As we close in on the 25th of December, a lot of teams will take a short break before embarking on the regular January slog. The 2014 season is very much a thing of the past and all eyes are now focused on 2015.
Here Sean Cremin looks at what certain intercounty managers may have on their wish lists for Christmas.
Part one of this two-part series will focus on Kilkenny, Tipperary, Cork, Limerick & Wexford.
Kilkenny – new talent
Kilkenny won the 2014 All-Ireland but they are by no means the complete package. There was a time when Kilkenny looked like an unstoppable force but those days are long gone. Nobody can say that they did not deserve this year’s victory but they had to work harder this year than any other for the Liam McCarthy Cup.
The off-season has been littered with retirements of outstanding hurlers. Tommy Walsh, JJ Delaney, Aidan Fogarty, Brian Hogan and David Herity leave a raft of All-Ireland, Leinster and National League medals behind as well as countless years of experience, while a certain Henry Shefflin has yet to decide on his future.
Brian Cody admitted in his autobiography in 2009 that he played the ‘transition’ card back in 2006 when using the retirements to coax the media and the hurling world into thinking that Kilkenny were not the team they once were. That card will not work again as Cody must make do without some of his greatest ever players.
He showed this year that he still has plenty of trump cards up his sleeve as positional and personnel moves worked a treat in re-energising what was almost a lifeless team in 2013. He showed his tactical astuteness to beat Tipperary in the All-Ireland final replay of 2014 when he dragged Tipperary into a battle and forced them to play on the Cats’ terms.
So the magic of Cody is definitely not over, but he needs new talent to replace those that have left. The number and quality of players lost is very high and it is not a case of players being primed and ready to slot in like they were in previous years.
There has not been a great deal of hype about a lot of the young Kilkenny talent at the moment. The underage prodigees like Richie Power, Richie Hogan and James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick have not been coming through the ranks in recent years.
But Cody has a knack of unearthing new talent. He needs to find it for 2015 or the Cats could be in danger of being caught up by a number of counties who are waiting in the long grass.
Tipperary – another ball-winning half-forward or a full-back
Tipperary were agonisingly close to an All-Ireland title in 2014. Millimetres literally prevented a white flag being raised from John O’Dwyer’s long range free which could have led to a deserved victory for the Premier men.
They were beaten in the replay and these two games with Kilkenny showed two slight weaknesses in their armour. One was the lack of a natural full-back and the other was that their game may be slightly one-dimensional.
They conceded three goals the first day against Kilkenny as they allowed their full-back, James Barry to get isolated on occasions. Firstly, it should be pointed out that Barry is not a natural full-back and did a very good job after being thrown in at the deep end. But they looked open at the heart of the defence and it’s a position of concern ahead of the new year.
The other slight concern for Tipp was that they allowed themselves to get dragged into a physical battle with Kilkenny in the replay and this ended up being their main downfall. Kilkenny sucked them in, crowding all the breaking ball and in the end they out-muscled a lot of the Tipp players by targeting them in packs.
When Tipp play the expansive, open game of hurling that they can play; then they are the best team in the country. But if this gets prevented then they need a ‘plan b’. Patrick Maher is their one real ball winner and if Tipp could find another one then they could be an irresistbale force.
When Bonner was not firing on all cylinders and obviously carrying an injury in that replay, Tipp struggled to make the ball stick up front as their tactic of breaking the ball themselves got snuffed out by Kilkenny. A second ball-winner in the forwards would be a massive addition to this Tipp side.
Cork – defenders
Despite falling a long way short of the quality of Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final, Cork are still Munster champions and are a good hurling team. They are by means the finished product but they have a lot of talent at their disposal and this coupled with the natural Cork mentality will always make them a match for most teams.
They have a depth of talent up-front. There are plenty of scores in the team and there is a decent balance between pace and ball winners.
Patrick O’Callaghan should be another man to add to the attacking ranks for 2015 and could make a difference. There is also the return of Paudie O’Sullivan who will have a proper pre-season under his belt along with the full-time availability of Aidan Walsh. This should see Cork continue to be strong in attack.
The defence still needs work. They only have to look at their last defeat to Tipperary and see the difference a strong defence makes. Padraic and Brendan Maher were like a wall in the Tipperary half-back line that Cork could not pass while Cathal Barrett hurled Patrick Horgan into another world on that day.
Cork do not seem to possess defenders of that quality at the moment. They are good hurlers but some of them are not the top class standard that may be required to win the All-Ireland title. Mark Ellis did a good job of solidifying the centre of the defence last year but needs to add more in terms of dominating the middle as opposed to just protecting it.
Damien Cahalane came in for criticism last year. He has given full attention to hurling this year and is also entering the year injury-free for the first time in two years and it will be interesting to see if he can prove people wrong.
Cork may also need to take a leaf out of the Kilkenny/Clare book and change their approach to compensate for a lack of top-class defenders. Maybe a sweeper is necessary to help provide more of a platform for the Cork attack. This is only a thought but the general thinking is that Cork would want some high quality backs to help improve their chances of winning an All-Ireland.
Limerick – depth and a fully-fit Declan Hannon
Limerick are right up there with the best teams in the country at the moment. They are very close to winning an All-Ireland title. They have a very solid group of hurlers at the moment and despite the good work previously carried out by Corkmen, Donal O’Grady and John Allen, TJ Ryan looks like the right man to take the side forward.
Following the conclusion of the league, it looked from the outside that Limerick were in disarray but the summer proved the complete opposite. They were a galvanised group and it should be remembered that they beat Tipperary in their own patch and if nature had been kinder to them they easily could have accounted for Kilkenny in the semi-final.
As a starting fifteen, they are as good as what is out there. They have a very good defence, a busy midfield and plenty of scores in attack. The question mark surrounding Limerick is the depth of their squad. If they suffer injuries to key players, it is hard to know if they have the quality on the substitutes bench to deal with this.
They have had quality minor teams, over the last two years in particular and more importantly it looks like there are four or five players who look like they will develop into good senior players. If these new faces can add that extra bit of depth to the squad then Limerick will not be far away at all.
The heart of their defence is as good and as settled as anybody’s. They have two outstanding corner-backs; they also have a very balanced attack. A fully-fit Declan Hannon will be another huge asset. He has been struggling with injuries for a while now and if he can stay injury free for a full year he could lead them a few steps further.
So very little needed for Limerick, just a few fresh faces to back up what is a very strong starting fifteen.
Wexford – progress
The final team to look at in part one of our series is the surprise package of the 2014 championship – Wexford. They shocked a lot of people in 2014. While many felt that they were an improving side, not many people really expected them to knock Clare out of the championship this year.
While they took a good lead in Ennis and had an extra man, everybody was expecting a Clare onslaught that would see them edge out on top. And it was the same the second day in Wexford Park when Clare managed a draw and everybody expected them to prevail in extra-time when back to fifteen men, but the Yellow Bellies held firm to knock-out the reigning All-Ireland champions.
They then backed this up with a fine win against Waterford, against the odds, and despite falling emphatically at the next hurdle against Limerick, they have to look back on a good 2014 season. They added under-21 success onto this by securing back-to-back Leinster titles and running an awesome Clare side close in the All-Ireland final.
So, it was a good 2014 for Wexford now their immediate aim for 2015 is the simply progress even further on this good season. They got to an All-Ireland quarter-final in 2014 and they should be looking to either make it to another one, if not progress past this stage, either through the back-door or by winning, or contesting the Leinster final.
They have developed a fine depth of talent. Mark Fanning, Liam Ryan, Matthew O’Hanlon, Andrew Shore, Lee Chin, Liam Óg McGovern, Jack Guiney and Conor McDonald are just some of the names that have the potential to form the nucleus of a good team going forward.
So they had a successful 2014 in their own right. It may sound straight forward, but a for a new and improving team, matching or progressing forward would be deemed as success for 2015.
Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena.