Dublin set to stay standing
Blues to continue climb towards summit
THEY say the bookies never get it wrong. And sometimes, even when they can't make up their minds, they get it right too. So it is with tomorrow's tantalising shot at September for the hurlers of Dublin and Cork.
As the Boylesports odds at the end of this preview underline, the All-Ireland fence-sitting championships are coming to Croker this weekend. And they aren't the only bookmakers loath to call the outcome.
Sometimes, believe it or not, the dog-eared cliche holds true and it really is "all on the day". Which team carries the greater momentum into HQ. Which players embrace the big occasion, and which ones freeze.
Who, in essence, is willing to grab history by its throat.
Cork hurling fans may view it as their inalienable birthright to be reaching All-Ireland finals; but will the same serene belief, even swagger, transmit to their current team? After all, unlike in '99, Jimmy Barry-Murphy's dressing-room is not exactly top-heavy with decorated underage graduates.
Dublin hurling fans – and players – certainly don't see All-Ireland qualification as something routine, something to be expected.
But their confidence, and with that the quality of their hurling, has soared from the lowly base camp of Wexford Park on June 8 to the glorious summit of Croke Park on July 7.
And then, after five tumultuous weekends on the spin, nothing for five weeks.
Therein lies the biggest uncertainty about Anthony Daly's team and what they might produce tomorrow. Can they carry on where they left off against Galway, rattling off six points in as many minutes to leave last year's All-Ireland finalists on the receiving end of a 12-point trimming?
If so – if Dublin can relocate that rich vein of effervescent but also intelligent, heads-up hurling – they will take some stopping. But after such a long break, can they?
By the same token, what if Cork replicate the performance that inserted the final, fatal blade into Kilkenny's long-faltering title defence? That was just two weeks ago: a time-frame that may give Cork a crucial head-start in the momentum stakes.
Against Kilkenny, primarily in the first half, we witnessed the quality of forward play for which Cork teams are traditionally renowned: clever creation of space, slick delivery, instant stick control and enough sharp execution to leave opponents playing catch-up throughout.
The performance certainly wasn't flawless but it was sufficient to finish off Kilkenny, leaving aside all caveats about debatable red cards. It might also, we suggest, be good enough to capitalise on any downward spiral in Dublin's form graph.
Yet Cork are still not the finished article and JBM was stressing that point at the Cork press day last week. Their 12 wides against Kilkenny was an improvement on the wasteful 16 that blighted their Munster final off-day against Limerick, but even greater economy may be called for tomorrow.
All of which partly explains our inclination to keep faith in a team that has visibly grown through this most remarkable of championships.
Back in early June, some key Dublin players started out in the wrong positions but far more appeared, quite simply, stuck in a rut.
But the replays – against Wexford and Kilkenny – have been a godsend.
Liam Rushe, restored to centre-back, has come back to his aerially dominant self. Conal Keaney, on his return to the half-forwards, has put in a sequence of colossal shifts and the reward for his selfless workrate has grown with each game.
While Peter Kelly and Michael Carton maintained a high level of consistency throughout, their fellow defenders kept raising the bar each week.
Niall Corcoran and Paul Schutte both endured a troubled first half in the drawn game against Kilkenny, struggling to cope with Walter Walsh, but the two corner-backs hung tough and have been rocks ever since.
Joey Boland has been another key midfield presence whereas, alongside, skipper Johnny McCaffrey has rediscovered form after an unhappy spring sabbatical in attack. Ryan O'Dwyer's offensive contribution had been under a critical microscope for quite a while, but Daly's faith was amply rewarded in the Leinster final.
Yet, in individual terms, the biggest difference between Dublin at the start of June and the start of July was in the full-forward line. In Wexford Park, a scoreless 'Dotsy' O'Callaghan was taken off after 46 minutes and replaced by Paul Ryan, whose omission had already raised eyebrows.
The full-forward line, as a unit, was floundering. It took 'Dotsy' a couple of games to reclaim his starting place and even the recalled Ryan endured something of a 19-minute horror show in the original Kilkenny stalemate ... but come the replay, Dublin's two inside raiders set the early agenda with the sharpness of their movement and crispness of their point-taking from play.
A week later, against Galway, they were better again and even Ryan seemed to have relocated his free-taking radar.
The last few paragraphs may seek to explain the team's dramatic individual improvement, but the
collective end product has
been the most noteworthy
Dublin, at their best under Daly, have always been noted for the intensity of their tackling; their prowess in the air matched by a tenacity in the trenches. As the manager himself likes to call it, "going to the ball". This has been a recurring feature of their last two-and-a-half performances – from the half-time watershed in the drawn Kilkenny game.
You get the sense that if their half-back bedrock of Hiney, Rushe and Carton can bring the same power and athleticism to bear on Cork, then even such capable ball-winners as Pa Cronin and Seamus Harnedy may struggle to gain parity of their own puckout.
In that scenario, don't be surprised if Anthony Nash seeks the short option in a bid to bypass Dublin's half-back line and locate Patrick Horgan and his inside cohorts, Luke O'Farrell and Conor Lehane, via a different route.
Suffice to say, Dublin's forwards must be alive to any short restarts while Kelly, at the far end, must maintain his recent A-standard against the richly talented and prolific Horgan.
That promises to be one of several standout duels. Ditto for whoever tracks Ryan and O'Callaghan in front of the Cork goals: Shane O'Neill (albeit while pushing the rule book boundaries) and Conor O'Sullivan both excelled against Kilkenny.
Here, though, is the rub. Dublin have illuminated this championship against two teams (Kilkenny and Galway) who had fallen well below last year's All-Ireland standard. Cork have done likewise against one of the above (Kilkenny). Now, based on the most recent evidence, we have two in-form teams ready to rumble. Only one will be standing at the finish. And we fancy them to be history-making men in Blue.
BOYLESPORTS ODDS: Dublin evens, Draw 9/1, Cork evens