National Hurling League Finals
The weekend's GAA fixtures previewed
Division Three A Final
Meath v Kildare,Kingspan Breffni Park, 3pm – There wasn’t much between them in the divisional match, but Meath have been more impressive this season.
Division Three B Final
London v Roscommon, Páirc Tailteann, 3.30pm – London should be capable of extending the NHL’s only 100 per cent record.
Division Four Final
Monaghan v Sligo, Kingspan Breffni Park, 1pm – The one match that can overturn the table positions with Rackard Cup champions Sligo capable of adding this title.
Division One Final
Tipperary v Kilkenny, Semple Stadium, 4pm – As the grumbles about a flat football decider are only just subsiding, tomorrow’s NHL final sidles onstage with an even smaller level of anticipation.
The competitive crisis in hurling has been only exacerbated by the current league. Kilkenny have ambled through the regulation phase of the competition, missing a number of key operatives.
Manager Brian Cody pointed out at this week’s media conference that his side had been beaten by Waterford and run close by Dublin and Limerick, but who could imagine that being repeated in this summer’s championship?
Then consider the fate of the counties most commonly assumed to be the All-Ireland champions’ closest rivals – Cork, Galway and Tipperary. They were annihilated by ascending margins of 11, 17 and 27 points – an average of over 18 points a match.
Tipperary have to play Cork at the end of this month in the championship. Accordingly, their tolerance for double-digit beatings must be weakening and the consensus is that the Munster champions will give a much better account of themselves on home soil with last month’s humiliation still burning in their cheeks.
On one level it makes sense – after all, massive defeats are relatively rare – but on another it’s no protection for Tipperary.
Liam Sheedy’s team have had a difficult league campaign, missing important players at various stages and still without their most important, Eoin Kelly.
The holders have had the opportunity to try out different hurlers, but there is little sense that the various trials have come up with answers to the problems with which Tipp left Croke Park after last year’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Waterford.
Gearóid Ryan has impressed in attack, but is injured, but with the exception of the steadily rising talent of Noel McGrath there is otherwise little dynamically different about the forwards.
Micheál Webster gets a start on the edge of the square, presumably in recognition of his doggedness on being introduced for the second half when the counties met in Nowlan Park.
But Kilkenny had the demeanour of a cricket team that had declared at half-time that day so questions about the real value of the display are more than simply cavils.
Conor O’Mahony’s absence because of the mumps plague and Eamonn Corcoran’s retirement skittles two key performers of last year’s defence, but it will be interesting to see how the highly-regarded Pádraig Maher gets on in such testing circumstances.
Galway were privately unhappy about the edge brought to proceedings by Tipp’s defence during the final divisional match, but it’s hard to see Kilkenny being unduly discomfited even by sustained, legitimate physical aggression.
The question will still be – how do you stop the champions’ half-back line and centrefield building a winning platform? Kilkenny’s situation couldn’t be more of a contrast.
Traditionally, Cody’s teams have always been internally vulnerable to good runs of form by other panellists. For a team in pursuit of four successive All-Irelands, they have kept their list of indispensable players impressively low.
It is all the more unsettling for the rest of the hurling world to consider that many on any short-list of the indispensable have been missing for much of the campaign: Henry Shefflin, Noel Hickey, JJ Delaney, James Fitzpatrick.
Tipperary will be driven by playing at home, knowing that this is the last outing before the championship, and sheer pride after the recent whipping.
They will be aggressive and committed, but all of that may only be enough to keep the margin in single figures.
TIPPERARY:B Cummins; P Stapleton, P Curran, C O’Brien; P Maher, D Fanning, S Maher; T Stapleton, S McGrath; L Corbett, S Callinan, J Woodlock; N McGrath, M Webster, J O’Brien.
KILKENNY:PJ Ryan; M Kavanagh, JJ Delaney, J Tyrrell; T Walsh, B Hogan, J Ryall; M Fennelly, M Rice; R Hogan, H Shefflin, E Larkin; E Brennan, TJ Reid, A Fogarty.
Division Two Final
Wexford v Offaly,Semple Stadium, 2pm – The testimonies given to tomorrow’s curtain-raiser in Thurles have been striking. Ned Quinn, former chair of the Hurling Development Committee, said that it was more important than the Division One final.
Wexford manager Colm Bonnar reckons it’s potentially more important than the counties’ upcoming championship date.
Neither view is exaggerated.
Unlike in the main final, tomorrow’s early losers will lose significantly by having to play a further season outside the elite, a sentence that does little for championship preparation.
Compared to that fate, the prospect of having to take the outside track in the championship is infinitely preferable.
One valid comparison can be made with the Division One final. This is a rerun of a divisional match that was completely one-sided. It is up to Offaly to turn around a 12-point defeat, but the reasons behind the drubbing are potentially easier to address.
For a start, Joe Dooley’s defence was riddled with injury-enforced absences and poor reactions were behind at least three of the Wexford goal-rush that completely unhinged their opponents.
This week, Offaly had nearly everyone back in training and it will be a surprise if the defensive effort isn’t considerably tightened up.
Semple Stadium is also a big field and one on which the team performed very well last summer against Waterford. It suits the skill and pace of the players and also the recognisable style with which they are trying to play.
If Offaly’s injury problems are beginning to sort themselves out, Wexford’s are still troubling. The long-term absence of Eoin Quigley and Colm Farrell is exacerbated by concerns about Keith Rossiter, Darren Stamp and Ciarán Kenny.
Bonnar’s team have been in good form in recent matches and finished the divisional campaign strongly, but if Offaly’s injuries have indeed cleared in time for tomorrow, it may well be Wexford who are condemned to another season looking upwards.
WEXFORD:D Flynn; M Travers, P Roche, A O’Connell; M Jacob, S Nolan, R Kehoe; D Redmond, C Kenny; D Lyng, A Shore, P Carley; R Jacob, S Banville, P Kenny.
OFFALY:B Mullins; D Franks, D Kenny, J Rigney; K Brady, G Oakley, P Cleary; R Hanniffy, B Murphy; B Carroll, J Brady, D Molloy; D Currams, S Dooley, J Bergin.