New era threatens an open season
Continued from Page 1
The defeat of Cork in Pairc Ui Chaoimh was impressive in a couple of ways. The team looked as hard as ever and yet radiated a conviction enhanced by, if not born of, last year's All-Ireland. Add to that the comprehensive beating that consigned Cork to Division Two and it was possible to ascribe the ongoing struggle in attack to the bad conditions.
Clare avoided relegation and also the quarter-finals which would have caused major disruption to their training schedule. They have found a couple of players who may be able to put pressure on last year's championship team. All in all, they look in excellent shape after their year in power
Leinster has changed subtly in the last year. If the League performances of Laois and Wexford sowed seeds of promise, the opposing displays of Kilkenny and Offaly rang alarm bells. The net effect may be to create a very competitive provincial championship, but League evidence requires a lot of corroboration.
On the positive side, Laois and Wexford have certain advantages. In Babs Keating, Laois have a shrewd manager well versed in life at the top. For all the doubts that surround some of the playing personnel, Laois will take the field well organised and highly-motivated. Such possibilities as they have will be fully exploited by Keating.
They will know that Offaly have ferocious difficulty getting their minds right for, matches. It is said that Kilkenny is the only county that can regularly provide the stimulus. This isn't strictly true: Cork and Tipperary would do nicely, too.
It's been to Offaly's and Eamonn Cregan's frustration that they have arrived in the last two All-Ireland finals to find Limerick and Clare waiting - honest paysans like themselves rather than hateful aristocrats.
Consequently, Babs might prove a disadvantage for Laois in that respect as his Tipperary provenance is hardly going to pass unmentioned by Cregan in the lead-in to the match.
Wexford are slightly different. There is a feeling that they should be capable most years of making some sort of an impact, but that their perennial under-achievement means that they never do better than they should but frequently do considerably worse.
The current team again has potential and Liam Griffin is painstakingly trying to drill a system into his panel. I'm not sure they're as good as the 1993 team that came so close to both League and Leinster titles, but took five matches to talk themselves out of both.
They showed in the League win over Offaly that they have spirit and, when moved, a modicum of accuracy. Unfortunately that accuracy only manifested itself when the result was effectively settled, whereas conventionally it's needed at more hectic stages of a match.
A blast from the furnace that looked like engulfing Kilkenny three years ago would help and facing the old enemy in a first round rather than a Leinster final optimises the chances of an upset.
Kilkenny may not be as good as they looked early in the League, but they're not as bad as the quarter-final suggested. As with Offaly, problems of selective motivation may have interfered with performance that day. That is a very dangerous game to, play - mental focus can't always be turned on as easily as it can be shut down - but Nicky Brennan is aware of that, as well as the other deficiencies that require attention.
Offaly also have problems. Inability to find new players has been having a host of unhelpful consequences. The players there already are not by and large very old so they don't demand to be replaced, but in the reasonable belief that they are unlikely to be replaced, they seem to find motivation difficult.
That lack of competition obviously affects performance or, at least, makes remedial action harder to take. It also deprives the panel of momentum and the regeneration that a couple of new faces can bring to a static team.
Finally, any manager has difficulty making his words count after four years in, charge and for Cregan it's been particularly tricky, given that his audience has changed so little. That, combined with the manager's unrelentingly demanding style, has made friction unavoidable.
There's no doubting the talent in Offaly, but mobilising it will be a fair task after the exertions of the last two or three seasons.
In the other provinces, Roscommon will do their duty by Connacht and provide Galway with a workout in the provincial final. If recent challenges, a workout is as much as many counties have been able to give Matt Murphy's men. Strong, committed and moving better in attack than for a while, Galway may find yesterday a prelude to better things.
Finally in Ulster, Down's relegation to Division Three came as a shock to many. The departure of Sean McGuinness as manager must have had some impact on the county, but in fairness to his successors, the team has lost, through retirement, players whose absence would be felt in several counties.
They will raise themselves to defend their championship, but Antrim look in slightly better shape. What effect Dunloy's travails in the recent All-Ireland club finals has had on morale is anyone's guess, but the team lack a certain definition when it comes to competing against whoever emerges from the ultra-competitive Munster championship.