Un­fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory as Cody doesn’t know his best team

Irish Examiner - Sport - - GAA - PM O’sul­li­van

While hurl­ing qual­i­fiers eas­ily swerve into a labyrinth, that place of uncer­tainty and hes­i­ta­tions, Mon­day’s draw pro­duced straight and nar­row ter­rain.

There came im­me­di­ate con­sen­sus about three of to­mor­row’s ties: Dublin beat­ing Laois, Tip­per­ary beat­ing West­meath, Water­ford beat­ing Of­faly. Form­lines are stark, with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of Dublin, caught in a pro­nounced dip as re­gards both morale and per­son­nel.

This dip in­ter­sect­ing with any up­ward arc gen­er­ated by Laois, them­selves un­der­strength, re­mains doubt­ful. Dublin are strait­ened but surely not husked.

A friend texted to em­pha­size one county’s pos­si­ble boon: “Tip­per­ary could now make the All-ire­land semis by tak­ing West­meath, Dublin and Wex­ford.”

His logic is im­pec­ca­ble: A cruise con­trol route leaves far more in the tank for Au­gust.

The rum­blings from Tipp did sound more chip­per in re­cent days.

His ob­ser­va­tion, pos­si­bly un­der­rat­ing of Wex­ford aside, un­der­lines the sig­nif­i­cance of chance. Three knock­out oc­ca­sions in four weeks is at­tri­tional, in and of it­self, what­ever the op­po­si­tion. You play this ros­ter as much as any op­po­nent. Any team needs hurl­ing’s ver­sion of a St Christo­pher medal.

All the while, no doubt about the draw’s plum con­test: Kilkenny at home to Lim­er­ick. There is plenty to in­trigue. Un­less Kilkenny re­cover com­po­sure and slot their chances, they will be vul­ner­a­ble, Nowlan Park or no Nowlan Park.

De­pend­ing on what we see, they could be vul­ner­a­ble for sev­eral sea­sons. Hurl­ing’s bea­gles are yap­ping and yowl­ing, the most elu­sive of quar­ries fi­nally in sight.

Kilkenny cre­ated enough first half chances against the wind in Wex­ford Park to lodge cor­ro­sive doubts in their host’s mind. Those opportunities were squan­dered and Wex­ford swelled. I was im­pressed with how they saw out the sec­ond half, knead­ing and knead­ing the game into a shape that suited them.

To­mor­row counts as a hinge mo­ment.

Can Kilkenny take off again? They cre­ated a mys­tique over the last 18 sea­sons. Achieve­ment af­ter achieve­ment led to im­pla­ca­ble ex­pec­ta­tions of their per­for­mance level, ex­pec­ta­tions nearly al­ways met in the Ziggy Star­dust years, when grav­i­ta­tional forces seemed an op­tional ex­tra.

All is changed. Not nam­ing a team for Wex­ford Park be­spoke un­usual dy­nam­ics in the camp. There was a tinc­ture of peo­ple get­ting en­tan­gled in the mind games favoured by Ger Lough­nane and Davy Fitzger­ald.

For sure, Kilkenny de­parted from the straight­for­ward­ness that served so well for so long. Start­ing Richie Ho­gan and Pádraig Walsh, both at best half fit, proved an­other swerve from sil­ver prac­tice.

Lim­er­ick con­front their own dif­fi­cul­ties fol­low­ing a cos­tive show­ing against Clare. With­out be­ing impressive, Clare won by four points, de­flat­ing big time their neigh­bours’ se­nior sit­u­a­tion. Lim­er­ick badly wanted last week’s per­for­mance by their U21s, who trimmed Tip­per­ary by 11 points. Bot­tom line, Limer- ick need to re­ar­range at se­nior. They must tighten up in the full-back line (where Richie English might re-emerge) and front up in the half-for­ward line (where Gearóid He­garty would be a help). What changes is John Kiely now em­bold­ened to make? Sum­mar­ily, you could say Lim­er­ick hardly pos­sess the de­fend­ers nec­es­sary for Kilkenny’s sharpest at­tack­ers. Un­less, that is, changes gen­er­ate un­fore­see­able mo­men­tum.

Then again, Kilkenny’s de­fence is a ques­tion mark. Their scat­tered out­ing against Wex­ford was no mas­sive sur­prise in light of 2017’s NHL out­come. Watch­ing that cam­paign, you of­ten got the im­pres­sion Kilkenny were still hurl­ing the sec­ond half of last Septem­ber’s se­nior fi­nal, try­ing switches in de­fence that might have been made against Tip­per­ary that bruis­ing af­ter­noon.

For the first time in nearly two decades, Brian Cody does not know his best team. He cer­tainly does not know his best back eight. The impressive Cil­lian Buck­ley, 25 this year, could well be a medium term so­lu­tion at cen­tre-back. Yet his gifts for mak­ing ground, for ghost­ing round tack­les, might be bet­ter de­ployed else­where, if the lux­ury of such a de­ploy­ment were avail­able.

Bot­tom line, Kilkenny like­wise need a re­jig. Conor O’shea and Robert Len­non, left flank of de­fence against Wex­ford, will do well to sur­vive any fresh­en­ing up process. There is talk of Joey Holden and Joe Lyng mak­ing the cut.

Most sim­ply put? To progress, Kilkenny likely re­quire less of an im­prove­ment than Lim­er­ick. Equally, lo­cal word in­di­cates Michael Fen­nelly and Richie Ho­gan play­ing a part. These runes mur­mur: ‘Ad­van­tage Kilkenny.’ Still, this sim­plic­ity side­steps a co­nun­drum.

To­mor­row, cer­tain Kilkenny hurlers are play­ing to re­vive their ca­reer. Lead­ers chan­nel pres­sure as con­duc­tors chan­nel elec­tric­ity, har­ness­ing po­ten­tially lethal en­er­gies into us­able form. Thus far in 2017, Kilkenny are short of lead­ers and lack spark. Who will take off? Ev­ery­thing is on the line.

Sun­day sees an in­au­gu­ral pair­ing of Gal­way and Wex­ford in the Le­in­ster fi­nal. Gal­way are favourites and rightly so. This sea­son, they look more of an in­te­grated team, play­ing for each other, than in a long while.

At the same time, Wex­ford will not fear Gal­way, in the phrase. Last Fe­bru­ary’s cru­cial NHL vic­tory in Salthill, all but earn­ing pro­mo­tion to Divi­sion IA, is a touch­stone. Wex­ford thrived even af­ter a Joe Can­ning penalty put the home side ahead by six points with 16 min­utes to run.

The Wex­ford of 2017 know they can ab­sorb pres­sure. They en­joy a bet­ter chance than that text might im­ply.

Do they re­main a touch short at cor­ner-back? Gal­way field op­tions, most no­tably Conor Whe­lan, who feast on such weak­nesses. Can­ning is nigh as good a penalty taker as TJ Reid.

Not that Gal­way’s backs con­vince ev­ery­one. Paul Killeen’s in­jury pres­sures this sec­tor. Cen­tre back Gearóid Mcin­er­ney can be a poor de­ci­sion maker, with Lee Chin one of the few hurlers around both strong enough and skil­ful enough to rat­tle him.

All in all, Gal­way re­tain an edge. Yet favouritism is for­ever a dou­ble-edged af­fair. An up­set here could ram­ify and ram­ify.

“Pla­gia­rize/let no one else’s work evade your eyes…” Tom Lehrer’s lyric is the eternal catch cry of progress. If Wex­ford tri­umph, every am­bi­tious hurl­ing squad in the coun­try will fea­ture a trainer de­mand­ing 160 slio­tars per ses­sion.

What­ever about worms for­giv­ing the plough, suc­cess de­vours every class of a reser­va­tion.

Pic­ture: James Crom­bie

DILEMMA: Kilkenny’s Cil­lian Buck­ley, cen­tre, moves in to chal­lenge Wex­ford’s Conor Mc­don­ald in the Le­in­ster SHC semi-fi­nal. Buck­ley could well be a medium term so­lu­tion for the Cats at cen­tre-back but his gifts might be bet­ter de­ployed else­where.

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