IF the hurling league has been one big boring damp squib only occasionally yanked to life by the odd surprise result or the feeling of schadenfreude experienced by neutrals over Kilkenny’s early season lethargy, it has at least one last very important issue to decide this Sunday.
Dublin and Limerick meet in Parnell Park in a straight relegation shootout. The winner can look forward to a further season of top-flight hurling and attach a spring to their step with which to bound the obstacles of summer.
The loser, though, is consigned to spend next year trudging around the toxic hurling wastelands of Division 2 but before that, a summer polluted with self doubt.
Not the ideal scenario.
Yet the protagonists on Sunday form somewhat of a relegation ‘odd couple’. Everyone knows why Limerick are where they are: bottom of the table, pointless and riddled by local tension and apathy.
No doubt, Justin McCarthy’s HR skills leave a lot to be desired and the players with which he has attempted to replace those he dumped from his squad and those who left in protest are too inexperienced, are lacking cohesion and, in many cases, just not good enough.
Not that last year’s players would have made any great dent in the natural hurling order had they been retained but, certainly, Limerick would have stood a better chance at avoiding the drop. The big question, though, is why exactly are Dublin in the position in which they currently find themselves?
Quite simply, Dublin aren’t raising enough green or white flags. Their six game tally of 3-100 is lower than any other team bar Limerick who, given their circumstances, are irrelevant for the purposes of comparison.
Just as alarming for sky blue stick fans is the source of Dublin’s scores. The rejuvenated Johnny McCaffrey is their leading scorer from play with 1-8 (1-16 in total) and he’s a midfielder.
The second highest total comes from Shane Durkin (0-10) who has partnered the Lucan man in midfield in three of the six games to date.
“At the end of the day, the forwards are going to win the game for you and it’s up to ourselves to get the scores,” says Alan McCrabbe, Dublin highest scorer in total with 1-37 (0-32f, 0-1 ’65’).
“We’ll have to be putting pressure on ourselves. The backs are doing well. They haven’t let any goals in in the last two games. So they’ve upped it. It’s up to us in the forwards now to up it.”
Yet the scoring burden is just one of the necessities of forward play and at different times in the last few weeks, the front six have failed to win enough clean ball to create those chances.
Limerick, though, have conceded 20 points more than any other team in the league this year and scores should be easier to generate on Sunday.
A repeat of the error-strewn shooting show which stained the performance against Cork in Parnell Park on March 28 must be avoided, though.
SECOND SEASON SYNDROME
The first problem is likely an offshoot of this well-known dehabilitating affliction. Twelve months ago, Dublin were settled on third in the table, surprising Galway, Waterford and to a lesser extent, an understrength Cork team.
Liam Rushe battered Galway in Parnell Park, soaring to win ball and driving at their brittle centre. Then, in Thurles in a game Dublin could easily have won, David Treacy made his name by bagging a hat-trick of goals in a remarkable performance.
The consequences of such youthful excellence is that both are marked men this year.
“If you were talking to Kilkenny players or Wexford players last year, they would be asking you who these lads Rushe and Treacy are,” says McCrabbe. “They only popped onto the scene last year. There was a bit of a surprise element to it last year.
“You can see though, that they’re being marked a bit tighter this year and teams are looking at them this year and targeting them to stop them scoring and keep them out of the game. Credit to the lads though. I thought they’ve played well this year.”
RISING LEAGUE TIDES
It’s a symptom which Anthony Daly has identified as contributing to Dublin’s precarious position. By the Clareman’s reckoning, the three performances against Kilkenny, Cork and Galway would have been good enough to win at least one of those games last year.
McCrabbe too feels that there has been a greater emphasis placed on the league by hurling’s established powers compared to last year.
“I do think it’s more competitive,” he notes. “Teams are upping it every year. Last year if we had some of those performances we could have been in a league final. But that’s credit to the teams around us. We have to up our own game as well.”
No two ways about it — Dublin targeted an away match against a notably understrength Waterford team and the trip to Offaly, as four points for the taking. What transpired was a pair of losses by a combined tally of 20 points.
Inexplicable though those results were, it was the performances that seriously disheartened Daly and if some atonement can be taken by the last three performances — no points were, and those matches represented prime chances to edge away from relegation.
WHEN SUNDAY COMES
At least the equation now is simple, though; win or draw and Dublin stay up. Yet the challenge is fraught with pressure and there is a unique element of the unknown with this Limerick team who, for all their strife, remained competitive in a couple of their matches for long spells.
“You can’t really prepare yourself to face their team,” McCrabbe acknowledges.
“All you can do is prepare your own game. If we play well on the day, we should be beating a team that is basically a second Limerick team. It’s a dog fight. They’re not going to come up and lie down. They’ll hit us with everything they have.”
Yes, the match is in Parnell Park but though they might protest differently, being favourites for a big match has never done Dublin any favours. Just look at the last time they played Limerick.
“We did learn a lot of lessons from last year,” says McCrabbe of that painful All-Ireland quarter-final defeat in Thurles. “We wouldn’t be used to that favourites tag and it probably did put a bit of pressure on us.
“I think we’ve grown as a team this year and that bit of experience has helped. Defeats do push you on. We have got that bit of experience going into the league.
“Hopefully, we can use our experience to beat them on Sunday whereas last year, they did the same to us.
“We know what’s at stake,” he adds.
“We don’t want to be going backwards. Sunday is an unknown match for us too.
“We don’t know what they’re going to bring up to Parnell Park. We don’t know their sort of team.
“It’s up to us — no matter what they bring to Parnell Park — to be ready for it and beat them.
“It’s as simple as that.”
– Conor McKeon, Evening Herald