JOHNNY McCAFFREY is caught in that strange limbo land that precedes every county’s first foray into championship combat.
Everyone in the Dublin hurling camp is “really itching to get going,” he explains. As befits his role as captain, he repeatedly stresses the fundamental importance of focusing everything on this Saturday’s Leinster SHC opener against Laois in Tullamore (5.0).
And yet McCaffrey can’t help getting excited by the bigger championship picture. Why? Because he knows summer 2012 has the potential to deliver something seldom yet wonderful for the Dublin hurlers.
The return to fitness of their ‘Cruciate Three’ – Conal Keaney, Stephen Hiney and Tomás Brady – partly but not fully explains the mood of positivity in Anthony Daly’s squad.
“It’s great (having them back). It’s added massively to the panel. The lads have been brilliant but, you know, the whole panel in general has really come together as a group. I think everyone really believes that something special could happen if we get things right,” McCaffrey declares, speaking at yesterday’s launch of the Etihad Skyline in Croke Park.
“I haven’t been on a panel that’s been so strong since I came on the scene,” he underlines. “That’s the strength in depth that you need, going forward. If you want to go and win things, you’re going to need a big, strong panel and I think that’s what we have at the moment.”
This inner belief has been fuelled by last year’s groundbreaking progress, when Dublin’s first National League title in 72 years was followed by a first All-Ireland semi-final appearance since 1948. But it also comes from “the talent we have in the squad. You have seen different lads throughout the league and throughout last year, underage teams and what they’ve done … if you can bring all that together on one day, and on a couple of days over the summer, you’d be fairly confident that things can go well in any game you play in.”
For all that, McCaffrey’s cautionary words about Saturday’s first hurdle are understandable on several levels.
First up, the Lucan Sarsfields clubman knows all about the perils of round one – his championship debut in 2006 is remembered for two things only, the ‘Puddlegate’ conditions in Portlaoise and the fact Dublin were stunned by Westmeath. Secondly, when he was setting out on his senior career, Laois were very much seen as Dublin’s equals.
“We might have gone a little bit ahead, but on any given day Laois are still capable of producing a big performance,” he warns.
“We are very wary that could happen on Saturday as well. If we’re not tuned in and fully prepared for a big, massive, physical battle, we could get turned over. So we really have to make sure that we’re on our game.”
McCaffrey argues that Laois won’t “fear Dublin as maybe they’d fear someone else. They’re going in with absolutely nothing to lose, no one is expecting them to do anything, so all the pressure is on Dublin as such.
“Even the year that’s gone, in the Walsh Cup they beat us. I know we were missing a couple of players that day – but so were they.”
Since that end-of-January shock, both counties have suffered league relegation from their respective divisions – Dublin dropping down into 1B and Laois into 2A.
For all that, McCaffrey says Dublin’s failure to win a single competitive game during spring “hasn’t really played on our minds”.
“We were up for it in the league, put in a couple of big performances … obviously the results didn’t go our way.
“But we were happy enough with what we got out of the league, and we’re really looking forward to the championship now.”
Two days out from Tullamore, Dublin’s hurling script for 2012 has yet to be penned. “We’re hoping that we’ll have a long summer and that we’re going to get good competitive games in Croke Park later on in the year, but we’re literally taking each game as it comes,” he signs off.
For the record, Dublin’s captain turns 25 on September 11, two days after the All-Ireland hurling final. Not that he tells us this: Johnny isn’t thinking beyond June 2.
– Frank Roche