One of the beauties of the round-robin system in the hurling championship is that the story keeps changing. In the old championship format, teams could spend weeks thinking about a big win or a big loss before they had to play again. In this system, every result and every performance has a knock-on effect that teams must deal with quickly or risk getting stuck.
Take last weekend. Waterford played like a team that hadn’t been able to move on from their game against Limerick a week earlier. To me, it was a mental issue rather than a physical one. They had probably targeted the Limerick game for so long, and they had put so much energy into that performance, that they struggled to get beyond it.
Even though they lost against Limerick they would have been listening to compliments all week about how well they had played, and no matter how hard a player tries to block out the noise, that kind of stuff still seeps in. Waterford blew a chance to beat Limerick, and really gave themselves no chance of beating Cork by the way they played in the first half. Now their season is hanging by a thread.
How well you recover is the key for everybody. Clare only had a six-day turnaround after their loss to Tipperary, but the things that they needed to fix were obvious and they didn’t have to look hard to find positives. The 3-23 they scored against Tipp would have been enough to win every other game played in the championship so far. They managed to get themselves into the right frame of mind for the Gaelic Grounds last Saturday night and everything else flows from that.
I said before the championship started that the biggest challenge for Limerick would be getting up for every game. All they were hearing was that they were going to walk the All-Ireland. On the flip side of that, every team they played was going to treat that game like it was an All-Ireland final. It is no coincidence that the best performances Clare and Waterford have produced this year, by a mile, have been against Limerick.
They need the three-week break that they have now. I still believe Limerick have the best team and the best panel, but it’s a long time since they produced two mediocre performances in the championship, back-to-back. I wouldn’t say their performance against Clare was flat, but it didn’t have the kind of edge that they normally bring. Without that, they’re not the same team. They’re around long enough not to panic.
For Kilkenny and Galway there are no urgent consequences from their match in Nowlan Park, but everything has a context. The Leinster Championship is weaker now than it has been for years and everybody expects Kilkenny and Galway to meet in the Leinster final again. You won’t hear Kilkenny and Galway saying that but you can be sure it was somewhere in their minds.
The next time they meet will be in different circumstances but there will be stuff carried over from the game last week. Even though it was a draw, Kilkenny will feel like they lost the game. Not being able to manage a five-point lead late in the game, at home, against one of their biggest rivals, will sting. They’ll bring that grievance into a Leinster final.
This might sound funny, but you’d wonder if it would have been better for Galway to lose by a point, and carry that disappointment into a potential Leinster final down the road. Every team is looking for psychological edge, and in the round-robin system you can sometimes get that from a defeat. If Limerick go on to win the All-Ireland they’ll probably think that losing to Clare last weekend was the best thing that could have happened to them. That’s not how they’re feeling at the moment, but teams look for energy wherever they can find it.
Until the last quarter, there was a lot of shadowboxing in Nowlan Park. Good scores, nice hurling, but not the kind of intensity you would expect. Neither team wanted to lose, but unlike some of the games that are coming up in Munster, nobody’s life was on the line.
Some of the changes that Galway made when they were chasing the game were interesting though. Conor Cooney and Conor Whelan would be seen as the leaders of the Galway attack, but both of them were taken off. In Conor Whelan’s case it was probably the first time he was ever taken off in a championship match when the game was still in the melting pot.
The way the game went, though, he couldn’t argue. It seemed that every time the ball went into him he was wrestling with Huw Lawlor and the Kilkenny full back was one of their better players on the day. It was a brave call by Henry Shefflin and his selectors to send on a couple of inexperienced young lads late in the game, but Liam Collins and Declan McLoughlin both came up with a score and justified their presence.
For Conor Whelan and Conor Cooney I’m sure being taken off in a game like that will make them think a little bit. I remember when we drew against Dublin in the 2015 championship I was taken off in injury time when the game was still on the line. Anthony Cunningham was the Galway manager at the time and on the following Tuesday night he took me and Joseph Cooney into the referee’s room before training in Athenry and laid it on the line for us.
I spent the rest of that week thinking I was going to be dropped for the replay. As it happened I started full forward, we won easily and I managed to get a few scores. Galway will need Conor Whelan and Conor Cooney to be at their best as the year goes on. Nothing was lost last Sunday; we won’t know for a while how much was really gained.
Cork and Tipperary in Páirc Uí Chaoimh is the outstanding game of this weekend. Even though they both have a win under their belts, it’s not a game either of them can afford to lose. Cork were good in lots of ways last Sunday, but I wasn’t impressed with their defence. They coughed up three or four clear goal chances after half-time, and if they do that against a goal-hungry team like Tipp, they won’t get away with it.
I don’t think Cork came out of the league knowing who their best six backs were and I still think they have problems in their full-back line. Cork have had less than a week to sort it out. That’s what this championship demands more than anything: quick solutions.