As sporting motivational devices go, sticking offending press cuttings on the dressing-room wall is as old as the combination of ink and newsprint. Well if De La Salle feel so inclined they’ll need the whole of the changing area in Croke Park judging by the wholesale dismissal of their prospects against Portumna come St Patrick’s Day.
The principal basis for suggesting that the Waterford and Munster winners have no business breathing the same rarefied air as the champions was the disparity in standards between Sunday’s All-Ireland club hurling semi-finals in Semple Stadium and Parnell Park (which should have both been staged in Thurles, surely).
Former Offaly player-cum-pundit Daithí Regan argued on Newstalk’s unmissable ‘Off The Ball’ on Monday night that the two matches came from “different planets.” Maybe so, and most people would reckon Ladbrokes have it right in listing Portumna at 2/11 and De La Salle 10/3. Sure we’ll see.
It would appear that the Galway men have gotten even better since beating Birr to win the All-Ireland last March. The phenomenon that is Joe Canning, who got the All Star nod ahead of John Mullane last season, is a joy to behold; on the cusp of greatness at the tender age of 20. He seems to have everything and it’s frightening to think he could improve by playing in Leinster, or would do if Galway as a county side were as good as their club champions. Hopefully when it comes to assessing his stature in the galaxy of stars in years to come it won’t be diminished by a lack of All-Ireland medals. We can’t all be born in Kilkenny or Cork.
Stopping him looks like mission impossible – unless you descend to the tactics Loughrea adopted a few years back. With all due respect better defences than De La Salle’s have tried and failed miserably to contain Canning’s latent talent. Limiting him to “manageable” proportions might be the most you can hope for.
But that’s for another column – back to Sunday. If there’s ever been a better score at a more critical moment in hurling, club or inter-county, than Bryan Phelan’s sensational sideline cut that drew De La Salle level, I’d love to see it.
If it had come from Canning’s magic stick it would have been among the lead items on the 9 o’clock news that night. (If it’s any consolation, Eamon Cregan couldn’t remember either Joe’s or Bryan’s name when reviewing Sunday’s semis with Des Cahill on Monday evening.)
At that stage of the game, when supporters were saying rosaries or chewing their fingers to the bone, the players on both sides must have been on the verge of emotional meltdown.
However, when you’d expect his central nervous system to be short-circuiting, Phelan – whose striking throughout was something else (including a first-half pointed sideline; just to show the second was no fluke) – stepped up and produced a stunning 60-metre groundstroke that you’d more automatically associate with PlayStation 2 rather than reality.
“I said to him ‘do you want me to hit it’ and he said ‘no, get out of here,” revealed his club and county colleague Kevin Moran afterwards, reflecting Phelan’s self-belief – not to mention courage and conviction – in the tensest of circumstances.
Though carrying a knee, Bull’s powerhouse performances throughout De La Salle’s club campaign (not least the Munster semi-final versus Sarsfields, when his deadball ability again proved decisive) must make him a candidate for one of the two Waterford midfield spots.
Sentiment can sound silly, but I remember looking across the Quay in front of the Bridge (sorry, ‘Days’) Hotel the night Waterford got the train home after the All-Ireland semi-final. Ken McGrath had his arm around his friend Phelo’s shoulder, giving him a gee-up, knowing he’d have had mixed feelings after failing to make the team that laid a hoodoo.
To his credit he’s bounced back big style. Likewise John Mullane who kept plugging away on Sunday when the Ruarí Óg defence were suffocating him. And Kevin Moran, who had the misfortune to be marking Cushendall’s main man, the menacing Niall McManus, but stuck to his task and managed to make a few vital interventions at the death; not least the spectacular fetch that ended up with the bloody-fingered Mullane making it an even handful with the insurance point.
However, so-called lesser De La Salle lights shone in several key sectors during the course of the 80 minutes: Páidí Nevin’s Duracell engine was in overdrive throughout extra-time, a period when he picked off two priceless points; Alan Kelly’s goal-saving, first-half tackle; Stephen Daniels’ penultimate point in normal time; Lee Hayes’s terrific three-point contribution, and not forgetting the influence of Derek McGrath, whose experience and intelligence helped create the early goal by Dean Twomey, and whose all-round awareness and commitment prompted a number of scores, including one of his own.
As Mullane mentioned afterwards, the odds-layers were almost making mischief in quoting the chances of a Cushendall win as wide as 7-1. Personally I reckoned De La Salle would do well to scrape past the post and so it proved. There was a whole pile of pressure on Owen Dunphy’s men last weekend, and it showed. Now they’ve nothing to lose. Just some sleep for whoever’s given the job of marking you know who.