Fennelly fears gap from top tier
Allianz Hurling League Division 2A: Offaly v Antrim (today, 2pm, Tullamore)
TWO games in, we know a little bit about Antrim, a little bit about Offaly, and very little at all about where they’re at in relation to each other.
Their form lines are almost incomparable. Antrim have two wins from two, but both of them handsome against the division’s two weakest sides, Mayo and Wicklow.
Offaly are the other Christy Ring Cup outfit in Division 2A but have beaten Meath and lost to Kerry, both of whom will play in the Joe McDonagh Cup this summer.
Michael Fennelly’s men will have a lot of their work done after tomorrow afternoon and victory in Tullamore would leave them in a very strong position in terms of possible promotion.
However, the Offaly boss says that no matter who climbs into the revamped Division One, which has this seen the top 12 distributed more evenly than in the old 1A, 1B system, his concern is that the jump is bigger under this new layout.
“It’s a bit different this year with two groups in Division One, there’s not an A and a B as such. That’ll be interesting to see how that goes.
“The couple of years previous, [the top teams] are being dropped from 1A to 1B and you were thinking you couldn’t go down, you had lesser games and that pressure was there. I’m not sure is that same pressure there now?
“You’ve Westmeath, Laois, Carlow up there and it’s great for those teams to a certain degree to get those type of games.
“My fear would be that the team that rises up from 2A, how will they get on next year in one of those groups, playing the likes of Limerick or Galway?
“It’s a serious jump from 2A but that’s maybe the way it has to be. There’s no perfect system. The league is very exciting, it always has, but teams are driving up to the pace a lot quicker and there’s a lot more pressure on players and managers.
“We’ve three Joe McDonagh teams and three Christy Ring teams in the league, so it’s very different at the moment in terms of that standard compared to the top division in the league.
“You’re playing better teams up there, there’s massive competition between teams and you’re looking to get one over on teams early in the year. Those games are very much a high standard.
“Laois probably aren’t far off it, they’ve just had a few players stepped away and are missing a few injured, which is unfortunate.
“Everyone would have liked to have seen them this year with a fuller team to see how they would compete at that level. They’ve really come on and progressed over the last year.
“Other teams might take that bit more time to get to that level. It’s great to see Westmeath and Carlow up at that level, and hopefully it will stand to them.
“The fear you’d have is that those teams could end up with big defeats and it could be quite disheartening for them when that happens.”
A winner of eight All-Ireland SHC medals with Kilkenny and five more club titles with Ballyhale Shamrocks, including the most recent, Fennelly says he’s using the league “to trial players” in a bid to work out his best 15.
He will be without Damien Egan (knee), Shane Kinsella (back) and Ciaran Burke (illness), while Antrim will be down a handful of their own.
Keelan Molloy and Ciaran Johnston both played a half against Tipperary but will struggle to play 70 minutes having missed the Mayo game, while Ciaran Clarke, Conor Johnston and Conal Cunning could all miss the rest of the league through injury.
The Faithful men took victory when the sides met in the Kehoe Cup final, with a late Oisin Kelly point grabbing the win just after Dan McCloskey had netted an equalising goal three minutes into stoppage time.
Two-thirds of the men that started that night all began their respective team’s last league game, where Offaly lost by 2-11 to 0-14 in Kerry, while Antrim were 4-19 to 0-7 winners over Mayo.
For Antrim selector Johnny Campbell, while the game will give them a better idea of where they’re at, there are more twists and turns to come.
“They’re in the exact same boat as ourselves. It’s a 50-50 game, as they all are, the Meath game the way they’re performing, and the Kerry game after that.
“The other games in the league, Kerry have beaten Offaly and Meath play Kerry in Navan this weekend. The division is a minefield and they’ll all have a bearing on it.
“That’s why it’s important to set your own standard and keep your consistency high. Time will tell.”
Perform as they did against Wicklow and Antrim will be in bother. Something closer to the last two games and they might just have enough to squeeze out of O’Connor Park with victory.