Offaly’s Cillian Martin set to strike with Clare’s John Cahill applying pressure during the All-Ireland minor hurling semi-final in Thurles. Photo: Ger Rogers.

From elation in Thurles to crestfallen in Croker

By Kevin Egan

It’s exciting to look forward to Sunday week’s All-Ireland minor hurling final, but looking back at the incredible occasion that was Offaly’s 2-16 to 0-18 win over Clare in the semi-final last Friday is also a thoroughly joyful experience.

Everything about the game was all that Offaly fans had hoped for.

From the incredible atmosphere in the stadium as Offaly supporters once again turned out in force to play a blinding role as the 16th man; to the maturity that the players showed to work their way back into the game after a bad start; up to the elation that resulted from those thrilling scores from Dan Ravenhill, Daniel Hand, Leigh Kavanagh and Shane Rigney in the second half; and of course, the rapturous outpouring of emotion on the field afterwards made for a truly memorable night.

After breaking the county’s 22-year drought in Leinster, a barren spell that extended across all three hurling grades, this game felt like a free hit, or bonus territory, for a lot of supporters. Thankfully, the players didn’t see it that way, and even though the performance was far from flawless, with plenty of scope for improvement, it was controlled and focused, right up until the final whistle.

Last Sunday, Tipperary came through a remarkable shootout against Galway to take up the other spot in the final, and the manner of their victory will see them as the marginal favourites to win the big prize.

Certainly, the quality of the scoring in that fixture was remarkable, even if it was a very different type of game than Offaly’s clash with Clare, where it could be argued that aside from Dan Ravenhill, most of the better performers on both sides were backs. Whether that’s a better indication of quality, is something that will only be revealed in Nowlan Park.

Tailteann Cup semi-final

Elsewhere, Offaly’s run in the Tailteann Cup came to a juddering halt last Sunday, when Westmeath’s greater experience and Offaly’s growing list of absentees came together to create a quite one-sided encounter on Jones’ Road.

Falling behind early on wasn’t fatal, but Offaly’s continued inability to stop Westmeath from scoring certainly was, as it meant that there was never a sustained spell in the game when John Maughan’s side had the upper hand and could make inroads into the deficit.

Two statistics have been given a lot of air time after the game, namely the 33-10 foul count (allied to just three yellow cards shown to Westmeath, all of which were long after the result was nailed on) and Offaly’s concession of the Westmeath kickout, which meant that virtually every one of Jason Daly’s restarts went to a player in a maroon jersey.

These two statistics are inextricably linked, in that Westmeath felt confident that by hook or by crook, they could impede Offaly’s progress up the field. Offaly did not have that same faith in themselves, and so felt the need to back off, and wait until the ball went inside their own 45m line before trying to engineer a turnover. That is a physically demanding approach, as it automatically ensures that you will spend a lot more time chasing possession than holding it, and it also means that one broken tackle is often enough to result in a scoring chance. Suffice it to say, it didn’t work.

Despite the rather laughable claim on Off the Ball radio programme this week that the Tailteann Cup “has done wonders for Offaly”, getting a run of games has been of some value, even if only to expose the players to this one outing in Croke Park, which was sure to be a learning experience.

Some players will develop for the extra run of games, and it’s certainly the case that Keith O’Neill, Cathal Flynn, Dylan Hyland and Jordan Hayes are a lot higher up the pecking order than they were at the start of the year.

Others, unfortunately, have had their limitations exposed and are likely to make way when at least a half a dozen key players hopefully come back on board for 2023. Beneficial, yes. Worked wonders? Absolutely not.