The National Hurling League returns and all eyes will turn to the Heavyweights in Division 1A. Here’s each county’s man to watch
Aidan Walsh – Cork
The Cork man is playing hurling only for 2015 and could be ready to make a big impact on the hurling scene. A lot of people will only remember his last game of 2014 when he was withdrawn during the second-half against Tipperary and most people are forgetting about the good things he did during his opening season.
He has all of the attributes necessary to be a top class intercounty hurler and 2015 will provide a big test. His high fielding is as good as anybody in the country and he does have the pace to get away from players when moving with ball. His strike is good but could improve in terms of quickness, but all the potential and raw materials are there for Walsh to have a big 2015.
His form for CIT has been very good in the Fitzgibbon Cup and Cork will be hoping that he will bring this forward to the league. Walsh’s positioning will be interesting. It seems that he could line out at half-back, midfield, half-forward or even full-forward. Wherever he plays, he is a player to look out for to see if he can make a bigger impact in his second season.
Paul Curran – Tipperary
This is a name that might not excite many people but the bigger picture needs to be looked at. Tipperary, like many other counties for that matter, need a full-back and in Paul Curran they have one of the best in Ireland in recent times.
If he can get back to fitness he could end up being a massive addition to the Premier side for 2015. James Barry did as well as he could having been thrown in at the deep end last season but he is not a natural in the number three position. TJ Reid and Colin Fennelly both exposed their weakness in the full-back position and Curran could solve a big problem.
He has two all-stars to his name. He is rock solid in the last line of the defence. Tipperary will be hoping that the league campaign will allow him to get back to match sharpness. A fit Paul Curran could be vital to Tipp’s All-Ireland hopes for this year, so he is definitely worth watching in the league.
Liam Rushe – Dublin
Everybody knows about Liam Rushe’s quality as a hurler but the reason why he is a player to watch out for is to see if he continues to line out at full-forward as he has in the pre-season tournaments. Dublin have lacked a real class inside forward and the league may tell us if Rushe could be the answer.
He started out in the Dublin jersey as a forward and then rotated between midfield and the forward line before finally settling at centre-back. He excelled at number six for the Dubs and enhanced his reputation as one of the best in the business. But a new regime has seen Rushe move up to number fourteen and the league should show us if this is set to continue.
It may be an experiment that ends after the pre-season tournaments, but the experiments makes sense in certain ways. It is definitely a management move that will be monitored closely.
Cathal O’Connell – Clare
We actually mentioned Cathal O’Connell as a player to watch prior to last year’s National Hurling League. He made an immediate impact when introduced as a sub on their opening day win over Kilkenny but his game time and impact seemed to quickly diminish after that game.
He was not seen during the summer and now we think he may get a second chance this year. He still earned his third successive All-Ireland Under-21 last year but he was not the main man in attack like he had been in 2012 and 2013 where last year saw him only come on as a sub in the final.
He is small in size but is lightning quick and can score at ease. He would need to be accommodated in the Clare game plan of creating space for their forwards up-front. The heavy conditions in the league may not suit him, but it will be interesting to see if he gets much game time.
Kieran Joyce – Kilkenny
The mention of Kieran Joyce sparks a great quiz question:
What links the players who received the Man of the Match award in the last three All-Ireland final replays?
But the reason why Joyce is a big player for Kilkenny this year is simply down to the amount of retirements that Brian Cody has had to deal with in the light of their latest All-Ireland victory. Whether they were first choice or not, any panel will struggle with the losses of JJ Delaney, Brian Hogan and Tommy Walsh, and Kieran Joyce will have to step in quickly.
He is an experienced player who won an All-Ireland title in 2012 and was one of Kilkenny’s best players during their poor 2014 campaign. The lack of game time he saw during the 2014 surprised a lot of people, but he grabbed his chance with both hands when he put in a Man of the Match display in the All-Ireland final replay against Tipperary.
2015 could see him become a big part of the Kilkenny back-line. He may need to fill the voids left at full-back or centre-back during the league and there is an opportunity there for Joyce to really put his hand up for a place in the championship team.
James Regan – Galway
Having made his first impression on the Galway side in 2012, he has made little or no impact in what has been a poor Galway side since then. But they won the first piece of silverware available to them in 2015 and Regan was a key member of the side.
Regan scored 1-4 from play including a few late scores that clinched victory for the men in maroon. It’s early in the year to be reading into things like this but he has the potential to be a big threat for the Galway attack. He could replace Damien Hayes as well as help to take the burden of Joe Canning.
James Regan is a very talented hurler. He is yet to showcase his best form on the biggest stage and maybe 2015 could be the year. The league will be his first opportunity to show the country that he may be able to help Galway to finally get a run of form together.
Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena