Sometimes after a breakthrough year, a team can plateau.
Liam Cahill’s arrival gave Waterford a real bounce in 2020, and got the team back to an All-Ireland final. They delivered impressive wins over Cork and Clare, before a super victory against Kilkenny in the semi-final.
This season, they appear to have kicked on.
They are going to be contenders again this summer, and will be a team other counties will take very seriously in the championship.
Last week’s win over Limerick was hugely important for them, given the Treaty had given them a few hidings in recent years. They fronted up and matched the All-Ireland champions.
Although they lost on Sunday at Pearse Stadium, it was nonetheless a game of real quality. I don’t think Cahill will be too disappointed with the 4-28 to 3-23 defeat. There were plenty of positives to take, with Dessie Hutchinson and Jack Prendergast providing 1-3 and 1-2 respectively.
Who will anchor the defence?
Tadhg de Búrca’s absence is a significant blow. But there are positives. They are not losing him the week before their championship opener. The Suir-siders have had time to test a few replacements and try to find a solution.
Iarlaith Daly did not play on Sunday, but he has shown himself to be capable in that role.
Austin Gleeson has also taken up a more defensive role in recent weeks. What position best suits the 2016 Hurler of the Year? Does pulling him into the backs take away from the Déise attack?
He led the line well last year, but he was inconsistent at times. I thought he was poor in the Munster final, and he struggled in the first half against Kilkenny. But he then came alive after the break and did some unbelievable things.
We saw Gleeson thrive at centre-back when he was minor and U21, so he is certainly capable of manning that position.
De Búrca’s injury is a huge blow. There is no getting away from that. He was in the conversation to be named Hurler of the Year before December’s All-Ireland final. You don’t replace a player like that very easily, and certainly not being able to call on him detracts from Waterford’s chances.
But if Iarlaith Daly can kick on, they can offset some of the damage caused by Tadhg de Búrca’s injury.
Limerick get their house in order
Saturday night’s contest at the Gaelic Grounds was bloodless.
I think Limerick were more concerned about themselves. Dan Morrissey, Kyle Hayes and Gearoid Hegarty were missing, so there were opportunities for other players to stake a claim for a starting berth.
If you’re a Limerick player, you’re fighting for the jersey every day you go out. The competition within that panel at the moment is Kilkenny-esque. The players know if your performance levels drop, John Kiely isn’t going to hand you the jersey the next day.
The game was over as a contest early, but I don’t think the result will have any significant bearing on the teams’ July 3 showdown.
From a Limerick perspective, it was about getting the ship back on-course, after failing to win any of their three opening matches.
There were signs from Cork, with their pace and the goal chances they engineered, that they have a plan to trouble Limerick.
But they had desperate trouble with the short puckout, given the Treaty’s press. When the Rebels went long, they were devoured by the Limerick half-back line.
Cork went away from the game with a realisation of just how big the challenge is that awaits them in the Munster semi-final.
Important win for Clare
I felt Saturday’s trip to Parnell Park was huge for the Banner.
If Clare came out of there with a defeat, suddenly Kilkenny coming to Ennis next weekend is a daunting task. If they were to exit the league with just one win, confidence would be on the floor.
But Brian Lohan’s side showed plenty of resilience to recover from conceding two quickfire goals in the first half.
Tony Kelly was excellent, Aidan McCarthy was impressive, John Conlon improved as the match went on, and we saw flashes from Shane O’Donnell.
It was a win that was worth far more than just two league points. It was important for the Banner to get a victory over quality opposition.
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