Last week we brought you the National Football League All-stars and this week it’s the turn of hurling. Kilkenny and Tipperary played out another intriguing contest as part of their ancient rivalry. Kilkenny won by the narrowest of margins after extra time. It was an even affair but all other onlooking sides will not have been overawed by either of the teams. It was a good league with teams learning different things about themselves. There appears to be a very small gap between the teams at the top tier and a similar season to 2013 could be on the cards. Without further adieu, here is the Pundit Arena All-Star selection from the National Hurling League.
1. Eoghan Murphy
No goalkeeper really shone in the 2014 league. There certainly wasn’t the same influence from Anthony Nash while Patrick Kelly found himself on the bench for a lot of Clare games. Colm Callanan did quite well for Galway and would be a real contender but Kilkenny’s Eoghan Murphy has made a difference since his return. His Fitzgibbon Cup exploits gave David Herity game time at the start of the league, but he struggled and Murphy has played well since he regained the number one jersey. He has a very good hurling brain and influences Kilkenny’s performances.
2. David McInerney
He made a massive impact in his debut season last year having a big influence in both senior and under-21 All-Ireland successes. He continued this form in the first part of the season. He was very impressive again for the Banner as they topped the regular league. He is a very good defender and his solo-running out of defence has improved even more. He even found himself on the scoresheet from the full-back line in what was an overall solid league for both McInerney and Clare as they get ready to defend the Liam McCarthy Cup.
3. Ronan Burke
For many years the heart of the defence has been a big problem for Galway. The number three and number six jersey have had far too many names associated with them and it is a good reflection of the inconsistency that continues to hamper their All-Ireland credentials. There certainly were a lot of positives for the Tribesmen in the first half of the hurling season. They had a good run to the league semi-final and their defence looked very settled. Ronan Burke was excellent at full-back and they will be hoping that he can maintain this form in the summer.
4. Brian Kennedy
New names were needed for Kilkenny if they were to move on and improve from their disappointing 2013 season. Brian Kennedy was excellent for the Cats. He fitted in very well for the cats at both wing-back and corner-back. He hurled an awful lot of ball in each game he played. He was very skilful and his use of possession was very good. He also showed plenty of useful defensive capabilities. He looks like a certainty for the Kilkenny championship side and was the most impressive newcomer in the league overall.
5. Patrick O’Connor
Possibly Ireland’s most underrated player. The Clare man goes about his business very astutely and gets very little attention. He is an excellent hurler. He performs all the duties of a good half-back. He hurls a lot of ball in an attacking sense and he carries out the defensive side of a half-back as good as any in the country. He had a very steady league campaign and it will be interesting to see if he can maintain his form and receive some more recognition for his performances this year.
6. Brendan Maher
In my opinion this man was the ‘player of the league’. Tipperary looked as if they were on a downward spiral but they turned things around and now look to be in a very good position as the championship draws closer. Maher moving to centre-back was possibly the main reason for Tipperary’s turnaround. When moving to number six, he was in the teams pivotal position and led the side to a resurgence. His form wasn’t great in the last two years but he now looks again like one of the games best. Tipperary will need his form to continue in the championship.
7. Cillian Buckley
Buckley was another player who moved to half-back to good effect. Having featured at midfield or half-forward since his debut two years ago, he found himself at left half-back for the last few games and looked right at home. He played very well in the league final against Tipperary and based on his performances, he looks like he may be a fixture in the Cats half-back line come the summer. He has plenty of hurling and the half-back line can often suit the most skilful players. He did very well in a new position and certainly helped the strengthen what is an ageing Kilkenny defence.
8. Paul Browne
Some Limerick players did play quite well in the league despite their failure to secure promotion from Division 1B. The likes of Paudie O’Brien, Wayne McNamara and Paul Browne played very well and Browne gets in at midfield. He put in a number of strong showings, particularly against Cork when they were down to fourteen men and fought back to secure a draw. He is a very busy player around the middle of the field and contributes a lot to games. More talk has been about Limerick off the field, but on the field Browne certainly delivered.
9. James Woodlock
Woodlock is a player who has returned from a horrific leg break and now seems to be finding his way back to full fitness. He had a long rehabilitation from a career threatening injury. He made his way back to the Tipperary panel two years ago, and was one of their better performers last year. This year has seen him become a more permanent fixture in the starting line-up and showed up very well. He was an important part of their run to the league final. He may not last the full seventy minutes but he provides a lot of energy to the Tipperary side. He is an important player.
10. Conor Cooney
Cooney had a very good league and showed that he is maturing as a player all the time. He is only out of the under-21 grade and still has a lot to learn at the highest level but he showed a lot of progress in the league. In Joe Canning’s absence, Cooney took over the free taking duties and was Galway’s main man in attack. His free taking was excellent and he also contributed plenty from play. Galway played as a good cohesive unit up-front in the league and Cooney was the pick of the bunch. Now Cooney and Galway’s next challenge is to deliver in the championship.
11. Colin Fennelly
This was a close call between Pauric Mahony and Colin Fennelly. Fennelly was brilliant at some stages of the league, particularly when scoring 3-5 from play against Tipperary. He led the attack well but had a poor final. Despite this though, he really had a very good league. He was the focal point of Kilkenny’s attack from centre-forward. He grabbed scoring chances by the scruff of the neck. Mahony was excellent for Waterford and racked up some big scoring tallies but Fennelly just edges the number eleven jersey.
12. Danny Sutcliffe
Sutcliffe is currently the leading half-forward in the games and has pretty much made the number twelve jersey his own on any national selection. He has all of the attributes needed to succeed. He is an excellent athlete and has ability to get a range of different scores. His second half performance in the relegation play-off against Waterford just further illustrates his quality and importance. He got two second half goals were vital to the Dubs securing their Division 1A status. He is right at the top of the game at the moment and is the complete hurler at a very young age.
13. John O’Dwyer
O’Dwyer was one of the league’s best players this year and provided a lot of scores and work for the Tipperary side particularly as their momentum grew. Against Cork, Clare and Kilkenny he was excellent and he was also very impressive in C.I.T’s run to the Fitzgibbon Cup final. He made strides last year, but became a permanent fixture in the side this year and played very very well. His point scoring was brilliant and he had a real knack of getting important scores at important times. He will need to bring the same levels of performance into the summer’s championship.
14. Seamus Callanan
Callanan was outstanding for Tipperary in this year’s league but the question mark will still be there until he brings that type of performance to the championship. He was excellent in what was a struggling Tipperary side at times, but he was a constant provider of scores and leadership. The quality of his scores was also very high but he was only average when marked by J.J Delaney in the league final and his performances in the league will matter for very little if he doesn’t perform like this in the summer months. He deserved credit and plaudits for his 2014 form so far but he must bring it to the championship if he is to receive more credit. He has the potential, but now he must deliver when it matters most.
15. Conor McGrath
There were a lot of candidates for the final position. Seamus Harnedy, Patrick Horgan and Alan Cadogan of Cork all performed well. Mark Kelly of Kilkenny was impressive. Shane O’Donnell showed that he wasn’t a one hit wonder while Cathal Mannion of Galway also performed well in a debut season. But Clare’s Conor McGrath was excellent and could have a massive bearing on the championship and Clare’s ability to retain the crowd. He wasn’t at his best last year, but still scored a vital goal in the All-Ireland final replay and received an all-star. He is one of the country’s best and had a good league. His hat-trick against Tipperary was a highlight.
Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena.