John Allen: Clare and Limerick begin Munster campaign with much to prove
Semple Stadium the setting for a phoney war but neither team will want to lose
The intercounty retirements of Brian Hogan, Henry Shefflin and Tommy Walsh are a huge loss, not just to Kilkenny, but hurling at large. Photograph: James Crosbie/Inpho.
At last hurling championship time is with us. In the closed season (Yes, I know, what closed season?) we’ve been kept mildly entertained by the usual accumulation of retirement announcements and boardroom antics.
It would be remiss of me on this year’s maiden voyage not to pay homage to some of the supreme competitors that have departed the hurling arena since the last championship sliothar was pucked. The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness was still with us when Tommy Walsh handed in his stripey jersey.
He first came to my notice in the skull and crossbones of UCC in the early part of the century. Terrier and, in particular, Jack Russell came to mind at that time. We all now know that his thoroughbred pedigree revealed itself as the century picked up speed. He was almost peerless as a competitor no matter what number he wore. He’ll be missed.
We could include his colleague JJ Delaney with most of the same commendations. The hurling world also laments the loss of other recently departed stars including the silken-skilled brave competitor that is Eoin Kelly as well as Brian Hogan, Aidan Fogarty and David Herity and many more.
Christmas came and went and as the festival of the wise men was being celebrated another group of wise people, aka the 2020 Hurling Review Group, brought gifts of their own for consideration. The proposed new calendar had us animated for a while as some of the supplementary competitions drew the crowds to the playing grounds.
And then came the press call we all expected. Henry Shefflin was hanging up his intercounty jersey as Kilkenny tethered on the relegation demarcation line, which of course they avoided courtesy of a late late Cillian Buckley point. It’s been all written and due homage paid to a serious (from the Brian Cody lexicon) player and person. He reached and consistently played in a vertigo of achievement. He was the Cúchulainn of modern-day hurling. He will be a very welcome addition to the Sunday Game analysts’ panel
As March morphed into April Waterford fired a major warning salvo when they brought the league trophy back to the Déise. Their victory is, arguably, on a par with Clare’s ’95 ascendancy to greatness. And then a damper is thrown on future aspirations with the news that ace freetaker Pauric Mahony’s season is over. What a loss he will be. A consistently accurate free-taker is hugely important to every team. Mahony is that and more.
This weekend, though, the championship begins. I was going to add the words in earnest to the end of the last sentence but I’ll hold it off for another few weeks. Because really the championship doesn’t begin until it’s knockout and then it’s in earnest. As has been the case for many years, only a handful of teams have a real chance of winning the championship.
In the 2015 version, late June is the time to be starting to come good. This is the time to be hitting form. This is the time the long-term injured aim to be back for. Up to now there’s no finality. But once the back door of the last-chance saloon is arrived at the “earnestness” begins.
Yes winning the province still matters but it is, and always will be, in second place in the hurlers wish list. Everybody involved in the county set up knows that playing hurling in early September in Croke Park is the aim. Winning is the ultimate goal even if it might take a second game.
And so, while Sunday’s Munster opener has a seriousness about it, the result doesn’t matter that much. The performance, as a precursor to future ambitions, does matter though. Yes, of course, both sides will want to win but both sides also realise the losing isn’t the end.
Can we say the same of Limerick ? If last year’s semi-final performance can be used as a gauge then the answer has to be in the affirmative. A few of the very impressive minor team of the last couple of years will bolster the squad. But the loss of David Breen and Nicky Quaid will be significant,especially Quaid who has been the very accomplished first-choice goalkeeper for a few years. However this Limerick team contains quite a few influential leaders and leaders are very important in this modern, highly intense, little room for error, game.
Managers and mentors have little or no influence after the ball is thrown in. The players on the field have to impose themselves on the game. They have to deal with the unexpected. Like the air traffic controller they have to make many, many decisions on their shift. They have to be empowered to have the confidence to know they are the masters of their own performance and, to endeavour, on match day to perform to the best of their ability.
The winner of this game, I think, has a more difficult route on the September journey. Having said that I’ve no doubt but that neither side will want to lose. Toss of a coin.