When I was brought onto the panel in 2007, we were in a bit of a transition period.
Our biggest problem was lack of belief and confidence, due to the fact very few players on the panel had success at intercounty hurling, whether that be underage or senior. The U21 win in ‘09 was crucial to the success in 2013. I felt like we finally belonged and we had beaten our peers in crucial games en route. This brings me to our current crop, sometimes I wonder if they are capable of winning an All Ireland and then I remember the confidence and belief they have gained from their abundant success at underage. While we still have a long way to go and to improve to be at the top table, in once off knockout hurling, you always have a chance when you have belief and these lads have it in spades.
The performance last Saturday was a joy to watch but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Wexford did not show up and they struggled to shake the hangover from their first outing. Our backs defended like a real unit and our transitional play was very good when we got into our flow. Shane O Donnell is the perfect foil for Tony as he does so much selfless work and releases others around him into space. Our use of the ball and the way we worked, especially against the wind was much improved. We made the middle third a battle ground and did not allow the same space offered up to Laois the week previous. I give huge credit to management in getting the players ready for battle after the below par performance against Laois. Credit has to go to the players also as they defended in packs and you could see the passion in abundance when they turned over Wexford. Tony is just in the form of his life and he played a real captains role last Saturday. His athleticism is one of his biggest assets and this means it is extremely hard to man mark him. He has been given the freedom of the park by Brian and it is really paying off. The best thing I can say about him though, is that he is so humble and he sets an example to his team around him in the work he does without the ball.
Waterford will be similar in the way they set up to Wexford and I think it’s the best draw for us, as it suits the way we play. Will they be more intense than Wexford? Of course they will and they will be more confident, as they put it up to the favourites for the All Ireland last week, but they are still beatable. The middle third will be extremely busy and we will need to work hard and release players into space, as quickly as possible. I do not think we will be able to match them physically so we have to be smart and move the ball quickly through the lines. Just like playing against Limerick, we are wasting our time going long, unless it’s early and deep to the edge of the square, which nearly worked last week with Colin Guilfoyle. We will need to be patient if that ball is not on and look for better options and retain the ball until a scoring opportunity arises. We cannot give Waterford easy turn over ball to run back against us, as they will have us at sixes and sevens. Waterford, like most of the teams left in championship, do not commit numbers to their full forward line and this will suit us to defend our goal. No goal conceded and we will be in with a real chance. This is why Kilkenny are so dangerous, they do commit numbers and with TJ Reid and Colin Fennelly, they have two of the best ball winners in the game close to goal. Tipp are similar with the like of Bonner Maher and Seamus Callanan up top, but the rest are happy to win a shootout, which fills me with hope as the season goes on. We have got the draw that suits us and now we have to make use of it. I think the confidence the players gained from last Saturday is immeasurable, you could see from the reaction at the end. Add to that, Davy Mc and possibly Jack Browne being available and our chances increase. It’s such a pity it’s probably a bit too early for John Conlon. Can you imagine the lift he would give with twenty minutes to go with the game in the melting pot, but never say never.
To finish on a slightly different note, I could never understand and still can’t the level of abuse players and management receive from the crowd. I understand passion from spectators and all of that, but it still does not sit well with me. I always felt sorry for my parents down through the years listening to it and I was never as happy in 2013 when they got reward for everything they had to listen to. I for one, don’t always agree with Davy, especially in 2016 when I lost my place starting but that’s life, he stood by his decision and I had to accept it. That’s not to say I don’t have the utmost respect for him and I would not have had the career I had, or an All-Ireland, without his guidance. The GAA does not need this type of behaviour and thankfully, I think they are trying to remedy it at underage level.