IT WAS a sort-the-men-from-the-boys sort of weekend.
And after two rounds of league fixtures, it’s starting to feel a bit like hurling is in a Lord of the Flies wonderland. Because with Cork, Waterford and Clare as numbers one, two and three in the table; it’s as though the kids are running the island.
The first two, ahead of the chasers by a point after drawing at Fraher Field, were expected to struggle as youth replaced experience within their ranks. That hasn’t been the case thus far while the Banner, seen as a coming team in any case, showed well to hold on against Galway.
Davy Glennon had a chance to get a second Tribe goal that might have helped turn the game in Ennis, but Anthony Cunningham’s side will look back on a game in which they scored just 0-5 from play to the home team’s 0-11 and know it wasn’t good enough.
Joe Canning was named at 14 — because, basically, that’s his number — but again he spent plenty of time away from the square, with human cherry-picker Jonathan Glynn in the full-forward spot. It may take a little time to find the right balance for Galway, but we don’t doubt it will come. For now, one of the favourites has to let an upstart have their day.
In an overall sense, it wasn’t supposed to be this way in NHL 2013, and Kilkenny weren’t meant to be the only pointless side after two rounds — watching the kids run amok. In truth, Brian Cody has been giving plenty of his younger players a chance in the league and it was essentially an under-21 side that took part in the Walsh Cup.
Coming second best in that pre-season event, likewise away to Galway and now to a strong Tipperary side with everything to prove, proves nothing. That the Cats pushed the Tribe and Tipp so close with so little game preparation suggests that they’ll be there for the long haul.
A couple of the old regulars impressed too. Tommy Walsh, ridiculously harsh red card aside, gave John O’Brien the sort of trouble that reminded us of the 2009 All-Ireland final, and Eoin Larkin returned to something like the level he showed in last year’s League campaign. Whether the latter’s form tails off somewhat again this season, and whether Colin Fennelly and Richie Power continue to operate beneath their usual levels, is the issue for Kilkenny.
In any case, the eventual returns of Henry Shefflin and TJ Reid, the midfield twin turrets of Michaels Rice and Fennelly, and the burgeoning talent of Walter Walsh should all help transform the side. However, they’ll only ever be able to put 15 on the field and even if Cody has managed to parachute players back in seamlessly in the past, there is no guarantee that will always be the case. He will want his full side in harness sooner rather than later.
In that, there is an interesting sub-plot. This year Kilkenny will have to play a Leinster championship quarter-final for the first time since 1998, so either a league semi-final (and possibly beyond) or a relegation play-off (who’d have imagined it?) means their window for in-house preparation may be smaller than usual. That may yet be a factor for them this season.
Tipperary needed the win so much more than a Kilkenny side that have yet to play at home. Finally, Tipp have something positive to hold onto, something tangible. Because before this, any positivity was based on the fantasy that the mere appointment of Eamon O’Shea would lead the county back to the promised land.
They remain third favourites for that and rightly so because one win can’t erase what has gone before: humiliation. Nothing gets a team to fight more than being in survival mode and Tipp were in that. No longer was form being questioned, but class. Heck, their testicular fortitude was even being probed. Now while a one-point win over a weakened Kilkenny team doesn’t front-load their undergarments, they now have a platform.
A forward line that showed no spine in Cork put up 2-17 on their neighbours. Noel McGrath, ridiculously harsh red card aside, showed a marked improvement while Lar Corbett and Eoin Kelly led the line as leaders should. Corbett hit 1-1 but was involved far more in the play than in his ineffectual display from Thurles against Kilcormac-Killoughey, while Kelly looked like a man determined to showed Tipp can mix it with the men. At midfield, Brendan Maher exemplified the workrate that had been missing and will be needed if this is not to be a false dawn. But a word of warning: this was a one-point win for a strong team against a weakened one, a side with much to prove against opposition with little to. Let’s see them show grit more often.
In weather conditions that looked as if dawn would never come, Cork came from a mile back to a nose in front, before finishing level with Waterford. The huge wind allowed Waterford to build up a 0-10 to 0-2 half-time lead in Dungarvan and it was important for Michael Ryan’s side to have the elements in their favour. Had Cork been able to use the wind and knock over scores with anything approaching the run-rate they did against Tipp, it might have been a different story. That Na Deise came back from two points down to level late on will give them hope though, and shows that there is life after John Mullane.
The forward line is what most will doubt about Waterford in 2013 without the De La Salle man, because it looked threadbare even with him in it last year. So often he seemed their only outlet. That may yet be their downfall but the defence looks as impressive as what’s out there. Jamie Nagle, Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh and Kevin Moran present a formidable half-back line — you’d want to be sending men in against them.
Which helps explain why Waterford are joint top of the table: standing up to the fight and defying the naysayers. Flying in the face of expectations for 2013.