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National Hurling League Preview; Dublin & Clare

With just over a week remaining until the first throw in of this year’s National Hurling League, we have finally reached the top of the rankings, and Eoin Lyons will take a closer look at the team’s rated 1 & 2 in the official rankings.

At number 2 in the rankings, we have the men from the capital city, Dublin. There is no denying that 2013 was a fantastic year for Dublin hurling as they were only one game away from reaching the All-Ireland final, which if they had won, would have seen them do an outstanding treble after winning promotion in the league, and a first provincial final since 1961.

While Dublin did not come out on the top of Division 1B during the normal rounds of matches, their display in the final against Limerick gave them well-deserved promotion to the top tier of League hurling for this year. It was a closely-contested division, with the top 6 scorers coming from each of the six teams. In the end, Dublin emerged as the leaders of the pack after a scintillating final against Limerick, which saw Dublin victorious by one solitary point.  As reflected in the individual awards, Dublin only had one player in the top ten performers, hinting at a much greater team spirit being the key to success.

While Dublin did have a dodgy opener in the Championship against Wexford, their form and determination in the aftermath was nothing short of formidable. An excellent performance in the provincial championship saw Dublin lift the Leinster title for the first time since 1961. Their performance against Galway, in which the played the tribesmen off the field, will be the highlight of last year for Dublin, and the benchmark they will set themselves heading in to this year of hurling.

Although they did lose to Cork in the semi-final in an albeit strong but slightly disappointing performance, all credit must be given to Anthony Daly and his coaching staff for cementing Dublin’s place in the top ranks of hurling after a quiet few years previously. As said, Dublin have set a high benchmark for themselves, and the quality they possess is unquestionable. A league opener against Galway on the 16th February will be the first chance to prove their worth in 1A, and should they repeat last year’s quality, then they may even be in contention to challenge at the top.

At number 1 in the rankings, is the reigning All-Ireland winning team, Clare. While Clare had a unsuccessful performance in the League early on in the year, and no provincial title to strike fear in to the other championship contenders, it was the sheer grit and determination of the young side which saw them through and earn them number 1 in the official rankings.

Division 1A last year, was undoubtedly en extremely closely fought league. With only two points separating top and bottom, things could have been extremely different if only one or two games went even slightly differently. This was summed up by Clare, who won 2 games, only had a points difference of -5, and had Colin Ryan as the unchallenged top scorer in the league with a staggering 58 points. Yet despite all this, were defeated by Cork in the relegation play-off by a single point in a heart-breaking affair which was only decided after extra time.

With such a young squad, many would have not imagined that Clare could bounce back to success, especially after being removed from provincial contention by Cork. Yet, as we found out in the latter stages of the year, Davy Fitzgerald was moulding an unstoppable force, and ensured that nobody in his squad was going to give up on championship success. With growing confidence and constantly improving quality on show, Clare swept aside Laois, Wexford, Galway and Limerick on their way to the final.

It took a replay against Cork to take the All-Ireland title, but there was no denying that Clare deserved the win. Consistent improvements in strength and skill resulted in Clare being the dominant force at the close of 2013’s season. Yet they are still not considered favourites for the success this year, and are not regarded by many as a ‘great team’ without a league or provincial title under their belt. If they are to succeed this year in silencing the doubters and cementing their place in the annals of GAA history, then this young side will have to continue in the same vein as they did in the latter stages of last year. Time is certainly on Clare’s side, but what they do with the time they have this season will determine how their year goes.

As this is the last instalment of the National Hurling League preview, I feel it may be time for some predictions. Tipperary and Galway may be holding up the rest of the table by the close of the League, with Waterford in the middle of the table. Kilkenny will need to regain their dominance early on to emerge victorious, but keep an eye on the youth of Clare and also Dublin, who will no doubt give us some exciting hurling to start the season.

Pundit Arena, Eoin Lyons.

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