Having slept on it, it’s time, I suppose, for some more thoughts on Johnno’s first championship selection of 2008.
The most striking thing is that, for all the talk about change and the team being in transition and all the rest, only three of the starting fifteen – Colm Boyle, Kieran Conroy and Tom Parsons – are making their championship debuts, with the latter already a well-established member of the starting fifteen. Apart from this trio, and Tom Cunniffe, it’s a case of putting the most experienced players on the pitch. That doesn’t mean that they’re the most experienced players in the positions in which they’ve been selected but all of them have significant game time.
From the back, then. Clarkie was the easiest man to pick as, ever since Kenneth O’Malley’s horrific injury, he’s had virtually no competition for the goalie’s jersey. That’s not necessarily a good thing but the Ballinaman played well during the league and, but for him, our goals-against tally would have been far higher.
Colm Boyle and Kieran Conroy both deserve their starting places. While neither have put in Parsons-esque displays since coming onto the team, they haven’t done much wrong either. Boyle could have been edged out by the likes of Aidan Higgins or Liam O’Malley or one or two others but he’s held on. Conroy could have suffered the same fate as James Kilcullen did last year but, to my mind, that would have been an unforgivable act of cowardice. Although he is as raw as they come, Conroy offers us more in the position that BJ (with his lack of height) or Heaney (with all that scar tissue) do. These two positions were ones in which gambling with inexperienced lads was probably the safest option, which is why, I think, their names are on the team sheet.
It’s also why Keith has been pulled back into the corner because otherwise the full-back line would be a total gamble. You can see why Keith has ended up there but, for my money, BJ could easily have started at no.4. So, I suppose, could James Nallen. Maybe he will.
Tom Cunniffe’s selection at wing-back is hugely welcome. His barnstorming second half display in the U21 semi-final against Kerry confirmed that half-back is his natural position, though I’d have him in the centre with Heaney on the wing. James Nallen at no.7 is a real puzzle. He’s playing out of his skin with Cross at the minute, I’m told, but does he really still have what it takes to play half-back in the championship? What about Trevor? Or Peadar? Or Pat Kelly?
Midfield is one of three self-selecting lines (along with goalkeeper and full-forward – interestingly, the lines alternate between self-selection and experimentation). There are arguments for trying Tom Parsons on the forty but he’ll give us an enormous lift at midfield too. I’m expecting Parsons to emerge as one of our star players and I think he has what it takes to become a folk hero for us. It would be great to see him starting decisively along that road on Sunday. Ronan needs a good game alongside him. He didn’t have a brilliant league but, after last year’s traumas, he’s made enormous progress and, on his day, he’s one of our main men. If this pair perform to the best of their ability, we should win with ease so it’s obviously vital they do.
More experimentation in the half-forwards but with experienced heads. Peadar did okay at no.10 in the league before he got crocked and he knows how to take a score so he deserves a run. With Dillon out, Pat Harte is the obvious candidate to replace him, though I wouldn’t have said that CHF is his most natural position. Trevor at 12 is a case, once again, of the old dog for the hard road. I can’t help but thinking that a half-forward line with Mac on the forty flanked by any two of the three selected (maybe with Trevor redeployed to no.7) would be far, far, stronger but that’s water under the bridge, for now at least.
Once it became clear that Conor was okay, the full-forward line was always going to be the easiest to name. This combination worked well over the league and they now need to kick on in the more pressurised environment of the championship. Mort remains our most important forward and we’ll need his usual quota of scores, Austie needs to show that his league form was no fluke and Andy needs to produce more end product along with all that great ball-winning and hard running effort.
Overall, it’s a decent side and one that should be capable of taking us through to yet another Connacht decider against Galway. The conservatism shown in a few areas, however, would indicate that Johnno’s downbeat pronouncements about our chances have seeped into his own thinking about team selection. Let’s hope they haven’t also crept into the players’ minds. The time for poor mouthing our chances is over: we need instead to be ready to put in a championship performance and lay down a marker about our intentions for the summer. Now is the time for The Second Coming to start delivering.