Dublin boss Anthony Daly. Pic: Sportsfile
By Frank Roche
Tuesday February 28 2012
ON THE first day of May last year, Dublin secured their first National Hurling League top-flight title in 72 years. The swashbuckling manner of victory was almost as big a story as the historical context: they pulverised Kilkenny by 0-22 to 1-7. The Croke Park cake was iced by six late unanswered points of such effortless quality that you wondered, briefly, if the Harlem Globetrotters had turned up at the wrong venue.
Last Sunday afternoon, Anthony Daly’s Dublin set out in defence of that landmark league title. No one said the achievement of back-to-back titles was going to be easy. After Pearse Stadium, the players know that too.
Now, by the same token that Anthony Cunningham was preaching caution after Galway accelerated to a seven-point win, it would be foolish to start preaching doom and gloom in the capital either.
Salthill was a bad day at the office — no more, no less — and you can only speak of worrying trends if Dublin’s opening-day form is mirrored through March.
For all that, Sunday offered an early clue as to how much Dublin will miss Conal Keaney this spring.
Last year, coaxed from the embrace of the county footballers and playing inter-county hurling for the first time since 2004, Keaney was a league colossus.
His 10-point haul in Waterford included an injury-time equaliser. Six days later in Croke Park, he hit a gargantuan 14 points as Dublin edged past Tipperary. He missed one league game (against Wexford) through ‘flu but played the other seven, including the final cakewalk, and finished as his county’s top-scorer with 45 points (30 frees, two ’65s’ and 13 from play).
But those impressive stats only tell half the story. What Keaney injected to Dublin’s attack last season (apart from innate talent) was a physical presence, an ability to fight for his own ball — both in the air and on the ground. Ryan O’Dwyer, newly recruited from Tipp, did likewise.
The same duo played with a belief that transmitted to their team-mates. Dublin, who had imploded in the home straight against Antrim the previous summer, were suddenly emboldened.
Now, it’s true that Dublin didn’t wilt in the wake of Keaney’s unfortunate motorcycling mishap last July. They dug out a narrow but significant All-Ireland quarter-final victory over Limerick, aided by O’Dwyer’s hat-trick heroics. Then they pushed Tipp to the brink.
However, this is a new season and Sunday’s patchy forward performance will have left all friends of Dublin hurling hankering for their absent Ballyboden ace, and praying that he’s fit for the start of championship.
Their inside forwards made negligible impact against a sticky Galway rearguard. For the second half, with Liam Rushe off injured, O’Dwyer was left to plough a lonely ball-winning furrow and while he tried manfully after switching to full-forward (somehow failing to win a penalty after being manhandled to the ground) his toil came to nothing.
Nor does it promise to get any easier in the weeks ahead: Dublin’s next outing is at home to a suddenly reinvigorated Cork, then it’s Kilkenny away (gulp).
Fitness permitting, Rushe has the ball-winning prowess — and inspirational qualities — to help fill the void up front. But he may be required elsewhere, while David Treacy is coming back from almost two years of injury hell.
Treacy needs game-time … and Dublin, sooner or later, will need Keaney.
– Frank Roche