Allianz League talking points
Three rounds in, and the various divisions of the Allianz Hurling League are really starting to take shape.
Here are five of the main talking points from the weekend's action.
Waterford are suffering an All-Ireland Final hangover
Waterford manager Derek McGrath didn’t try to sugar-coat the harsh reality of three consecutive losses in Division 1A of the Allianz Hurling League after Sunday’s defeat to Kilkenny.
He admitted they were “in deep trouble” regarding their quest to preserve their Division 1A status, but also promised they wouldn’t be giving up.
The nature of Sunday’s defeat must be a cause for worry, because on paper at least it looked like Waterford had named the stronger, more experienced team.
11 of the team that started against Kilkenny yesterday also started last year’s All-Ireland SHC Final, and their team also included Conor Gleeson who definitely would have played in that All-Ireland Final if he had not been suspended.
There was a much less familiar look about the Kilkenny team, but what they lacked in experience they more than made up for in work ethic and self-belief.
In recent years Waterford have prided themselves on out-working their opponents, but on Sunday they were very much second-best to the Cats in that regard.
"Everything is down and everything is suffering at the moment but look, maybe we didn't work hard enough over the past two weeks," admitted McGrath after the match.
"We'll try and work harder before the Cork game and work harder again for the match after that.
"That's the most important thing: just keep working hard and see what becomes of it.
"I've been saying we're following a process, but we targeted a big performance today, there's no way around that or dressing it up.
"You're trying to strike a balance between confidence-sapping defeats and ensuring you follow the process."
Waterford might be working towards a long-term plan, but it does look as though they’re suffering a hang-over from last year’s All-Ireland defeat to Galway.
Their players aren’t performing with the same physical energy and mental resolve that has been their hallmark under McGrath.
It’s still very early in the season though, and if they can peak in time for what will be a ferociously contested Munster Championship, then these sorts of League displays will be quickly forgotten.
Encouraging signs for Kilkenny
The Kilkenny team that started Sunday’s impressive win over Waterford included just six survivors from the side that was knocked out of last year’s Championship by the same opposition.
Manager Brian Cody has performed major surgery on his team, and, on the basis of their very impressive eight-point win over Waterford, you’d have to say the patient is in very rude health.
The newcomers to the team showed a lot of quality, and the more established players look as hungry for action as ever.
One of Kilkenny’s priorities coming into the 2018 season was to unearth a couple of players who could give them some more firepower in attack, and Mark Keoghan certainly did that yesterday by scoring five points from play.
Corner-forward John Donnelly also looked the part, hitting two points, and Pat Lyng’s industry in the half-forward line was highly impressive.
It’s clear that even though the composition of the team has changed a lot in the space of a year, the values that have made Kilkenny such a successful team for so long under Brian Cody remain very much in place.
Every man in black and amber fought ferociously for every ball, and when the game was there to be won they were ruthless.
TJ Reid’s form on his return to the team was also very impressive – he hit a total of 1-11, 1-1 of which came from play – and his presence alone seemed to galvanise his less experienced colleagues in the Kilkenny attack.
The thought of a Kilkenny hurling team lacking self-belief is an alien one, but even Brian Cody admitted after the match that it was a crucial victory because a third defeat in a row would have been poor for morale.
"It lifts the team when you get a good win like today,” he said. “If we were facing into it (next Sunday's clash with Tipperary) down three games, maybe the heads might be down a small bit.”
Now, though, they’ll be relishing the prospect of that clash with Tipperary. It would be a real coming of age moment for their new-look team if they could lower the colours of their greatest rivals.
Things might get worse before they get better for Dublin
The scale of their team’s 12-point defeat to Limerick in Saturday night’s Allianz Hurling League Division 1B clash will have been a sobering one for Dublin supporters.
They would have hoped the Round 2 victory over Antrim was a turning point after the disappointment of losing to Offaly by 13 points in the first round, but it’s clear now that Pat Gilroy’s team are well off the sort of pace they’d like to be setting.
It’s hard to be optimistic about their chances against reigning League and All-Ireland champions Galway on Sunday, especially as they’ll probably be without Eoghan O’Donnell, Donal Burke, Feargal Whitely, Rian McBride, and Darragh Gray who play for DCU in Saturday’s Fitzgibbon Cup Final against UL.
It looks likely that Dublin will go into the final round of the League needing to beat Laois in O’Moore Park to avoid a relegation play-off, and, on current form you wouldn’t put big money on them winning that match.
They’ve conceded a whopping 3-73 in their three matches to date (only London in Division 2A have conceded more), so plugging a leaky defence is surely top of Gilroy’s to do list.
He cut a frustrated figure after the defeat to Limerick, and admitted transforming Dublin into a seriously competitive team again won’t be a quick or easy process.
“We’re putting in savage training. It’s going to take time,” said Gilroy. “This isn’t going to switch overnight into us being a top four team.
“It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of effort. So yeah, you were hoping that you were going to get better performances than we’re getting, but we have to live with that.
“It’s something we’re trying to bring into the team. We have to accept that it might take time to get used to that. We have to just get on with it this week.
“There’s a number of things we’re trying to do in terms of getting the base right here in the way that we defend.
“We’re not leaving ourselves very vulnerable to goals, which is a positive.
“But around the middle third, at times, we’re following the ball, with guys leaving men free. It’s something we have to work on.
“You can’t leave people around the middle. It’s going to be a score.”
Clare keep gaining momentum
They’ll ultimately be judged on how they perform in the Championship, but the Clare hurlers have plenty of reasons to be positive.
Sunday’s win over Cork makes it three wins from three in Division 1A of the Allianz Hurling League, and offered further proof that they’re getting closer and closer to bedding down the spine of a very competitive team.
Conor Cleary was solid at full-back, David McInerney was excellent again at centre-back, Colm Galvin and Tony Kelly are a formidable midfield pairing, John Conlon looks at home as a centre-forward, and Peter Duggan gives them heft on the edge of the square as a full-forward.
Seadna Morey and Michael O’Malley excelled in the wing-back positions, both scoring two points from play, and David Fitzgerald also a very good option there so Clare are well stocked in the half-back line.
The League probably means more to Clare than most of the teams in the Division, because they badly needed to build up confidence that has been steadily eroded since they won the 2013 All-Ireland Final.
After three impressive wins in a row over Tipperary, Kilkenny, and now Cork, it looks like mission accomplished in that regard.
Keith Higgins – the dual in Mayo’s crown
Mayo’s four-time All-Star Keith Higgins is one of the best footballers of his generation, but he’s also a seriously talented hurler.
He plays for the Mayo hurlers whenever he has a weekend off from his football commitments, and he always makes a massive impression when he does.
He was at it again on Sunday when he inspired Mayo to a vital victory on the road against Derry.
Mayo looked in trouble when they trailed by six points at half-time, but Higgins was inspirational in the second-half and finished the game with a personal tally of four points from play as Mayo won by 0-13 to 0-10 to make it three wins from three in Division 2B.