The National Hurling League is kicking off this weekend, and after a long winter’s break, intercounty sides finally get back into true competitive action.
The league is always a tricky one. There is no proven recipe for summer success when it comes to the spring. Some sides opt for experimentation, while others go all out for silverware.
It is probably a given that Brian Cody and Kilkenny will not put all their eggs in this basket, and considering the fact that they essentially fielded their u21 side in the Walsh Cup, they will not lose much sleep if they do not capture honours before the summer.
However, the stakes are higher for other counties. Here are three teams we feel need a big campaign before the championship kicks off.
This one goes without saying.
Since the Banner captured the Liam McCarthy Cup in 2013, they have only won one championship game, against Offaly in the qualifiers. They were relegated to Division 1B of the league last year, and fell to Limerick and Cork a few months later.
Clare have not turned into a bad team, and still possess some of the very best young players around. However, they have forgotten how to win.
It is key that the side play as many games as possible together, and get back to winning ways. The likes of Shane O’Donnell and Tony Kelly, who has been ruled out until March, need to get playing together.
The first priority is to find their way back to the top tier of the league. Games against Limerick and Wexford will go a long way in determining their fate. After that, an assault on the league title is a possibility.
They face Waterford in their opening match of the Munster Championship. They need to be back in a winning mentality by then, or it could be another short summer for Davy and Co.
In 2010, the players’ strike saw the Treaty finish bottom of the league, and they were condemned to second class status for 2011. It was thought that a team like Limerick would have no problem bouncing back, but that has not proven to be the case.
Considering they reached All-Ireland semi-finals in 2013 and 2014 with a somewhat young team, they need to be plying their trade at the top table sooner rather than later.
The 2015 championship was an unmitigated disaster for Shannon-siders. A first round win over Clare was as good as it got, as they were dismantled by Tipperary at home. In the qualifiers, they struggled past Westmeath before letting a big lead slip against Dublin.
For TJ Ryan’s side to enter summer 2016 in the right place, they need a big league campaign.
On paper, they do not seem to be badly in need of a big league. Having reached the All-Ireland final last year, it would appear that they need to merely concentrate on getting back to that point, and begin to hit their stride in June.
However, what transpired in the off-season changes everything.
There will be a big media focus on the Tribesmen until they start winning games. Micheál Donoghue comes in to replace the ousted Anthony Cunningham, and the jury will be out on the new regime until they deliver on the field.
The western county suffer badly from ‘second season syndrome’. They entered 2013 under similar circumstances as far as on-field action is concerned, and completely flopped. Having struggled by Laois, they were destroyed by Dublin and Clare.
To avoid a repeat of three years ago, the Tribesmen need to get the year off to a successful start to silence the doubters and also prove to themselves that they can put good seasons back to back.
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