Paddy Stapleton 2017 preview: Here we go again
The first thing Micheal O’Donogue needs to do is call up Donald Trump requesting the deportation of Johnny Glynn back to the west of Ireland.
From playing with him in college and against him for Tipperary, Glynn is a really underrated player and someone Galway need if they are to go the whole way. I know it is important to think of the players you have got right now but the big forward is too important to ignore. He can play anywhere across the forward line, which is down to a strong and selfless attitude more so than any natural given talent.
He’s as strong a man as you’ll come across with an unbelievable hand in the air. If a defender stays behind him he is strong enough to catch it in front; if you go out in front he will use his body to guide you out of the way and catch, giving himself a clear run at goals. I’ve marked him a couple of times and he’s unlike anyone else in the country. Similar to Bonner Maher though, he is direct, attracts defenders and will gladly pop it off to a colleague, which is probably the reason he doesn’t receive more fanfare.
Galway will hope to see Joe Canning back in their line-up by the end of the league after that bad hamstring injury. He is the most talked about hurler in the country, mostly good and some bad, but for the Tribesmen to win the All-Ireland he needs to be motoring. There is always the argument around his positioning, and if it was me I would like to see him in full- or corner-forward. There is no doubt if he was in there playing to his potential, and the correct type of ball was going in, very few could defend him. When he gains possession he shows such a dynamic change of pace and power that if he put that into his running off the ball he would be very hard to counteract. Most of his scores are brilliant displays of skill but I would love to see him getting into positions to take easier scores, and working harder off the ball would enable him to do that. If he can get five possessions even close to the 21-yard line, he will cause all sorts of problems.
The hardest inside forwards I found to mark were usually the ones that kept altering their position so that you had to follow them, like John Mullane and Alan Cadogan. The less successful forwards stay in the one position waiting, ideal for an inside back to get out in front and attack the ball. He is capable of consistently causing Seamus Callanan or TJ Reid kinds of damage, but anything less could see Galway come up short.
One more tactical area I would look at is in defence. With Daithi Bourke seemingly now a full-time full-back, there is need for a powerful and skilful centre-back. For me it has to be David Burke who has it all: an unbelievable pair of hands, loads of confidence, and moves forward well with the ball. Galway have lots of quality man-markers, but space opens up in other areas when no one is covering. This was obvious in the 2015 semi-final with Callanan being left in on his own — everyone was being marked tightly but our full-forward had huge space to operate in. Although they closed up a little better last year, the Tribe still man-marked and all it takes is one slip for the whole backline to open up.
Promotion from Division 1B is a priority for Galway as it is not conducive to hurling at a high level. Going on to win the full league itself, ala Clare last year, would not be of too much concern; in fact a more subdued run into championship may suit them better.
Other members of the chasing pack could do with positional and personnel switches too. Waterford have to maintain the influence of Austin Gleeson, while Kilkenny need to make Paul Murphy the fulcrum of their defence. Although Tipperary look to be in the best position, they too have problems to overcome in order to get back to the heights of 2016.
But first to the Deise who, after winning and losing league finals in the past two years, won’t be overly concerned about lifting the cup. Gleeson is their marquee player and was on another level playing as an orthodox centre-forward in the All-Ireland semi-finals. A question though, if teams can negate his aerial ability and tighten up on him from play, will Waterford have the players around him to pick up the slack? On a wet day in the Munster final, Tipp kept close tabs on him, but that experience stood to him in the All-Ireland replay when Kilkenny couldn’t contain him, even when Conor Fogarty was given the job.
They have some very talented forwards, but I see the Bennett brothers (Shane and Stephen) as the other two attackers who need to be playing at a high standard. Both have pace, power and skill — so if Gleeson is held, they need to be the ones taking advantage of the space he leaves.
Full-back is another area to look at where Barry Coughlan has been a rock since Derek McGrath took charge. It is interesting to note that he did not look as dominant with the lack of a sweeper in (a) the Munster final when Waterford pushed up in the second half and, (b) the All-Ireland semi-final when Kilkenny went orthodox. Coughlan is a very strong player who is well able to mark, but without a sweeper he now has to make more decisions. Whether to attack the ball, to contain his man from behind, or mind the house if the ball is breaking around him. With a sweeper there is a natural ‘minder of the house’ and so he can usually concentrate on stopping the full-forward.
If 15-v-15 does not work in the league, Waterford will be left with doubts and may even revert to the sweeper system. A good league would be to win some matches without using the extra man back, filling them with belief to push on in the championship.
One man who won't revert to the sweeper is Brian Cody, who is in a position he’s successfully negotiated his way out of in the past. In the All-Irelands against Cork in 2004 and Tipperary in 2010, Kilkenny were dominated and many people were carving their headstone.
They will really focus on putting in good performances during the spring and regaining some of the confidence lost in last year’s decider. I think Cody will look at a different mix in his backline this year. The two wing-backs — Padraig Walsh and Cillian Buckley — are proven performers and moving into their prime, but I expect a change-up down the spine of the defence and in the corners. Robert Lennon will get every chance as he fits the Cody checklist of being young, big, aggressive and well able to hurl.
Murphy will obviously start and I’d push him out centre-back because they need a launchpad in the middle third. He is a man who has consistently marked the best inside forwards in the land while also getting on the ball as much as any half-back. He is very strong, quick and good in the air, but above all else he is a confident player, something that you need in the centre of defence. By moving him to six they will have three excellent players with real experience who can drive the team forward.
That will leave four or five players fighting for spots in the full-back line. Kieran Joyce hasn’t played full back since the league in 2014 but he could fight it out with Joey Holden and Lennon for number three, while Shane Prendergast will still be challenging for the corner.
One thing is for certain, changes have to be made there so that even if they are being dominated out the field at stages, their back line can hold out more than they did last September.
Kilkenny have to find players other than Hogan or Reid to play midfield, because both are needed up front. With Fennelly, Derek Lyng and Michael Rice, they have had years of power around the middle which was a huge part of their success. Without Fennelly in the semi-final last year, I’ve no doubt Waterford would have progressed and it was clear how much his physicality and directness was missed in the final. He is hard to stop when running towards opposition goals and tough to get by in the middle. It is difficult to come by a player that strong, fast and rangy so getting him on the field is a priority.
Speaking of injuries, Ger Aylward is a man that hasn’t been mentioned too much last year and is vital for the Kilkenny game plan as he is a strong forward who can win his own ball. It would be a massive bonus if he got game time in preparation for championship.
Tipp are in a very strong position, so an early exit from the league would be a really poor sign. After playing in the All-Irelands of 2009 and 2010, we stuttered through the following springs and couldn’t generate momentum. It’s an emotional thing to reach such a natural high in the summer — if you’re not used to being up there, it can be hard to quickly get back up to that level.
It’s difficult to talk motivation into players; they must have high enough standards to want it every night at training, which will translate to good league performances. This Tipperary bunch must buck that trend and show that winning an All-Ireland medal in 2016 does not dampen their ambition to compete. It would be a massive sign of intent if they were to challenge hard, with a spot in the league final being the minimum they should demand.
It is also important that players who did not nail down a championship place last year challenge for a shirt. I’d be a worried man if Tipp started the championship against Cork the same way it finished against Kilkenny in September. There is no reason for newer players to feel they can’t make it, because while the performance was very good in the All-Ireland, the final flourish — which in fairness is probably the most vital time to play well — distracted from some deficiencies.
Conceding 2-20 to understrength Kilkenny team is a concern, and the amount of fouls conceded in the first half showed tension among the players. What I would be more worried about is that Kilkenny seemed to get in at Darren Gleeson’s goal more often that they should have. Still, this is a better scenario than management scratching their heads wondering what they can improve.
Last year’s league quarter-final exit to Clare was a disappointment but Michael Ryan got what he wanted from the campaign all the same. He found a workrate and rawness that was lacking. He blooded newcomers like Barry Heffernan, Michael Breen and Dan McCormack as well as re-introducing Michael Cahill and John McGrath after injury. The head was kept down until championship knowing that the other pieces would come together. It should be encouraging to fringe players that he has shown a willingness to give anyone with the appropriate attitude a sustained chance.
Ryan is the key to not letting players settle for mediocrity and I expect him to keep players on their toes like last year. He wasn’t shy to take players off, most notably in the league quarter-final with Callanan and Bubbles O’Dwyer. He also showed it when leaving Bubbles on the bench for the All-Ireland semi-final. Bold moves but his belief in being honest with all his players is reflected in their performances.
So that’s the four top teams but others can make a burst. Cork have shown promise in the Munster hurling league but what interests me is seeing how new joint managers Gerry O’Connor and Donal Moloney set Clare up this year. Their All-Ireland winning Under-21 teams had a more fluid style than Davy Fitzgerald’s outfit, and I expect a more conventional system. In the likes of Tony Kelly, Conor McGrath, John Conlon, Podge Collins, Colm Galvin, Cian Dillon and Patrick O’Connor, they have the spine of a team that can compete with or beat any team in Ireland.
Limerick don’t have huge expectations on them but with the right coaching from John Kiely’s crew they could be a hard team to beat, especially in the Gaelic Grounds — one place that you will always expect a difficult match. They need to avoid heavy beatings early in the year.
With the Cuala contingent awaiting an All-Ireland semi-final, Dublin are under a little bit of pressure in the league. There have been rumblings from former players that all is not well and bad results will only heighten the pressure on the team, so a good start to the year is important for Ger Cunningham. With some players not making themselves available, this is really cutting the Dubs at the knees. Danny Sutcliffe was their main man and, like Galway’s Glynn, is just about irreplaceable.