As of this weekend two good teams will be eliminated from the hurling championship and the first provincial crown of the year will be decided. Sean Cremin looks at a huge weekend for hurling.
This weekend sees three games taking place with everything to play for. There are two very attractive qualifier games in store; Clare v Wexford and Tipperary v Galway. The Leinster final between Dublin and Kilkenny will also be keenly contested. It is the biggest weekend of the intercounty season so far and from now on the hurling season will really begin to hot up.
The stakes are very high for all six teams in action this weekend. It is last chance saloon for Clare, Wexford, Tipperary and Waterford. While the losers of Dublin and Kilkenny will enter an All-Ireland quarter-final, they will both want to win silverware on go through the front door. All games are very even. Each team will be confident of winning their respective games adding plenty of quality and tension to each clash.
Clare v Wexford
The first tie of the weekend sees reigning All-Ireland champions Clare face Wexford which could be a much trickier tie than people are anticipating. Wexford are an improving side. They did well against Dublin and missed a lot of chances in that game. It was new ground for a lot of those Wexford players and the experience will stand to them.
Wexford appear to be doing some good work at underage which is very evident in their recent under-21 teams. They won a Leinster title last year and find themselves back with a chance to retain their title. Conor McDonald is a real spark at full-forward and Podge Doran adds some very direct play at centre-forward. They have good hurlers at the back but are a bit loose at times. If they can tighten up at the back and keep the concession rates down, they could have a chance.
Clare will be eager to bounce back and make a statement of intent after their defeat to Cork. By all accounts, they really wanted to win the Munster title and the back-door was not part of their plans. They were flat against Cork and the lack of a Clare following at that game showed that there may have been a bit of complacency and over-confidence. It is understandable for All-Ireland champions to be confident, but the Cork game was surely a wake-up call.
Make no mistake about it, Clare will have to play very well to beat Wexford. If they fail to perform to a sufficient standard, they could find themselves in trouble. Wexford are a passionate county and Clare learned last year that if Wexford are given a chance they will take it. They got a draw in the qualifiers last year. While Clare went on to win in extra-time, there was a lesson to be learned for the Banner.
Both teams have freshened up their sides following their previous losses. Clare have changed goalkeeper with Patrick Kelly regaining the number-one shirt. Donal Tuohy was questionable for both goals the last day and his puck-outs were both slow and inaccurate.
Cathal McInerney earns a starting position. He looked sharp when introduced against Cork and will be looking to get a place from the off for the rest of the season, provided their season continues. Shane O’Donnell is also expected to be back in the Clare squad.
Clare need to improve immensely from their showing against Cork. Their defence looked relatively good, despite the big score that they conceded. It was in the forward line where they looked very flat. Padraic Collins and Tony Kelly did not play at the same pace as they did last year. Colin Ryan was nowhere to be seen from play and Conor McGrath also struggled. Clare need these four to deliver.
Clare should win, but expect Wexford to make life hard for the seventy plus minutes. Clare need a 20-30% improvement and if they fail to do so, the Yellow Bellies could be ready to capitalise.
Tipperary v Galway
We spoke about the second game, Tipperary and Galway, in detail earlier this week. Winning is everything for both sides and it really does not matter which way Tipperary or Galway win as long as their season continues. Getting over this game will be a huge weight off either side’s shoulders, while a loss will lead them with a Mount Everest style mountain to climb.
Galway probably have the better individual players, but INDIVIDUALS may struggle to win this game, the best TEAM will probably win. This is where the advantage may lie with Tipperary. They probably have a greater ability to play together as a group. This potential spirit on top of the backing of the home crowd may just give them the extra edge.
Galway are the ever unpredictable, unknown quantity. Not one person can honestly predict how they will perform or what they will bring to the table. They have match winning players in Joe Canning and Conor Cooney, but nobody knows if they will receive adequate support from their teammates.
Whichever team wins the battle around the middle will give themselves an advantage. Whoever can supply better quality ball to their forwards will supply more scoring opportunities. It will probably be an open game as both teams are better at attacking than defending.
Tippeary are at their best when they isolate their inside forwards and play good ball into space. Galway have been open at the back this year and will either need to tighten up or ensure that the supply going into the Tipp forwards is lessened.
Galway need to play as a team and this seems to be their biggest problem and biggest weakness. They end up playing as individuals with little shape or pattern to their play. When this happens, they lose games and this is where the edge lies with Tipperary.
Tipperary were in this same situation last year and will be seriously hurting. This hurt may hinder on their confidence but overall it should unite them as a group and if they have any passion in themselves or their county they will give every last ounce to win this game.
It is an impossible game to predict, but the points made above tip the scales just in favour of Tipperary. But it is a game where absolutely anything is possible.
Dublin v Kilkenny
The Leinster final also promises to be an interesting encounter. The winner of the game will gain a psychological advantage more than anything. Back-to-back Leinster titles would be huge for Dublin, as would consecutive Leinster championship victories over Kilkenny.
Kilkenny are an ageing side and will want less games. They have already had an extra game through the replay against Galway and they will want the go straight to an All-Ireland semi-final. They will want to secure another trophy and as strong as they are mentally, a loss here could affect their belief.
Defensive flaws were exposed in the Cats drawn encounter with Galway and Brian Cody addressed this problem in the replay with some alterations. The defence will be tested again now that they are entering the wide spaces of Croke Park. It will be interesting to see Dublin can create space to trouble the Kilkenny defence.
Dublin had a solid outing against Wexford and it was a good way for them to win their first game. They failed to set the world alight but had a lot of positives and gave themselves plenty to work on.
The fitness of Danny Sutcliffe is a huge boost. He is one of the country’s best and his pace and mobility will be used to target the Kilkenny rear-guard. They gave up a few goal chances to Wexford and they can ill afford to offer these chances up to Kilkenny, who we all know will punish any opportunity to raise a green flag.
It is a big game for both teams. The game will tell us a lot about Kilkenny’s All-Ireland winning credentials. The amount of games they have played at Croke Park will either impact on their legs or give them the experience needed to succeed.
If Dublin can beat Kilkenny in Croke Park to win the Leinster title, they will have a confidence and belief that will be very hard to stop. It is another tough one to call, but Dublin could win if they can expose the Kilkenny weaknesses and keep out the concession of goals.
Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena