IN 1973, the Five Nations rugby tournament remarkably ended with each country on the same number of points.
Forty years on, the National Hurling League Division 1A goes into its final round with that same scenario a possibility, however unlikely. But then that’s what this year’s tournament has been about up until now, because never has the playing field seemed so level.
Nor ever has an awkward sponsor slogan — Unexpect the Expected — felt so appropriate. Who would have expected Waterford to be top going into the final round of matches, that Galway would be sitting unpretty after beating Kilkenny on the opening day, or that Clare and Waterford would be ahead of all four of last year’s All-Ireland semi-finalists? Liars, that’s who.
There was a combined total of two points between the six teams over three games in Division 1A on Sunday. A quick look at the scoring differential in the table further enforces the argument: (from first to sixth) Waterford -3, Clare +6, Cork +6, Kilkenny +2, Tipperary -1 and Galway -10. After four rounds, no team has ploughed on ahead and no side has been buried behind.
Davy Fitzgerald’s Clare side could be outright leaders but the will of Kilkenny was just too much at Cusack Park. The hard facts suggest that the Banner should have come away from this game with more than just encouragement, after a 3-10 to
1-15 loss. Had Davy Fitz been told that his team would hold half of the Kilkenny forwards scoreless from play (the entire line on the 40) and restrict the men inside to just 2-4 over 70 minutes, he would have been confident of a result.
Were he to be told that this side would create more chances overall (35 to 30), show the sort of discipline that meant gifting just six scoring opportunities from frees to 13 by The Cats, and open up 11 of the first 13 chances after the interval, then he would have expected the win. He didn’t get it.
Because Clare are wasting, and wanting for it. The Banner, at one point, went over half an hour without a score from play, between John Conlon’s point in the 21st minute and Tony Kelly’s in the 52nd. That period of dominance we mentioned at the start of the second half sounds good until you consider this: Clare missed 1-8’s worth of chances and tacked on just two frees before Aidan ‘Taggy’ Fogarty nailed Kilkenny’s opener for the second half, blasting to the net. The ol’ black-and-amber suckerpunch.
So Clare’s issues in front of the posts, relative to everywhere else, continue. Approach work and intensity are not the issue, it’s conversion. The conditions have to be taken into account, of course, and it’s true that Brian Cody’s men also struggled on the scoreboard after the break. The Banner put away just eight of 21 openings, while Kilkenny found the spot with a mere four (1-3) from 12.
Given that we are so used to Cody’s side thriving irrespective of what happens in the league, it’s worth persisting with a Clare focus for now. So why are they so profligate in front of the posts? Part of it is down to having forwards that are more adept at carrying water than turning it into wine.
Full-forward Conlon is an exceptional talent but so often he seems to spurn great chances. He missed two goal openings on Sunday — one when he tried to whip a ball first time past Eoin Murphy, and just after the break when he really should have buried it past the same man — while putting away just one of three pointed attempts. Given the service coming his way, it was bad manners not to finish more of what was on offer.
It was often the same with Conor McGrath — currently sidelined with a hip injury — last year as his excellent approach work was so often undone by a disappointing finish or final ball. Shane O’Donnell got plenty of possession against the Cats but could only manage 0-1 — again, he did a huge amount of good because he set up six scoring chances.
Outside of the full-forward line, there was a tendency to shoot from distance, go for long frees, and run into cul de sacs — it was wasteful stuff. But these may just be teething problems for what is clearly a very talented bunch. Should everything click one of these days, it will take some team to stop them.
Kilkenny are certainly that and they continued to belie their injury problems to come back into contention for a league semi-final place. They will be disappointed with their return from open play (3-5 to Clare’s scant 1-5) but the plusses are there. Lester Ryan looks a decent option and hitting 1-1 from midfield will do his confidence plenty of good.
Ger Aylward has clipped in 1-1 in two games running, including the win over Waterford, so Cody has unearthed another sniper. Walter Walsh made his comeback and, in one late run, promised more to come this year. Michael Rice might not have been on fire, but his very presence on Sunday was far more important than his prominence. He’s money in the bank.
There are a couple of worries for Kilkenny too. Richie Hogan opened the scoring in the first minute but disappointingly failed with the other six attempts he had thereafter, even if he hotly contested one wide. His namesake Power was withdrawn with about 20 minutes to go after another somewhat underwhelming performance; the Carrickshock club man has scored just 0-2 — both against Galway — from three league games in 2013, and we might suggest that his All Star nomination in 2012 was a little generous too.
As much as they may be issues, you might as easily ask how much better Kilkenny will be when these proven players come good. What about when Jackie Tyrrell, Paul Murphy and a little ditty by the name of Henry Shefflin return too? Point being: the Cats are building nicely.
Whether that’s towards a league semi-final or a relegation play-off is still up in the air. It’s been that kind of a year, even if we don’t end the party as they did back in 1973.