Diarmaid Williams reviews the National Hurling League and can only see one team in particular winning this year’s Hurling Championship.
Kilkenny may have won the National Hurling League yesterday but the real winners were Clare. Staying alive in the top division is a massive thing against the odds for a county that has toiled in the abyss of the second tier for four or five years.
There may well be a problem with the national league when the relegation final is more important than the final itself.
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Clare hurling has a chance to make great strides now that it will play in what has become a crucible in the spring, and are bound to come on even more next year with similar high calibre tests.
For Cork it’s a terrible indictment of the work being done in grassroots in that county. There seems to be an attitude that the county is failing to attract youngsters and that rugby is capturing dreams ahead of the old game. What a pity.
Only 30 or so people can make the Munster panel and a hell of a lot of those boys are coming from anywhere but Munster. Nothing wrong with wanting to play with your province or country but for me playing hurling for the parish is every bit as heroic a pursuit. It shouldn’t be that hard a sell to turn youngsters’ heads back to our great game, if Cork GAA and the GAA in general get their act together.
What sort of evidence does the league provide in terms of likely championship outcomes? Should both sides get through the season without an overbearing injury count, it’s hard to look past Kilkenny and Tipperary again.
Tipp certainly have an inspiring manager in charge in O’Shea, but what might fall against them in the end is the ageing profile of some of their marquee forwards. Do Eoin Kelly and Corbett have a swan song in them? If they fail to last the competition’s pace, can the likes of Forde come through quick enough to make the difference?
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You have to fancy Kilkenny to win again – there’s some parts of the machine starting to squeak but the management has done enough each year to replenish it.
Again the dark horse could prove to be Galway if the cats are to be denied. Cunningham did well in his first season in charge and there is a niggling suspicion that despite last year’s disappointing ending, that he is a keen enough student to have come up with a few new solutions.
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Clare’s first goal should be to get a win in Munster and finally get over Waterford. This year they are better equipped to do it, but even if they do get over Waterford they will have a vengeful Cork to contend with in the semis.
The loss of Paudie O’Sullivan is potentially enormous for the embattled rebels but what often happens when a big name is unavailable – the team realises it must collectively step it up.
Like the case for many a proud hurling county they may have the capacity for one big performance but they don’t have enough to win titles at this juncture.
Waterford are burgeoning and bubbling at underage and inevitably will challenge strongly in the next decade. Shane Daniels absence will be a blow though perhaps not as significant as O’Sullivan is to Cork.
The Deise’s manager, Michael Ryan, is more crafty than first thought but surely losing players like Daniels and Mullane has to have a negative effect. Since their league ended they will have had plenty of time to get their formula right and will prove a serious test.
Either Waterford will continue to hold the Indian sign over them or the stars are aligned for Clare to gather enough momentum to win a Munster title. A young team with growing enthusiasm and plentiful talent may just surprise. It may have been my imagination but Fitzgerald seems to have mixed things up a bit and the team have introduced some direct hurling alongside the possession game. This freer strategy might do the trick.
On the other side of that Munster draw, the astute John Allen governs a Limerick team, which on paper have some of the best forwards in the country. They must be nursing a grievance at their troubles in the league over the last few seasons, some of which were inflicted by the authorities.
That lack of quality testing early in the year might go against them once again, but if Tipp aren’t fully on their guard, (and Lar Corbett is also suspended for the first championship match) they could get caught.
The likelihood is that they won’t. Their supporters will expect them to win Munster but who is to say that their upstart neighbours in Clare won’t upset the apple-cart.
The Clare-Tipp rivalry is much more sedate these days. The lads like to meet up and go boating together on free weekends. Don’t tell Loughnane!
In Leinster, Dublin will take some much-needed positivity from their immediate return to Division One, but it looks like Anthony Daly can only get them so far. That league title a few years ago will prove to be his legacy, and someone else is needed to get more out of what has been a fertile breeding ground for hurlers in the last decade.
Wexford beat Kilkenny in minor this week – is the county’s rebuilding process starting to bear fruit? The future may look good but for the present, both they and Offaly are simply making up the numbers at the moment. Wish I could write more about their chances but it doesn’t seem justified. Would gladly eat humble pie as their return to days of old is important for the game.
It might be tempting for some to say that if Galway meet Kilkenny in the Leinster final as they surely will, that they won’t be as gung-ho about beating them so early in the year this time. I don’t think that’s the case and Cunningham would be keen to see Kilkenny play an extra match again by putting them in a quarter final.
Kilkenny traditionally fear us. How can I exploit that?
If there is a shock win at some stage all bets are off, but if hurling life stays true to form Kilkenny will be in the final with either Tipp or Galway facing them.
Kilkenny like their particular narrative and aren’t keen to let anyone else interfere in the writing of it. This year for example Brian Cody’s health provided some impetus to their storyline, as Martin Fogarty stated after the game on Sunday.
There’ll be more inspiration secured when the ruddy –faced one returns to the dressing room.
Kilkenny to win yet another all-Ireland I’m afraid.
Sport Is Everything & Hurling Mad. Diarmaid Williams.
You can follow Diarmaid on Twitter via @DiarmaidWillia1