Allianz Hurling League talking points
By John Harrington
Round 4 of the Allianz Hurling League was 'moving day' with five of the eight quarter-final berths in Division 1 now filled, and the promotion and relegation picture across all divisions a lot clearer.
Here are four of the main talking points from yesterday's action.
Reports of Kilkenny’s demise were greatly exaggerated
When they lost their first two matches of the League against Cork and Clare, some pundits aired the view that Brian Cody’s new-look Kilkenny team wouldn’t be challenging for major silverware in the short-term.
But after back to back wins over Waterford and Tipperary, it’s clear that Cody’s rebuild is already well advanced and it would be foolish not to regard the Cats as genuine contenders for League and Championship honours.
They weren’t perfect yesterday against an understrength Tipperary yesterday, but they can still take huge positives from the game.
The hard-working culture that Cody has fostered during his 20 years in charge of the team is as embedded as ever, even if the names on the team-sheet have an unfamiliar look.
When Tipperary quickly turned a seven point deficit into a two point lead in the second-half, the manner in which Kilkenny drove on again and found a way to win the match was impressive.
"The maturity that young lads showed really to kind of hang in there and realise that we were after losing a lead and to keep hurling,” said Cody after the match.
"We've been competitive in the league. We were definitely being targeted for relegation by most people, I suppose, after the first two games - and that still can happen.
“We've put ourselves in a position where we can do something about it ourselves."
The priority for Kilkenny during this year’s League was to blood as many players as possible, so it’s impressive they’ve managed to remain competitive while doing so.
Along the way, a number of players have performed well enough to suggest they can make a big impact when the Championship comes around.
Richie Leahy looks like he can do a very good job anywhere in the team from midfield up to corner-forward. He’s very skilful, fast, can win his own ball, and a very clinical finisher.
Paddy Deegan was superb at corner-back against Tipperary yesterday and will strengthen an area of the pitch that has been a bit creaky for Kilkenny in the past two seasons.
Others like John Donnelly, Pat Lyng, and Conor Delany have all caught the eye in recent weeks as well.
Kilkenny were missing established players like Eoin Murphy, Padraig Walsh, Richie Hogan, Paul Murphy, Colin Fennelly, Conor Fogarty, and Ger Aylward for a variety of reasons yesterday.
If they have a full hand to deal with by the time the Championship swings around, then a fusion of those older hands with the new kids on the block could be a very formidable proposition.
A Kilkenny team with belief is a very dangerous animal, and they’ll have it in spades again after yesterday’s win over Tipp.
Short-term pain should lead to long-term gain for Tipperary
Yesterday’s one-point defeat to Kilkenny will have stung the Tipperary players and management – losing to their greatest rivals always does – but manager Michael Ryan still cut an upbeat figure after the match.
The Premier County would most likely have won the game had he brought on players like Paudie Maher and Noel McGrath for the last 15 minutes, but Ryan chose to keep them in cold storage.
He already knows what Maher and McGrath bring to the party, what he wanted to gauge yesterday was how some of his less established players would react in a pressurised situation.
"We've got to learn, we've got to let our guys experience what it's like to play top opponents like Kilkenny on their home patch and experience it. That's what hurling is all about,” said Ryan after the match.
The little-known Mark Russell certainly grabbed his opportunity with both hands when he was brought on in the second-half.
He scored a point, set up a goal, and generally caused havoc in the Kilkenny full-back line whenever a high ball was delivered to him on the edge of the square.
“I know it was route one but that is what Mark Russell's forte is,” said Ryan. “He stands on the edge of the square and he asks some really hard questions and it caused those opportunities to come up.”
Another young substitute, Cian Darcy, also looked lively after his introduction, and Ryan will have learned a lot too about the players, particularly a couple of his defenders, who struggled in certain situations that are likely to be replicated in the Championship.
So as much as they would have loved to have lowered Kilkenny’s colours yesterday, the short-term pain of this defeat could do them some good in the long-run.
Rory O’Connor is the real deal
Rory O’Connor looked like a hugely exciting talent when he made his senior inter-county debut for Wexford in last year’s All-Ireland SHC Quarter-Final defeat to Waterford.
Knee surgery last October meant he’s only been slowly eased back into action this year, but yesterday he reminded everyone just how special a player he has the potential to become.
Wexford supporters might have feared that Lee Chin’s enforced substitution at half-time would hurt their chances of beating Clare, but O’Connor came on in his place and was sensational.
He scored four points, three from play and a ’65, and was at the absolute heart of a brilliant second-half Wexford performance that blew Clare away.
The St. Martin’s teenager is blessed with every gift you need to be a top-class player – size, strength, speed, skill, an eye for a score, and that x-factor level of vision that usually separates the very good hurlers from the great.
"He's not right yet, but he did well today," said Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald after the match.
"And that's only his second bit of action now for four and a bit months. So he'll come on a lot more than what he has yet."
That should be a heart-warming thought for all Wexford hurling supporters.
Cavan are off the mark in Division 3B
History of a sorts was made at Kingspan Breffni yesterday when the Cavan hurlers defeated Fermanagh by 3-8 to 0-16 for their first League win of the year.
This is Cavan’s first year to play League hurling since 2011, and the victory means a hell of a lot to those who have worked so hard to breathe new life back into hurling in the county.
Philip Brady (2) and Cormac Wall were their heroes yesterday, scoring the three goals that laid the foundation for their victory.
Last year’s Lory Meagher Cup campaign eased Cavan back into the inter-county scene, and Sunday’s first League victory justifies the decision to now also make a comeback at this level.
Behind the scenes, a lot of good work is being done to ensure that hurling in Cavan has a viable long-term future.
Hurling Development Officer Keith Greene is bringing the game to more and more schools, development squads have been set up at U-13 and U-15 level, and Cavan are hopeful the performances of their Celtic Challenge team will reflect the steadily rising standards in the county.
A rising tide lifts all boats, and yesterday’s win for the county senior team will give everyone involved in Cavan hurling a serious shot in the arm.