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Hurling: End Of Season Report Card

The 2014 Senior Hurling Championship had a lot to live up to following the phenomenal 2013 season, and 2014 certainly gave its predecessor a run for its money. Here’s the end of season report card following the conclusion of the 2014 hurling season.

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Best Player – Richie Hogan

There was competition in this area but in the end the title goes to the man who ended up with the Celtic Cross around his neck. Overall, there cannot be any disputing the fact that Richie Hogan was the best hurler in Ireland this year. There was stiff competition from Seamus Callanan, John O’Dwyer and more but Hogan receives the accolade of being Ireland’s best hurler for 2014.

Hogan was outstanding for Kilkenny this year and a vital member of their team. The decision to move him to midfield proved to be a masterstroke. Kilkenny were very short on energy around the middle third in 2013 and Hogan rectified that with some outstanding performances throughout the 2014 season.

With the exception of the drawn game with Galway and the All-Ireland final replay, it could be said that Hogan was the best player on the pitch in every game he played. The replay with Galway, the Leinster final, the game against Limerick and the All-Ireland final saw Hogan provide scores and become the link between Kilkenny’s defence and attack.

Grade: A

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Best Newcomer – Cathal Barrett

John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer may have been seen as a newcomer to many but he had featured for Tipperary in previous Championship games prior to this year. Pádraig Walsh also had a very good debut season as did the likes of Conor McDonald and Liam Ryan for Wexford. Cork’s Mark Ellis, Aidan Walsh and Alan Cadogan complete a long list of impressive newcomers for 2014 but none were better than Tipperary’s Cathal Barrett.

The Tipperary corner-back was absolutely outstanding throughout the 2014 season. At times during the season, he was one of their few positive points but as the season progressed and the Premier improved, Barrett maintained and even improved his level of performance.

His first real noteworthy performance of the year came in the league final when he completely dominated a man by the name of Henry Shefflin. He was then a Man of the Match contender despite their defeat to Limerick. His form then drove forward at the same rate as Tipp when he put in tremendous displays against Cork and in the drawn game with Kilkenny.

He was the best corner-back in Ireland this year and the best new hurler on the intercounty scene. He should receive an All-Star and the Young Hurler of the Year awards for his performances this season.

Grade: A

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Surprise Package – Wexford

There were signs of progress for Wexford in 2013 when they won an Leinster under-21 title only to flop in the All-Ireland semi-final against Antrim. They took Clare, who transpired to be the 2013 All-Ireland champions, to extra-time in the qualifiers of 2013 and it looked as if Wexford were more competitive than they had been in previous years.

Prior to 2014, nobody really would have predicted that Wexford would dethrone the All-Ireland champions and go on a run to qualify for the quarter-finals. That is exactly what Wexford did. They also won Leinster again at under-21 level and ran an awesome Clare outfit relatively close in the under-21 All-Ireland final. Overall they were the biggest surprise of the 2014 hurling season.

They made great strides this year and have a lot of very good players in their ranks. Mark Fanning, Liam Ryan, Matthew O’Hanlon, Andrew Shore, Lee Chin, Liam Óg McGovern and Conor McDonald have the capability to provide the spine of a good team going forward. McDonald looks a very exciting prospect with his ball winning being a huge asset.

They have a traditional Wexford manager in charge in Liam Dunne and their win over Waterford was a massive win for their season and their progression. While they fell considerably short against Limerick, beating Clare and Wexford and getting to a quarter-final makes them the surprise package for 2014.

Grade: B+

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Who’s Hot – Brian Cody

The name Kilkenny is engraved on the Liam McCarthy Cup for 2014 and the majority of the credit for that success must go to their manager Brian Cody. Kilkenny were lacking a lot in 2013 and some people wrote them off ahead of the 2014 season. A lot of people were not very clever in doing so, and while it was not without a struggle, Kilkenny and Cody are back on top of the hurling table.

Players obviously deserve a lot of credit for performing on the pitch but the way that Cody went about his rebuilding process and the way he managed the All-Ireland final replay tip a lot of the plaudits in his direction. Some of his moves this year played a vital role in Kilkenny’s turnaround.

The move of Richie Hogan to midfield along with Conor Fogarty, and the move of Cillian Buckley to wing-back were two of the early season moves that made a big difference. We have mentioned already what Hogan provided and Buckley replaced what Cody felt was no longer needed in Tommy Walsh.

It takes huge courage for any manager to leave Henry Shefflin and Tommy Walsh on the subs bench for most of the season and there was no room for sentiment in Cody’s mind. Both players played peripheral roles this year as the likes of TJ Reid and Colin Fennelly assumed the leadership roles in the side.

Finally, the way in which he managed the All-Ireland final replay was excellent. The main difference between the sides was that Cody learned from the drawn game and changed the approach and the personnel of the Kilkenny side. He made changes to the team, most notably the inclusions of Pádraig Walsh and Kieran Joyce who added much more pace and mobility to the back line.

The way he set the team up also paid dividends. He gave much more protection to JJ Delaney and Jackie Tyrell in the full-back line. He completely set the team up to cut off the space afforded to the Tipperary forwards. The game subsequently turned into a battle which suited the Cats and Tipperary played right into their hands.

It was a masterclass of management in the end by Cody. This Kilkenny team are not a patch on the teams of the mid-noughties. They are very beatable and have many weaknesses. Yet good management has them driven and motivated to win and succeed. Regardless of how good they really are, history books shows that they are the 2014 All-Ireland champions.

Grade: A

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Who’s Not – Clare

They say that winning an All-Ireland title is hard enough, and the defending one is even harder. Clare definitely fell victim of this in 2014 as they made a relatively poor defence of their crown. It is not all doom and gloom for the Banner as they did win their third under-21 All-Ireland in a row but it must be said that they flattered to deceive in the defence of their title.

Their performance against Cork was very poor. Even the lack of a Clare crowd in Thurles that day was a reflection of how the team performed. They failed to show up in sufficient numbers as an awful lot of players underperformed. They were blown away by Cork and what has become the very tricky route through the back door beckoned for Davy Fitzgerald’s men.

They faced Wexford and clear complacency saw them in an real battle to stay in the championship. A red card to Padraic Collins made life even harder but they managed to get a draw and a replay. The replay then saw Clare go down the thirteen men and they managed to salvage another draw before losing out in extra-time.

This meant that the All-Ireland champions vacated the championship without a win and a winter of soul searching has commenced in West Munster. During that winter, three players have opted for football ahead of hurling next year and an outsider looking in would imagine that all may not be well in the camp.

But Clare still have buckets of potential. They have a lot of talent at their disposal and should be able to come back stronger and compete for All-Ireland glory again. But overall, in terms of the senior championship this year, they performed poorly and were the flop of the championship.

Grade: D

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Bouncebackability – Tipperary

They won the bouncebackability award at the half-term report and they managed to secure this particular plaudit again at the end of the season. They turned their season around during the first half of the season and an almost identical challenge faced them later in the championship and they most definitely responded.

With twenty minutes to go against Galway, Tipp hurling’s biggest crisis was almost looming large. They were yet to a win a championship game under Eamon O’Shea and were trailing and Galway team who had the momentum in the game. Players that had shipped a lot of criticism faced the inevitable but they completely turned the game on its head.

Padraic Maher moved to the half-back line, Lar Corbett scored what some might say were their two most important points of the season and the much maligned Seamus Callanan thundered into the game. Tipp won the game against Galway and then went so agonisingly close to being All-Ireland champions.

The Tipp players and management deserve a lot of credit for the way in which they transformed their season. They were struggling and a lot of people had some harsh things to say. Some of it was justified but in the end they showed the country that they are well up there with the best in the country. Individually and collectively, they final began to perform again.

When Tipp play well, they are an absolute joy to watch. The movement and fluidity with which they play is better than anybody else and they showed this in a number of games this season. While they came up short in the end, they should be complemented on the way they turned their season around.

Grade: B+

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Bonus Talking Points

The Penalty Rule

What a farce. We alerted to it on many occasions when it was introduced and finally by the end of the year everybody was able to see what a joke the new penalty rule is. How anybody actually thought there was a sufficient advantage to the attacking team and not a significantly bigger advantage to the defending needs to stand on a line and learn.

Fair enough, an alteration had to be made before a serious injury occurred from the ‘Nash techique’ but the new rule was destined for failure from day one and a team like Tipperary can feel rightly aggrieved that this new rule did not help them one bit in their quest to win the All-Ireland.

A cynic will say that Joe Canning and Patrick Horgan had no problem scoring frees or penalties but anybody who understands the game will know that standard of goalkeeping/shot-stopping for those four goals was absolutely abysmal. Donal Tuohy was dropped by Clare and Kilkenny resorted to putting bringing two forwards back into the goal for future penalties such was the poor quality of goals conceded.

The first four frees under the new rule were scored and after that no goals were scored which is a much better reflection on how much of a failure this new rule is. Penalties should be advantageous to the attacking team and should be punishing the foul committed by a defender.

A change must be made. A one-on-one shot from twenty metres or else a return to the old rule must come in.

Narrow Margins

One thing that is clear about this season is that the margins in intercounty hurling are tighter than they have ever been. Any team can beat any team. Kilkenny were crowned All-Ireland champions but there is no way that they are as far ahead of everyone as they once were. They easily could have been beaten on two occasions this year and this shows how tight things are.

Limerick will look back at their season and see that they beat a Tipperary team that could easily have won the All-Ireland and should have beaten the Kilkenny side that did win the All-Ireland. Galway will be criticised for having a poor season, but another look at it shows that they lost to Tipperary and Kilkenny, both All-Ireland finalists, and maybe are not as far behind as some people may think.

Cork will be completely written off following their poor showing against Tipperary but they still won Munster and have something to build on going forward. Clare will not be, or at least should not be finished by any means. Waterford are still and improving force. Wexford showed massive progress this year and Dublin now have a lot of people to prove wrong.

Hurling is extremely competitive at the moment. Some may suggest that the prompted ‘revolution’ is over following Kilkenny’s victory, but hurling is going through a revolution at the moment where the game at the elite level is at an all-time high. The standard is continuing to get better and better.

Over Analysis

The last point referred to the game of hurling being at an all-time high and while advances in technology and analysis have helped to improve the game, it is also having an adverse effect. There is a complete over analysis of the game at the moment. People are looking for something to give out about when there is no need; the game is fine.

The ‘spare hand’ is the main thing that comes to mind here. An episode of The Sunday Game does not pass without reference to the ‘spare hand’ and how its supposedly ‘destroying’ the game. Are players expected to play the game with only one hand or something? Players should be perfectly entitled to use their extra hand to hold off opponents and there is no need for the over analysis of this area.

Referees are also in the firing line far too often. Some people even tried to criticise Barry Kelly’s performance in the drawn All-Ireland final. The decision against Brian Hogan was questionable but other than that Kelly patrolled the game very well and he was a big factor in what became the greatest game of hurling ever seen.

Different referees do run the game in different ways. But people are different. Yes there are rules, but common sense is far more valuable than any rules. If the game is refereed by the rule book, then the whistle will be blowing continuously and we will see battles between free takers. The game is being refereed well at the moment and it should be left alone, not over analysed and over criticised as there is very little going wrong.

Good or Bad Championship

Overall it was a very good championship again. A lot of the drama was late drama, particularly in the Clare-Wexford games but overall the championship was high on quality and entertainment. The drawn All-Ireland final on its own could have allowed 2014 to be considered a good championship but there were a lot of good games and stories.

The story of Wexford was a positive. The return to form of Tipperary was highly admirable. The battle in torrential rain between Kilkenny and Limerick was an intriguing battle. Cork winning the last ever Munster final before the redevelopment of Páirc Uí Chaoímh had a degree of sentiment to it. The shock of Clare’s early exit also added to the overall drama.

It was a very good hurling season. The game is as good as it has ever been. There is no dominant side. Kilkenny are at the top but they are very beatable. There are about half a dozen sides that could lift the Liam McCarthy Cup and every team is capable of an upset. 2014 was another success and 2015 should be no different

Grade: A

Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena.

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