The starkest division in Gaelic games is to be found in how former Gaelic footballers talk about their sport and how former hurlers talk about theirs. The big-ball merchants are forever despairing about the state of the game while old hurlers never tire of assuring the public that theirs is the best game in the world.
Sunday was manna from heaven for the hurling evangelists and served as an absolutely brilliant trailer for the All-Ireland championship. Among the many plot twists of Sunday afternoon came one old reliable. What about Kilkenny?
Wexford’s stunning turn in Nowlan Park was the latest example of Davy Fitzgerald’s transformative effect within dressing-rooms and within counties. Unbeaten throughout the league and promoted from division two for the first time since 2011, Sunday’s league match was about rewriting history.
It was the saltiest league defeat served on Kilkenny for years and guarantees that their meeting in the Leinster championship will have a keen edge. The sense of composure and exuberance with which Wexford are hurling and the lack of intimidation with which they attacked Kilkenny in a venue where they hadn’t won for 61 years; for Wexford hurling people, it was a thrilling afternoon.
Across the country in Salthill, Galway’s characteristically unreadable comeback against Waterford and Pearse Stadium was a further reminder of their capacity to go from zero to 100 without any prior warning. The progression of Limerick, Galway and Wexford from division 1B to the league semi-finals may well be a reflection of their desire to perform against their 1A opponents on the first weekend in April. Tipperary, the All-Ireland champions, are the sole representatives from the top tier.
The league leaves Kilkenny in an interesting place. They performed fitfully over the spring, with a pale outing against Clare and Sunday’s defeat against Wexford suggesting that they are more vulnerable now than at any time since Brian Cody’s first year in charge.
But for the series of brilliant saves by Eoin Murphy, Wexford could have been celebrating a more rampant score-line. Against that, Cody's team produced plenty of the traditional fire and poise against Tipperary, hitting 3-14 to earn a draw in Thurles.
TJ Reid contributed 3-5 of that total and if Kilkenny remain as reliant on the Ballyhale man in the championship , then they will struggle. But for the remainder of this league, the attention will drift away from Noreside to see which how the 1B counties fare.
It gives Kilkenny plenty of time to prepare for their visit to Wexford Park to play Fitzgerald’s resurgent team in the Leinster championship, when it’s all for real. Kilkenny’s focus has already narrowed to that Saturday evening in June. They will be smarting and desperate to make a statement that they haven’t gone anywhere. All of which goes to saying that right now, this week, Kilkenny are the most dangerous team in the country.
Galway: the usual puzzle
Ten points down midway through the second half. Rampant by the closing minutes. Joe Canning in the thick of everything. The east Galway hurling tribes just about ready to believe again by the end of it: just another day out for the Galway hurlers.
It should be remembered that Derek McGrath, who has reinvented Waterford through the league, gave six players debuts here, which was perhaps the clearest indication that they were not gunning for league honours this year. So Eddie Brennan’s Sunday Game description – “It reminded me of an inter-county challenge you’d see off at a quiet pitch somewhere where there is a bit of ebb and flow” – was an accurate summary of Galway, in particular, during a sluggish first half when they almost allowed Waterford to slip out of sight.
For 40 minutes of the game, it seemed as if Galway’s season playing in the remote hurling districts of 1B had left them unable to respond to the rigours of a team which has set league standards for two years.
The only consistent element of the day for Galway was the sight of another hurling afternoon revolving around the solid brilliance of Joe Canning. He remains as vital to Galway’s All-Ireland dream as he was in his debut season and maybe above any of the four teams left, they could benefit most from winning the league as they steel themselves for another crack at it.
The great escape
At the start of this league, the Down football team seemed to fall into deeper crisis with every outing. The 0-10 to 1-16 defeat they suffered against a Fermanagh team now managed by Pete McGrath, the totemic figure of Down’s glory years, was symbolic of how far they had fallen.
If they haven’t caught fire in this league, they may just have turned a corner. Wins against Meath and Derry gave them the injection of belief required for Sunday’s visit to Cork. Jerome Johnston’s late free to earn a draw may have been the most important score in Down football for years. Up in Derry, Carlus McWilliams managed a similar score to give the home side a one point win over Fermanagh.
That result sealed Fermanagh’s fate but Down’s late, late draw saved them from the drop, with Derry falling through the trap door on points difference after the sums were done. As Armagh have discovered, division three can be a sticky house to get out of. This reprieve gives Down something to build on as they prepare for the championship and try to tap into that illustrious football heritage.