The 2014 season has an awful lot to live up to following on from the excitement of 2013, but the first half has delivered so far. There were some excellent games and there was only a puck of a ball between a lot of teams. 2014 has the potential to be another great season in the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship and Seán Cremin is here to give his mid-season report on the National Hurling League and identify the ten biggest topics of conversation for hurling fans.
A tough enough one to call but in my opinion Brendan Maher was the league’s best player. There wasn’t any real outstanding player, nor was there a specific player that was instrumental to Kilkenny’s victory. Maher was outstanding for Tipperary and was one the primary reasons for their revival that now sees them in a good position leading into the summer. He has been made captain of the Premier side and he found both his best form and excellent leadership when he moved to centre-back. He settled the defence, set the launch pad for attacks and won vital possession. He played a pivotal role from a pivotal position and provided the quality and the leadership that led Tipperary out of a deep slump.
Selection: Brendan Maher A+
There were a few contenders for this accolade. Pádraig Walsh was closely watched because of his name and but he did also perform well. Mark Kelly and Brian Kennedy were also impressive for Kilkenny. Alan Cadogan was very sharp for Cork in Division 1B. Cathal Mannion and Pádraig Brehony were also good for a new-look Galway. The pick of the bunch was Brian Kennedy. He really looked the part for Kilkenny in all games. This was a team that struggled last year but their defence still looked solid. He fitted in very well and grabbed every opportunity at both corner-back and wing-back. He looks to be a very skilful player and comparisons have been made to former stalwart Michael Kavanagh. Based on the league he looks to have claimed a place in the championship side.
Selection: Brian Kennedy A-
There weren’t any huge surprises in the league but the performances of Laois may have raised a few eyebrows. They performed quite admirably in the league and showed that they are making a lot of progress. They won away at Offaly for the first time in a number of years and ran a number of the stronger teams quite close. They qualified for a quarter-final against reigning All-Ireland champions, Clare, and gave a very respectable showing of themselves. It’s good to see a lesser county putting in work at the lower levels and getting some bit of a reward. They look to be improving. They started the Leinster championship with a win over Westmeath and will be looking to make more progress this year.
Selection: Laois B+
Galway. Okay, they didn’t win the league nor did they make the final but they certainly played a brand of hurling and brought in some new faces that will excite the Galway fans. Being a Galway hurling fan must be one of the most frustrating things on the planet. The inconsistency is almost a joke at this stage but only two years ago they looked as if they could be a real force and there was a return to this in the league. It’s easy to forget that they really let an All-Ireland title slip away only two years ago and last year saw them lose to the eventual winners, a Clare team with far more momentum. The talent is there and they have found some new players.
Iarla Tannion and Daithí Burke look like good options at centre-back while Ronan Burke looked very good at full-back, two very problematic positions for the tribesmen. They have added other new players and the likes of Conor Cooney and Jonathan Glynn are all a year older and more experienced. They also played most of the league with a player by the name of Joe Canning. We all know of his credentials and if Galway can get his best position sorted then they could be a real force in the summer. To back Galway is impossible due their lack of reliability but I personally think they are coming into this championship under the radar and in a very good position.
Selection: Galway A-
Limerick. This is completely from an outsider looking in but it seems like Limerick may be on the way to the traditional ‘one step forward, two steps back’ type of season. They have made strides over the last two years but they now seem as if they could be in disarray. They failed again to make it out of Division 1B when their destiny was totally in their own hands. They had injuries which affected them but now there appears to be backroom trouble that could hinder their chances on the field. The league was a good chance for Limerick to build momentum ahead of the championship but their momentum stopped when they let a lead slip against Offaly. If they bounce back and have a good championship, they will deserve a lot of credit but it appears that they may struggle.
Selection: Limerick D-
It was a trend in games like Limerick’s comeback when down to fourteen men against Cork, or Waterford’s attempt at a fight-back when they had been annihilated by Clare trailing 4-15 to 0-04 at half-time. But the real award and plaudit for the great term ‘bouncebackability’ goes to Tipperary. Their turnaround really was impressive and was a true indication that people don’t become bad players overnight and that fortunes can change quite quickly. They started the league poorly and faced Dublin in a make or break game. A ‘stumble over the line’ win against Waterford was followed by poor losses to Clare, Kilkenny and Galway.
Their ability and character was questioned strongly as they faced the Dubs. A loss would have seen them in a relegation final low on confidence but they edged over the line by a single point and found themselves in a league quarter-final. Suddenly confidence and momentum grew and they beat Cork and then Clare to qualify for a league final that they easily could have won. They deserve a lot of credit for bouncing back when things looked to be quite bleak. Credit must go to players and management and Tipperary now seem to be moving back up the hill after what look to be a potentially treacherous decline.
Selection: Tipperary C+
Bonus Talking Points
They’re All At It Now
The whole country started talking about Anthony Nash’s free taking technique towards the end of last year. We even had ‘The Anthony Nash rule’ put forward at G.A.A Congress. The trend started and now many players have followed. At G.A.A grounds all over the country we now see younger hurlers attempting to throw the sliotar within 10 yards of the goal and now even players at the highest level are trying it. We saw TJ Reid score two goals using the ‘Nash’ technique in the league final. Nash himself had two strikes on goal against Tipperary. The style continues to come under scrutiny and it will be interesting to see what unfolds. There are safety concerns but nonetheless the rule should not be changed, and one player shouldn’t be made an example of just because he has a more powerful shot than others.
Win Your Home Games
One of the most staggering stats of the National Hurling League was that there was only one away win during the regular season in Division 1A. That win occurred when Clare comfortably accounted for Tipperary in Thurles and it was that win that saw them to the top of the table after five games. It was a very interesting statistic. Obviously teams prefer playing at home as they have more support behind them and less travelling time but the extent to which teams seemed to have an advantage of playing at home really stood out. Managers speaking after games also spoke about the importance of winning at home and it almost took a leaf of the English Premier League’s book. It was an interesting observation to take from the league.
What Will Sky Make Of The Game?
The next talking point on the hurling side is what Sky Sports will do for the game as the summer draws closer. Last weekend saw the beginning of their coverage when they reported on Mayo’s clash with New York. It was quite clear that presenters hadn’t a clue what they were on about as they referred to the ‘Canot’ championship and how Mayo would face the winners of ‘Laytrim’ and Roscommon.
If they struggled with football, who knows what they are going to say about hurling. Hurling is one thing that is unique to Ireland. Sky turned darts into a phenomenon so now let’s see what they will do to hurling. Can they take the game to whole new level, or will it remain to be one of our traditions? We will have to see.
Can Hurling Eclipse What It Achieved In 2013?
2013 was a joy for Irish people who followed the game. Now we have to wait and see if 2014 can manage to replicate the high standard that has been set. Going by what we saw in the league I think we could be in store for another great season. This year’s wasn’t as exciting as last year but it was possibly even more competitive. The hurling wasn’t as free flowing but conditions played a part in that. If the weather is fine again this year I think we are in store for another cracker. The provincial championships are a lot stronger now, meaning games are better and the back-door is far more dangerous as teams learned last year. The emphasis in the league was more on pace the physicality and this should keep up with the entertaining styles of play we witnessed last year. 2014 has a lot to live up to but the potential is there for another great year.
Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena.