With the quarter-final and relegation play-offs in the National Hurling League confirmed, we take a look at the latest pecking order as the small ball season gathers pace.
1. Tipperary (no change)
Sure, they’ve failed to win a match since our last rankings were drawn up, but there are plenty of positives to take away for Michael Ryan.
They were outfought by Cork in Páirc Uí Rinn on Sunday afternoon, but there are a host of big names yet to return ahead of the summer; Cathal Barrett, Ronan Maher, Michael Breen, Brendan Maher, Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher, John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer and Noel McGrath were all missing from the starting XV on Lee-side.
2. Kilkenny (+1)
We have seen a marked improvement by the Cats in recent weeks. While there were real worries earlier in the League about a lack of youth coming through, the likes of Liam Blanchfield, Jason Cleere, Conor O’Shea and Conor Martin all shared responsibility.
There are still question marks surrounding the side, and the gap in Leinster is certainly closing.
However, the past few weeks have been hugely positive, and the strong displays against Cork, Tipp and Dublin will have the media off Brian Cody’s back.
It will be interesting to see how Cody approaches the Wexford game this weekend, with a likely championship clash looming. Eoin Larkin believes the manager won’t hold back, and will put everything into winning the game comfortably if possible.
3. Waterford (-1)
The Déise suffered a shock defeat at home to the Rebels in their fourth game. This was a dour defeat, and raised some questions. To their credit, they answered them when the chips were down against Clare in Ennis.
Derek McGrath will know that winning the league is no priority in 2017. The previous two springtimes have given them platforms which, in truth they didn’t build upon when push came to shove in August.
Getting this young team to gel and becoming dynamic to different styles is the goal of this league. Should they lose to Galway and win their Munster semi-final, the first six months of the year will have been a huge success for the Déise.
4. Cork (+4)
What a finish for the Rebels.
After beating Waterford in Walsh Park, they backed it up by narrowly trumping the All-Ireland champions.
The goals of the League for Kieran Kingston were to survive in Division 1A and to bring in new talent.
They did the former emphatically, winning three games – the same amount as Tipperary. With the emergence of Shane Kingston, Luke Meade, Darragh Fitzgibbon and Mark Colemen, it has been a fruitful campaign for Cork.
They seem to be dictating the terms upon which the games are played, harnessing the talents of Conor Lehane and Alan Cadogan to a greater degree. If Patrick Horgan can reproduce performances like the one we saw in Páirc Uí Rinn on Sunday, then there could be huge potential this season.
They are a team who could do with pushing on and challenging for silverware in the League. A confident Rebel outfit will be dangerous in the summer.
5. Clare (-1)
The Banner were the unlucky team in Division 1A. Two wins weren’t enough to steer them clear of the relegation play-off.
A win against Dublin at home was promising in the result itself, but it was a tie that lacked intensity. Surrendering a lead against the Déise in Ennis will worry the management, and all the pressure is on them against the Dubs this weekend.
They must avoid the trap into which Galway fell last year. The previous five games count for nothing once the ball is thrown in for the relegation play-off.
6. Wexford (-1)
Job done. They’ve seen out the rest of Division 1B to claim promotion. The Yellowbellies however were far from impressive in their final three games, struggling past a level of opposition that they will not encounter next season. They failed to record a comprehensive victory in their final three games, unlike Galway and Limerick.
They are tending to come on stronger in the second half of games, and this is something that will please Davy Fitzgerald.
A lot done, more to do would be an accurate summation.
7. Galway (-1)
They fall in the rankings by virtue of Cork’s rise.
Sure, they missed out on promotion, but the Tribesmen are still one of the most dangerous teams in the country ahead of the summer.
A first league title since 2010 is achievable, and like Cork it would do their confidence the world of good.
Avoiding Tipperary and Kilkenny in the draw and having home advantage against Waterford mean things have fallen into place nicely for them.
A few more competitive games against top level opposition would prepare them for the championship, and a tilt at Leinster and All-Ireland honours.
8. Dublin (-1)
Things are not looking good for Ger Cunningham on paper. Falling away in the second half of games will be a serious worry for the Corkonian.
However, they will travel to Ennis fully confident that they can score an upset.
The return of the Cuala contingent will add steel to the side. The swagger that comes with an All-Ireland victory will inject some much-needed confidence, while David Treacy’s free-taking will make them far more efficient from placed balls.
Expect to see Cian O’Callaghan more effective from corner-back, assuming Cunningham sticks with Eoghan O’Donnell at the edge of the square. Meanwhile, Mark Schutte at the opposite end of the field can provide a target off whom Eamon Dillon and Donal Burke can work.
9. Limerick (no change)
It was a dismal campaign for the Treaty. The goal was to finish top of Division 1B, and they came third.
A trip to Lee-side to take on an in-form Cork team is a tricky task, but it is one of huge importance if they are to gain a belief that they can beat tier one opposition in the Championship, something they haven’t done since May 2015.
10. Offaly (+2)
After a hammering against Galway and a loss to rivals Laois, things were not looking good for the Faithful. However, competitive showings against Limerick and Wexford inspired a valuable win over Kerry. They’ve avoided relegation for another year.
Try avoid the scoreline against Tipperary if you can, Offaly fans. This one could get ugly.
11. Laois (no change)
The O’Moore County endured a truly mixed Division 1B campaign. A home win over Offaly set them straight after an opening day loss to Kerry. Heavy defeats to Galway and Limerick followed, but their competitive showing against Wexford will offer hope ahead of the relegation play-off.
12. Kerry (-2)
They beat Laois in the first round, but it all went downhill from there. Anything other than relegation will be deemed a huge success from here.