Allianz League talking points
By John Harrington
It was a red-letter day in the Allianz Hurling League as Limerick defeated Galway to win the Division 1B title and ensure promotion to Division 1A for the first time in eight years.
While, in the Allianz Football League, Dublin and Galway tightened their strangle-hold on Division 1 by both making it five wins from five matches.
Here are five of the main talking points from the weekend's action.
Limerick hurlers finally smash through glass ceiling
The pitch invasion that followed their victory over Galway yesterday told you exactly how much promotion to Division 1A of the Allianz Hurling League meant to every Limerick hurling person.
Cian Lynch’s mother Valerie made a bee-line for her son and wrapped him in a warm embrace, and all over the field there were other such small explosions of joy among Limerick players and supporters alike.
Limerick had been marooned in Division 1B of the League for the last eight years and often fell agonisingly short of making a return to the top tier, so this was a very sweet win indeed.
The nature of the victory must have made it all the sweeter. They trailed the reigning All-Ireland and League champions by eight points and showed serious character as well as ability to stick to the process and find a way to win the match.
Some will say judgement should be reserved on this Limerick team until the Championship, but this win should still be recognised for what it is – an important coming of age moment for this generation of Limerick hurlers.
Most of them won an All-Ireland U-21 medal in either 2015 or 2017. And a good chunk of the panel also proved themselves as winners at schools level with Ard Scoil Ris.
But this is the first senior inter-county match of real consequence this young team has won together and that experience will definitely accelerate their development.
Forwards Aaron Gillane, Seamus Flanagan and Barry Murphy have blossomed this year, the half-back line of Diarmuid Byrnes, Declan Hannon, and Dan Morrissey now looks set in stone, while the midfield partnership of Paul Browne and Cian Lynch is a really effective double-act.
10 Na Piarsaigh hurlers who have yet to rejoin the panel, and if they do so with All-Ireland medals hanging around their necks that will surely give everyone another massive boost.
This year’s unforgiving championship is going to seriously test the depth of every panel, and Limerick now have plenty of options in every line of the field.
Limerick hurling teams have always been a very dangerous animal when their dander is up and they have momentum. If they keep developing at this rate, John Kiely’s team could have a big say yet in this year’s Championship campaign.
Richie Leahy is the real deal
Of all the less familiar faces who have been given a chance to shine by Kilkenny this year, Richie Leahy has made the biggest impression.
He probably would have done the same last year were it not for an injury that slowed his progress, but there can be no doubt now that he’s ready to be a very important player for Kilkenny this summer.
He scored three points from midfield against Wexford yesterday and all of them had a major ‘wow’ factor.
Lyng isn’t just fast across the ground, his wrists are incredibly quick too and he strikes the ball with the story of stylish stroke that very few players can muster.
The only question for Brian Cody now must be which position to play him in when the serious business of the Championship comes around.
Midfield certainly looked like a good fit yesterday. His ability to create space for himself with a burst of acceleration over 10 yards and then strike points on the run makes him a serious weapon.
A potential midfield partnership with Conor Fogarty when he’s fully fit again could be a very tasty combination.
The Dublin footballers are still improving
It’s a sobering thought for all of their rivals hoping to smash Dublin’s current dominance of Gaelic Football, but it really does look like Jim Gavin’s team are still on an upward curve with plenty of more room for improvement.
Their 12-point win over Kerry yesterday was their biggest margin of victory over their great rivals in the 11 matches they have contested since Jim Gavin and Eamonn Fitzmaurice took charge of their respective teams in 2013.
The really scary thing is that Dublin managed this feat despite playing without five current All-Stars – Con O’Callaghan, James McCarthy, Mick Fitzsimons, Paul Mannion, and Jack McCaffrey.
Other proven performers like Diarmuid Connolly, Paul Flynn, Kevin McManamon, Eoghan O’Gara, and Bernard Brogan were also not involved in the Dublin match-day squad yesterday for a variety of reasons, so the depth of talent Jim Gavin now has at his disposal really is something else.
It’s hardly a secret that one of the main drivers within the Dublin dressing-room is the ferocious competition for places that depth of playing talent engenders, but it’s still impressive to see how that manifests itself on the pitch.
Michael Darragh Macauley missed most of last year with a knee injury and looks like a man driven to make up for lost time. He smashed into the Kerry defence like a wrecking ball time and again yesterday and best exemplified the ferocious will to win that makes this Dublin team the phenomenon they are.
David Clifford is starting to find his feet
David Clifford is too good a footballer not to become a hugely important player for the Kerry senior team, the only question was how quickly he would make the transition from underage star to senior mainstay.
He has found the going tough at times on heavy pitches against fully grown men determined to make the reality of senior inter-county football as sobering an experience as possible for the teenager.
But there have been some flashes of genius along the way too and against Dublin yesterday he produced his best performance of the League campaign yet.
He had Cian O’Sullivan in all sorts of bother has he hit two sweet points in the first 15 minutes, and it was a testament to his early influence that Dublin eventually moved their best man-marker, Jonny Cooper, across to him.
Kerry’s other attacking tyro, Sean O’Shea, also impressed for Kerry in the first-half and it was a real blow to the team that he was unable to appear for the second-half.
It’s always a dark day for Kerry when they lose to Dublin especially by the margin they did yesterday, but the promising performances of Clifford and O’Shea was definitely a silver lining.
Galway showing basics of defending as important as ever
The Galway footballer’s impressive start to the year continued yesterday as they made it five wins from five in Division 1 with a gritty victory over Monaghan.
They were definitely helped along the way by the red-carding of Monaghan’s Fintan Kelly, but the manner in which they ruthlessly exploited their numerical advantage was impressive.
Also impressive was the manner in which they defended for most of the match.
Forwards like Damien Comer and Shane Walsh have rightly been lauded for their performances in attack so far this year, but when you look at Galway now it’s the organisation of their defence that impresses most.
They’ve conceded just 60 points from their five matches so far, which makes them the stingiest team in the division ahead of Dublin who have conceded 68.
Eoghan Kerin typified the tenacity of their defending against Monaghan with a brilliant man-marking job on Conor McManus, and as a unit they’ve just been really impressive so far this year.
Manager Kevin Walsh is clearly an advocate of the theory in in order to be competitive in team sport, the first thing you need to get right is your defence because that’s the rock you build everything else upon.
It’s certainly not a coincidence that the three teams currently occupying the bottom three places in the Division – Kildare, Donegal, and Kerry – have all have the worst defensive records. Both Kerry and Donegal have conceded 94 points while Kildare have conceded 95.
Ciaran Whelan suggested on the Sunday Game last night that Galway’s style of play wouldn’t be effective against Dublin and that playing Dublin next weekend and then most likely also in a League Final might also do them harm because there’s the potential to suffer two moral-sapping defeats.
It’s hard to agree with either of those arguments. As Kerry found out the hard way yesterday, the very minimum you need to have in your armoury when you play Dublin is a rock-solid defence.
Galway might find it difficult to beat Dublin with their current counter-attacking strategy, but they’d probably be beaten by a lot more if they opened up and played them at their own game.
Also, playing this Dublin team twice in quick succession could only be a good thing for a developing team like Galway.
As Liam Sheedy remarked on a number of occasions when he took charge of the Tipperary hurlers in the late noughties, he wanted to play Kilkenny in as many matches of consequence as he could because that was the only way Tipperary would ever learn how to come up to their level.