With the league campaign over for another year, the GAA season now turns to the business end of the cut and thrust of championship. Analysis of the league campaign has gone in to overdrive as pundits across the country give their opinions of who’s up and who’s down compared to last season.
What teams are struggling? Who can beat the Dublin footballers? Are Kerry past their prime? Is there a new generation of hurling teams emerging? Are Kilkenny past it?
All these opinions have been written about in great detail, but without any real foundations to back them up. Granted the league is an important barometer to gauge how one’s team is progressing, and an opportunity to blood a couple of young players, it is also however a time where teams are building up a base of fitness, strength & conditioning work, and key players rehabbing from post championship operations.
Taking everything into consideration, we must evaluate every team’s starting league fifteen and the big names that are missing waiting to return for championship action.
Kilkenny and Kerry, the two most successful teams in both their respective codes have taken the brunt of criticism for their losses. Kilkenny for their defeat against Clare in the league semi final, have been labelled as “functional” and too reliant on Richie Hogan and T.J. Reid. While the Kingdom footballers are seen to have too many players past their prime.
We now have a GAA media and supporter who now analyse each game and player to such a degree that failure or mediocracy is highlighted to the nation every day.
One thing is for sure, the Kerry’s and Kilkenny’s will be ready along with their clutch players.
The term ‘clutch player’ is often used in American sports to define a key player who makes the big plays down the stretch, the last five or ten minutes in a game. When analysing the national league in both codes, you also have to consider such players that were not available for their county teams.
Take Kilkenny as an example, look at the personnel that were not available for selection. Paul Murphy, Michael Fennelly and Eoin Larkin have all been absent throughout. Kerry have been without Anthony Maher, James O’Donoghue and Paul Geaney. All six players have excelled in major games throughout their careers and will make a huge difference to their teams in future championship matches.
Dublin are without doubt clear favourites to retain the All-Ireland football championship, but Jim Gavin knows that even with the country’s strongest panel he is still reliant on a number of key clutch players to get over the line. The loss Stephen Cluxton, Cian O’Sullivan and Bernard Brogan could be detrimental to their aspirations of success. Each player who have made key decisions and big plays throughout their championship careers.
Stephen Cluxton’s kick out strategy, especially against the top teams has seen Dublin’s possession stats become the best in the country. Cian O’Sullivan is now heralded as the best sweeper in the game, his reading of the game, his intercepts and his link up play makes him the first name on Jim Gavin’s team sheet for every game.
In last year’s All-Ireland final, Cian O’Sullivan was not fully fit but was still selected. Bernard Brogan is one of 10 or 12 quality forwards that Dublin could choose from on any given day. The elder statesman of the forward line, Brogan has always made the big plays, the first goal, a free from a 50/50 ball, an assist that leads to a score, an electricity from the crowd when he receives the ball. Of all the forwards at their disposal, he still is the one forward Dublin cannot do without when an All-Ireland final is at stake and you need a big play or a vital score.
Both Clare and Waterford hurlers have had very successful hurling league campaigns, but imagine Davy Fitzgerald having to plan without a Tony Kelly, Colin Ryan or John Conlon. The same can be said for Derek McGrath’s Waterford having to plan without Austin Gleeson, Tadgh De Burca or Kevin Moran.
If ever there was the definition of a clutch player, you need look no further than the replayed league final between these two teams when Tony Kelly stepped up with a vital free from distance and sublime strike from the sideline in injury time, which proved the difference.
Clutch play from clutch player, down the stretch.
Every team in the country has got their clutch players, however the successful teams seem to have more. The same can be said for all the greats that have played team sports through the ages. How successful would the Chicago Bulls basketball team have been without Michael Jordan? Barcelona football team without Lionel Messi? Sri Lanka cricketers without Sachin Tendulkar? Big players make the big plays. Teammates rely on these players to be the leaders on the pitch, managers want them to lead by example on and off the pitch.
Throughout the history of the GAA, the most successful teams had their marquee players. Cork had Christy Ring, Tipperary had Jimmy Doyle, the Offaly footballers had Matt Connor, even the great Kerry footballers needed an engine like Jack O’Shea to set the tone.
The scene is set for Championship 2016 to begin. The league means nothing now, only a template for the teams who did well and a warning for the rest that changes need to be made, and fast. The championship is a different animal to league, teams feed off the energy of the crowd, this is different, this means more to everyone. The star players are in a different zone to a wet and windy day in February, this is what they have trained for all year, the championship.
Ice hockey’s greatest ever player, Wayne Gretzky was once asked, “What is it like to be in overtime of the deciding game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, knowing that there are 10 seconds left and that puck will be passed to you?”
“I live the whole season for that moment,” he replied.
Over the course of the league we have seen many examples of young players ready to make the step up to being that key player for their teams, the ability to play, defend and score at crucial times during a game. How many will we see over the course of championship 2016 ?
“There are three types of baseball players: those who make it happen, those who watch it happen, and those who wonder what happens.” – Tommy Lasorda (Baseball coach)