Allianz League talking points
By John Harrington
Despite the inclement weather forcing the postponement of a number of matches, there was still plenty of high octane action over the course of the bank holiday weekend in the Allianz Hurling and Football Leagues.
Here are five of the main talking points.
We’re primed for a massive summer of hurling
Both Limerick and Clare supporters must have left the Gaelic Grounds yesterday evening dizzy and drained by what they had witnessed.
Decided in the end by a free-taking competition that in and of itself was hugely dramatic, the Allianz Hurling League Quarter-Final was one of those matches that those who witnessed it will never forget.
Over the course of around 115 minutes of action that included two periods of extra-time as well as injury-time, both teams served up an absolutely epic contest that was a credit to them and a validation of the brilliance of hurling as a sport.
There was any amount of talking points even before the free-taking contest that finally decided the match and which had everyone in the stadium on their feet for its duration.
Clare led by nine points at one stage in the first half and at the end of both the first and second periods of extra-time looked like they were within touching distance of the win, but on both occasions Limerick showed tremendous resolve and no little skill to draw level again.
Diarmuid Byrnes' equalising goal from a 21 yard free at the end of the first period of extra-time was brilliantly struck and made you wonder why it’s no longer as fashionable as it once was to bounce those shots into the turf a yard before the goalkeeper to make them more difficult to save.
Limerick substitute Colin Ryan scored a wonderful sideline cut at the end of the second period of extra-time to ensure the contest would be decided by a free-taking competition, and then stepped up to score the winning free in sudden death after each team had nervelessly converted their first six attempts.
There were so many brilliant individual performances on both sides.
For Limerick, the in-form Aaron Gillane hit two wonderful goals, Diarmuid Byrnes made some thunderous clearances, and subs Colin and Pat Ryan both made big impacts.
Clare’s Peter Duggan somehow ended up on the losing team despite hitting an incredible 19 points (plus two more in the free competition), and Tony Kelly excelled too with six from his midfield berth.
The over-riding feeling after the match was that we’re in for a serious summer of hurling.
Skin and hair will be flying in the Munster Championship between five very evenly matched teams, and the Leinster Championship is shaping up to be very competitive too.
Plenty to look forward to.
Credit due to Offaly on and off the field
The Offaly hurlers provided positive proof they’re an improving force under manager Kevin Martin with a gallant performance against Kilkenny in yesterday’s Allianz Hurling League Quarter-Final that fell just short.
Bord Na Móna O’Connor Park was rocking when the Faithful County drew level in the final minute of normal time. But, in the end, the brilliance of Kilkenny’s two best players on the day – TJ Reid and Walter Walsh – proved decisive as they popped up with a late point each.
It was a great contest, but it wouldn’t have happened were it not for some seriously hard work behind the scenes by Offaly GAA's small army of volunteers.
On Sunday, the Tullamore pitch was covered by a blanket of snow (see above picture) and hardly looked capable of hosting a hurling match by the following afternoon.
But thanks to a trojan effort it was all cleared and the pitch looked immaculate when it came to throw-in time (see below picture).
So credit must go not only to the Offaly hurlers for a very spirited performance against Kilkenny, but also to the volunteers who worked so hard to ensure the match could go ahead in the first place.
Carlow win first promotion in 33 years
The feel-good story of the weekend was Carlow securing their first Football League promotion in 33 years.
Their victory over Antrim was their sixth in a row in a Division Four campaign that has seen them build on last year’s energising run through the All-Ireland Qualifers.
This promotion is no happy accident, it’s a testament to the work Carlow have put in at all levels from top to bottom.
The Carlow players have given a massive commitment, but they’ve been enabled to do so by some excellent support structures.
The Carlow County Board have been unstinting in their support of manager Turlough O’Brien who has built a very accomplished backroom team around him.
Down native Steven Poacher was brought in as team coach and his impact can be seen in Carlow’s slick counter-attacking game-plan and their greater all-round tactical nous.
Team selector Damien Sheehan, who is Head of Strength and Conditioning in IT Carlow, oversees the team’s S&C training and has them in tremendous physical shape.
All of their S&C training is done in the College’s state of the art facilities, and that link-up has proven very beneficial.
Perhaps what’s most striking about Carlow’s upward curve in the last couple of years is the real pride that the people involved have for Carlow football.
You won’t meet a more passionate Carlow man than Turlough O’Brien, though his selectors Tommy Wogan and Benji O’Brien come close, and he’s helped create an ethos around the team where the Carlow jersey really stands for something again.
The hashtag #CarlowRising and a clenched fist painted in the county colours is now a familiar sight if you follow Carlow GAA on Twitter, and nicely sums up the mood around the team right now.
One of O’Brien’s mantras has always been that any county, no matter how small, can be competitive if they get their best footballers on the pitch and the right support structures around them.
Carlow’s promotion from Division 4 has proven his point.
Galway footballers take another significant step forward
Galway’s gritty draw with Dublin on Sunday preserved their unbeaten status in the Allianz Football League and proved beyond doubt they can mix it with the elite teams.
What’s most striking about Kevin Walsh’s team now is the depth of talent he has at his disposal.
He could afford to name a team without established players like team captain Damien Comer, Gareth Bradshaw, Eamonn Brannigan, Declan Kyne, and Johnny Heaney and still get a result against the All-Ireland Champions.
The options at his disposal will only increase in the coming weeks, too.
Rising star Michael Daly will return to full fitness soon after a knee injury and will give the Galway attack a further injection of pace, power and finishing ability.
And, after Corofin won the All-Ireland Club Final in such style on St. Patrick’s Day, surely some of their leading players will also come into the reckoning.
Michael Farragher, Micheál Lundy, Bernard Power, Ian Burke, Ronan Steede, and Liam Silke have all previously played for Galway under Walsh, and, on the evidence of his six-point haul in the All-Ireland Final against Nemo Rangers, Martin Farragher is surely worth a call-up too.
Competition for places in the Galway panel is now pretty ferocious, and it’s been driven to no small degree by the impact some of the younger players have made so far this year.
Three graduates from last year’s U-21 team – Sean Andy O’Ceallaigh, Peter Cooke, and Sean Kelly have all impressed and taken the opportunity given to them by Walsh.
Much like Dublin, perhaps it’s this competition within the panel that has given them a harder edge.
Galway players now know that if the drop their standards even slightly they’ll be sitting on the bench, which might be why we’re seeing them play with greater physicality and abrasiveness this year than we have heretofore.
They certainly stood up to Dublin in the physical stakes on Sunday, which only whets the appetite all the more for their League Final meeting in two weeks’ time.
Played on a Croke Park pitch where they’ve flopped in the Championship in each of the last two years, that match will tell us exactly how far this new-look Galway team have come.
Mission accomplished for Cork hurlers
Before a ball was even pucked in the League this year, Cork hurling manager John Meyler told anyone who would listen this year that his priority was to find a few new players while preserving the team’s Division 1A status.
It’s mission accomplished so after Sunday’s Allianz Hurling League Division 1A play-off victory over Waterford.
They’ve stayed up, and along the way have brought through players like Tim O’Mahony, Robbie O’Flynn, Sean O’Donoghue, and Darren Browne who all look good enough to make their mark in the Championship this year.
As for Waterford, they drop down to Division 1B, but manager Derek McGrath didn’t seem too despondent about that after the match.
He’s made it clear he won’t be in charge of the team next year, and admits a stint in the less pressurised environs of Division 1B might make it easier for his successor to overhaul the team and bed in a few new faces.
“I think there is a sense of flux around the team and what's needed in the next cycle,” said McGrath.
"I think there'll be a few step away and in terms of the integration into the panel of DJ Foran, Patrick (Curran) and those guys that were centre-stage today and prolonged starting berths in the team, 1B is probably more applicable.
"That's not to say we're happy to be going down there, you have to acknowledge the county board, for the bigger games the gates are good, so it's a fine balance."