Jack Walsh takes a look at UCD’s upcoming Fitzgibbon Cup match against favourites UL

For UCD, two straight wins in Group C of the Fitzgibbon Cup over LIT and DCU has allowed them a stare down with the favourites, University of Limerick (UL), in the quarter-finals. Having not won the greatest prize in university hurling in 12 years, UCD have come across as disciplined and strategic in the campaign so far. The decision to pull out of the Walsh cup has signalled the single-minded focus of UCD.

The team’s campaign has been impressive throughout the group stages, with a firm sense of maturity and a calculated and level style being employed through the squad. UCD’s opening-day victory over LIT showed their maturity and focus, allowing them to dismiss the Limerick side 2-13 to 0-11.

This was reinforced by captain Noel McGrath who commented about UCD’s mind-set coming into the competition, saying: “We have just been drilling in practices and strategies. Everyone has been really prepared, but at the same time everyone can have different days so it is important to maintain that physical drive.”

This physical drive has been expressed by the success of UCD’s defence during the group stages. Smothering and intelligent, it proved too much for LIT’s midfield, arguably the team’s strongest element. The defence kept the score close for the first half, allowing UCD to pull away in the second.

Against DCU, the defence overcame a blood and guts performance led by Mark Aylward, Donie Breathnach and Galway’s Padraig Brehony with a single point margin separating the two until late on. Finally, the UCD offence churned out five straight to close out a 1-16 to 1-11 victory.

The spotlight for praise extends to the offensive ranks where, as captain of the side, McGrath has shown that he can lead by example, claiming ten points in the DCU game, with three of those coming in the crucial latter stage. Against LIT, the forwards were content in the first half to focus on taking the few chances that came their way.

In the second half of their game against LIT, UCD were able to implement pressure when necessary and the forward line completed their feeling out process by peppering the visiting goal with shots. UCD’s most impressive attack came from Jack Guiney’s work off of a long puc-out from Brian Murphy, which led to a second goal for UCD, as they chalked up a score of 1-2 in the space of three minutes.

So far, UCD have approached each game with a rock solid defence and rely on each individual’s ability to react to their opposite number and thus create chance. As McGrath explains: “When it comes to this competition, the teams often play different sides and really we just have to focus on ourselves and what we are going to do, as well as focus on our own strengths and how we play, and we have been doing that.”

While looking at the other teams in the quarter-finals, and specifically his opponents UL on Tuesday, McGrath noted that “UL, over the last three seasons, have been very strong and they do have a lot of players who play at county level, but UCC, Mary Immaculate in Limerick and WIT have come up this year and have fielded solid teams who could potentially reach the finals”.

UL reached the knockout stage as runners up from Group D, following a three point loss to DIT in Coolock two weeks ago. DIT employed a similar style to UCD, providing a strong defensive game that allowed their offence to make a late surge, eventually levelling the scoreboard at 1-11 to 0-14 with ten minutes remaining. The match was a somewhat back and forth affair, with UL only leading for a minor portion of the sixty minutes.

It must be remembered that UL are not being overlooked in the slightest, and every member of the squad knows that the Limerick side are still the favourites for the competition, yet McGrath believes UCD are able for the task at hand.

“I think it’s some of the techniques and experience we have built up training at county level, and it really comes down to the experience with ball control that we have developed as a team. I think we will have to play a strong and tactical game, yet UL are very similar, so it really will be about who can stick to their game plan the best.”

The loss to DIT provided a setback, yet the pre-competition favourites, coached by Brian Lohan and Ger Cunningham, will emerge on Tuesday not just looking for a win, but to silence the nagging questions of whether or not the team can replicate the success of 2011.

Perhaps the pundits were too quick with their praise, but this is still the team that offered an absolutely dominating performance over St Pat’s Mater Dei in every aspect in a 2-19 to 0-7 win, with David Butler and Eamonn Murphy firing home the goals.

UCD have done everything right so far in this campaign. They have polished their defence whilst also allowing their forwards to find their feet and vent shots. Calm and collected, this is a side that have shown they can work out opposing tactics and capitalise when necessary.

McGrath’s vision for his team is clear, as he leads them out to the biggest game of their season so far. There is no more room for error, as the Cup provides no more safety nets to the competitors. In what should be the tie of the round, no one knows who will come out on top.