Each year we get excited, enthralled and exasperated by the sheer skill, speed and spontaneity of our hurling warriors, and then after all that Kilkenny win.
Will it be different this year, who knows? One thing is for certain though, 2016 will see a lot more teams looking to compete with fortress Kilkenny.
It is fair to say that we now have a hurling top three of Kilkenny, Tipperary and Galway. Below these come a chasing pack that includes Waterford, Limerick, Cork, Clare and Dublin, and then a third tier, which includes an inconsistent Wexford, a rising Laois, a fading Antrim, and a brittle Offaly.
Kerry and Carlow are putting in huge work, but limited resources and tradition are always a telling factor in these counties.
So let’s look at the main contenders.
All-Ireland champions who simply don’t have a weakness. Similar to the All Blacks, once opponents see the jersey they crumble under the pressure. They are the best team because they do the basic things consistently well.
Like any successful team though, an injury to one or two key players could tilt the balance. Paul Murphy, Michael Fennelly, Richie Hogan and T.J. Reid are vital cogs in the Kilkenny machine and need to stay fit. Still favourites for next year.
The bridesmaids to Kilkenny for so many years, but still their main challengers. The talent has always been there just the application and belief sometimes lets them down. How many All-Irelands would they have won without the greatest hurling team of all time in their way every year?
Tipp’s main problem this year is a lack of experience and leaders on the pitch through a number of retirements since last season’s championship defeat.
Another new management team will expect to see young leaders step forward during the National League.
Any team which possess players of the calibre of Seamus Callinan and John O’Dwyer, though, must be taken seriously.
So much talent, but just can’t get over the line. Players are blaming managers, managers are blaming players, past players are blaming both.
There is no doubting that on any given day this Galway team can beat anyone, unfortunately though, to win an All-Ireland you need consistency.
Galway were not far off last season. Leading by two points at half time in the All-Ireland final you would have felt the manager’s job was done.
The pressure is now on the players after so publicly criticising Anthony Cunningham. Another meltdown this year would surely look very bad on a few of the outspoken players.
The enigma that is the Banner county. 2013 was a landmark year for Clare. Even Clare themselves didn’t expect to win the All-Ireland that year, and unfortunately expectancy weighs heavy on young shoulders to stay on top.
The appointment of Dónal Óg Cusack as coach is a very shrewd move by Davy Fitz. A new voice, a different approach, a well-respected outsider with no baggage in Clare.
It’s time for Clare to step up and for boys to become men.
Outside of Kilkenny,Waterford were the Team of the Year. Derek McGrath got it right tactically with a mixture of youth and experience in key positions, playing a defensive Gaelic football style game of bodies behind the ball but attacking at pace, averaging over 20 points per game.
I still feel they need to find one or two more scoring forwards to really compete, but in Austin Gleeson they have found the most exciting young hurler in the country.
The lack of quality players and the annual debate on the demise of underage success is a reality Cork cannot ignore. The Rebels badly need an influx of youthful, skilful hurlers who play off the cuff, without fear. Unfortunately, besides Shane Kingston, they don’t seem to exist, so Kieran Kingston and his selectors need to work with the same panel of players that were so inconsistent under Jimmy Barry Murphy’s tenure.
Kingston has recruited well when it comes to his backroom staff, and with the likes of Diarmuid O’Sullivan and Pat Ryan involved committment to the cause should not be lacking. However, the lack of quality in key positions will never go away until Cork find some new recruits.
There are some similarities with Cork, however Limerick have some very good young hurlers coming through after winning the U-21 All-Ireland. Limerick could do a lot worse than looking at how Waterford have developed a system of play which the players have bought in to.
Limerick seem to play without a plan or structure at times and then rely on Shane Dowling to produce some bit of magic. They rely so much on their intensity, and if that’s not 100% then they struggle.
Still too much ground to make up on the top teams.
There’s already controversy in Dublin hurling circles with Ger Cunningham axing a couple of experienced players, who in turn have spoken out against him. However,the biggest set-back of all is the loss of Danny Sutcliffe, who is taking a year out. Dublin cannot afford to lose a player of his quality, especially as he is the only top class player Dublin have.
By wielding the axe, Cunningham is laying down a marker to his panel and sending out a warning that nobody is safe and certain standards need to be met. Gaelic football is still the number one sport in the capital for the county’s talented dual players. What Cunningham would do now to be able to call the likes of Ciaran Kilkenny and Cormac Costello into his forward line.
Dublin will be competitive at best with a couple of very strong performances, but like so many other teams, they lack quality and consistency.
All the above teams have one thing in common, they all possess quality players. However, the top three teams of Kilkenny, Tipperary and Galway at this moment in time seem to have more match-winners, more consistency, and more competitive panels.
The chasing pack need to find these missing ingredients or else the same fate as last year will face them again. Of the chasing pack I feel that Clare have the potential and hunger to challenge again. In Tony Kelly they have a forward who can unlock any defence by playing a free role not unlike Richie Hogan last year for Kilkenny. Tactically they should also be very strong.
Waterford need a Tony Kelly or another John Mullane to add fuel to the fire. Austin Gleeson is such a player but Derek McGrath feels he is best suited in the halfback line at present. Waterford would have learned a lot from last year’s experience.
Hurling folk nationwide would love to see the chasing pack stepping up and a new name to appear as champions. Whoever that may be will have to beat Kilkenny.
Donal Cashin, Pundit Arena