With the re-structuring of the provincial championship and the return of the Allianz National League imminent, 2018 will offer plenty of players across the country a newfound opportunity to impress their managers and become a key man in the business end of the All-Ireland series.
With this in mind, we’ve outlined five players who could make a big step up this year, and light things up on the senior stage.
Aaron Gillane – Limerick
The U21 Hurler of the Year made a serious impression against Cork on Saturday, scoring 1-9. Gillane was absolutely phenomenal in last year’s underage series and is the natural forward that his county have been crying out for.
The Patrickswell man hit 0-46 on the way to the All-Ireland in 2017, and should he continue his form at senior level – then a star could well and truly be born on our screens in 2018. Gillane is definitely one of the most exciting prospects in the country, and he could be the man to spearhead a revival in Limerick.
Jack Canning – Galway
A surname which holds an extra bit of weight. Canning, nephew of Hurler of the Year Joe – is deemed by many as the next big thing. The Portumna forward impressed in last year’s All-Ireland minor victory, hitting 2-2 in the final.
While it is likely that his involvement this campaign will be predominately in the U-21 series, should he be introduced to the senior level by Micheal O’Donoghue – the youngster will add gloss to an already incredible forward line. The Tribesmen will be looking to defend Liam McCarthy in 2018 – and don’t rule out the possibility of the Cannings rattling the net plenty of times along the way.
Patrick Curran – Waterford
The star man of minor and U21 All-Ireland wins for the Deise, things haven’t quite gone to plan as of yet for Curran at senior. The Dungarvan man made major impressions in Waterford’s 2016 league campaign but has struggled to nail down a starting place since with the emergence of Shane Bennett among others. With Bennett now having stepped away from the inter-county scene for the time being, and the return of Tom Devine imminent – 2018 represents a year of massive opportunity for Curran.
He has at times shown glimpses of the stardom he displayed at underage level, and should he start the year firing on all cylinders, he will give Waterford an extra dimension in their quest to avenge their All-Ireland heartbreak.
Expect a big year from Curran this year.
Shane Kingston – Cork
Following his father’s shock resignation from the Cork managerial post, Kingston now has an opportunity to impress under the stewardship of John Meyler. The Douglas man started on fire last year with a great display against Tipperary in the Munster Championship, but despite the Rebels’ provincial success and run to the All-Ireland semis, Kingston’s form seemed to fade out for the most part.
A player who possesses great ability and time on his side, the UCC man will look to impress in the Fitzgibbon Cup as well as being granted many more opportunities in the coming weeks to make a name for himself. Like Curran, Kingston withholds a great level of ability – it’s just a matter of when it will show, rather than will.
Liam Blanchfield – Kilkenny
There is simply no denying the fact that 2017 was a shocking year for the Kilkenny seniors, as they exited in the qualifiers at the hands of Waterford, following a surprise defeat to Wexford in the Leinster SHC. At U21 level, the Cats enjoyed provincial success as well as reaching the All-Ireland final. One player who impressed at that level, was Blanchfield.
The Bennettsbridge forward has experience at senior level, firing in three crucial points in an All-Ireland semi-final replay win against Waterford in 2016. An ageing Kilkenny side will now rely on the likes of Blanchfield and Richie Leahy to handle the changing of the guard, and should the Cats find themselves back to winning ways this year, expect Blanchfield to be a regular on the scoresheet.
Jordan Norris, Pundit Arena