footballers take on Limerick in the National Football League, while De La Salle meet Clarenbridge in the All-Ireland club semi-final. It’s not quite the must-win feel as the hurlers. If survival is paramount, a couple of wins against other teams should suffice. Unless Waterford are the division’s whipping boys, something that might be the case if the loss to Wexford is anything to go by. Beating Limerick at home would go a long way to dispelling those doubts. As for De La Salle, it’s obviously a must-win because if they don’t, they’re out. You get the feeling the county will never get a more open semi-final lineup with which to win an All-Ireland. De La Salle would be viewed as favourites, but we’ve been here before against Clarinbridge. If it’s any consolation to all three, I won’t be around for any of them – making a short sojourn to England for the weekend – so we’ll probably land the Triple Crown.
I probably asked for it after talking up Waterford’s chances in the NFL. John Owens was quite unabashed about his desire to repeat Tipperary’s charge up through the divisions, and it’s still early days. There are no obvious whipping boys (*cough* LondonKilkenny *cough*) so it’s reasonable to assume you can afford to lose more than one game and do well unlike might be expected in Division Four. But Wexford have been there done that in recent years, even going as far as the All-Ireland semi-final, beating Armagh along the way. Even in the absence of the recently-retired Mattie Forde they’ve got far more big time nous than Waterford. On a positive note, none of the other counties have that kind of experience. Martin Furlong is still retired, right?
Who would have thought that pushing a boy into the girls lavatory could be such a thrill? The screams! The humiliation! The fact that it wasn’t me! I’ve never felt so alive.
There was once a time when the only county humiliated by minnows were our good selves. Kildare, Roscommon, Mayo and Kerry all gorged themselves on the thought of turning over the giants that were the Déise. So for a few glorious minutes it looked like Clare were about to become Carlow’s second scalp in a week. Alas, Jim Greene’s former charges came up just short.
But Carlow’s performances, allied with a ridiculously exciting sequence of results in Division One today where five points separated the three winners from the three losers (and another draw for Waterford, this time with Tipperary), have added grist to a mill of mine, i.e. that these days are a relatively healthy time in the history of hurling. Over the last decade every county has had their share of spectacular wins and horror defeats, a reality that has been disguised by the crushing dominance of Kilkenny.
It’s fair to say that that dominance is not so much a fly in the ointment as a cockroach. But all empires crumble eventually and if the teams below stay sufficiently clustered together then we have a Division Two competitive enough that no one wants to fall into it for fear of not being able to get out of it. While not on a par with the mid 1990′s when there was a five year period where the All-Irelands were divvied up between Offaly, Clare and Wexford, it still represents progress on the days when Waterford could go down two divisions with barely a murmur.
Now if only someone could crush the bloody cockroach.
A few years back I was in my local Garda station completing the documentation for a passport renewal. The guard on duty recognised my name (he knows my old fella) and a brief chat ensued about matters hurling. The guard, a native of Mooncoin, noted how his son was trying to get on to the Kilkenny Under-14 panel for the upcoming Tony Forristal tournament – along with over a hundred others. So while it’s always important to add the caveat that one shouldn’t read too much in to performances at underage level, that’s not to say that no one takes it seriously. Good vibes then from the Tony Forristal tournament in Waterford last weekend where the B team won the Sonny Walsh tournament and the A team lost in the final to Tipperary. There’ll probably be street parties down in Wexford as they managed to beat the Cats. Results breakdown here.
There’s been much confusion online since the weekend as to how the semi-final pairings for the Senior All-Ireland (nice to have to make the distinction from how the Minor All-Ireland will work) will be decided. The GAA have nipped all speculation in the bud:
Depending on the winners of next weekend’s quarter-finals, the semi-final pairings will be as follows:
- If Limerick and Galway win (both provincial runners-up are eliminated, Galway previously played Kilkenny), then the semi-finals are Kilkenny v Limerick and Tipperary v Galway.
- If Dublin and Waterford win (both provincial runners-up), then the semi-finals are Kilkenny v Waterford and Tipperary v Dublin
- If Dublin and Galway win (Dublin are provincial runners-up), then the semi-finals are Kilkenny v Galway and Tipperary v Dublin
- If Limerick and Waterford win (Waterford are provincial runners-up), then the semi-finals are Kilkenny v Waterford and Tipperary v Limerick
The logic is impeccable. Provincial finalists can not meet. If the quarter-finals throw up two teams who one of the provincial champions have already played (e.g. Dublin and Galway, or Waterford and an imaginary Clare) then those champions play the team they played earliest in the championship. It’s just a pity that this rationale had not been applied in 2007 when we would have ended up playing Wexford in the semi-final rather than Limerick. Then again, maybe it’s just as well; contriving to lose to Wexford might have been too much for our fragile egos.