I think it’s a good idea to nail your colours to the mast before the first Championship as to what team you think should take to the field so that I can’t be accused of being wise after the event should the team that does line out bellyflop in a spectacular manner, and that’s what I was planning to do. Imagine my surprise when Michael Ryan gazumped me by releasing the team on Tuesday rather than the Friday before the game that seems to be the norm these days. This is a good thing. Spare us the mind game nonsense and allow us to have a natter about the choices made before the event.
|Darragh Fives||Liam Lawlor||Noel Connors|
|Jamie Nagle||Michael Walsh||Paudie Prendergast|
|Shane O’Sullivan||Kevin Moran (capt)|
|Maurice Shanahan||Seamus Prendergast||Brian O’Halloran|
|Jamie Barron||Pauric Mahony||Jake Dillon|
Although you could argue that there wasn’t much in the way of ‘choice’ available to Michael Ryan and co. The most obvious place where he had to make an either/or decision was in goal, where we see Ian O’Regan make a Lazarus-style return to Championship hurling after a nine-year absence. I’m normally one for saying that the only objective measure of performance is how you did in the League. This isn’t because I think the League is a crucible in which legends are forged – it clearly isn’t – but because there’s no other measure that makes any sense when dealing with unseasoned players. Stephen O’Keeffe has only played two more Championship games than O’Regan and is hardly an undisputed choice (nor would Adrian Power be if he were still in the mix), so why not stick with the incumbent who kept two clean sheets in the last two games after O’Keeffe has been to blame for the loss to Kilkenny? To which I respond that I find it hard to believe that those two games were enough to answer the questions that have always clung to ‘Iggy’ since that wretched day against Kilkenny in 2004. If we are going to maximise our potential, it has to be with players who have the capacity to be good rather than good enough, and I still think O’Keeffe is the former and O’Regan the latter.
At least in this case Michael Ryan had a choice, because the rest of the team has the alarming appearance of being output of a check on who were the last men standing.
The spine of the team looks good. Liam Lawlor has staked a decisive claim at full-back and what a relief it is to be able to say that after all these years (no disrespect intended to Declan Prendergast). Brick Walsh is the best centre-back in the country, Shane O’Sullivan and Kevin Moran are a top midfield pair, and Seamus Prendergast is a reliable ball winner who also invariably weighs in a couple of scores in each game.
For the rest of the team though, it’s a question of looking at who is not there. The lack of goals was a feature of Waterford’s play throughout the League and a lot of the satisfaction from our performances would have been underpinned by the idea that Shane Walsh was likely to make a return for the Championship, scorer of 3-11 in his last six outings. Yeah, this was good but it was going to be better come the summer! How deluded can you be? The presence of Pauric Mahony in the full-forward line does not inspire confidence. I don’t know which thought is more depressing – that he might not start there and the team sheet is purely notional, or that they’re going to give him a few minutes to see how he gets on. In Championship terms this is an entirely new full-forward line. A lot seems to be riding on Jamie Barron and Jake Dillon making a smooth transition to the biggest stage. Maybe they will, but it’s going to be a white-knuckle ride for all concerned.
At least the absence of Shane Walsh is not a surprise. More alarming is the impact the recent injury to Shane Fives has had on the team. Thanks to his excellent form, it all looked very neat after the League with him in one corner, Noel Connors in the other, and any permutation from Moran, Jamie Nagle, Darragh Fives and *genuflects* Tony Browne as wing-backs. Then Shane Fives comes a cropper and suddenly it all goes wrong. Darragh Fives is slated to go into the corner, and you have to admire his stoicism in the face of once again being asked to make do (he could probably get some pointers on this from Declan Prendergast) but remove one piece from the Jenga tower and suddenly it looks precarious. Again, you wonder whether that’s how they’ll line out – Prendergast in the corner instead? – though the best that can be said for such jiggery-pokery is that they hope it might confuse Clare. Good luck with that.
We have had rotten luck with injuries – you can add Stephen Daniels to the tale of woe as well – and any county would struggle to cope with the loss of players of the calibre of Stephen Molumphy and John Mullane. We saw against Cork last year how shallow the pool of talent is, and it hasn’t gotten any deeper in the intervening period. So I’m very nervous about Sunday.
For all of that, what is it with Clare? I know they’ve got a number of underage titles from recent years but it’s a long time since they did anything worth talking about at Senior. The notorious 1998 Munster final was the last time they won anything at this level yet you’d swear it was only yesterday, the way some pundits are blowing smoke up their collective arse. You might argue that Davy Fitz will make all the difference, but based on what? Promotion from Division 1B and a mediocre run through the Championship last year, and coming within a whisker of getting relegated this year? It’s strange how Davy Fitz’s management style was seen as an impediment to Waterford yet is such a perfect match for Clare. The predictions seem to be based on alchemy, surely a meaningless metric by which to measure excellence as opposed to ‘results’. Maybe we’ll see some of that alchemy from Waterford on Sunday. Jamie Barron and Jake Dillon to be the bestest corner-forward pair since Cúchulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhaill took on a team of Scottish giants at hurling/shinty. Their team captain? Tony Browne. Don’t say you weren’t warned.