Crowds will be eagerly awaiting the return of competitive hurling next weekend. The National Hurling League returns and if it can follow in the footsteps of last year’s league, we should be in for a treat, Sean Cremin.
Last season every team had a chance of either making a league semi-final or a relegation play-off as the last round of games were played out. There was also the great irony of both Division 1B sides, Limerick and Dublin, going onto win respective provincial titles. The league set the tone for a great 2013 hurling and hopefully more of the same will follow. Here are some players worth looking out for as the league commences.
Henry Shefflin – Kilkenny
Shefflin is a household name but his performances will be watched very carefully by all spectators all over the county in this year’s league. He has a full preseason behind him for the first time in years. He went out of last year’s championship on a huge low. Kilkenny struggled hugely in his absence last year. So now the question is how they will perform with their talisman back in action.
Does he still have it at thirty-five? Will his presence be enough to inspire others? It will be fascinating to see how Shefflin performs individually. Although the fortunes of Kilkenny will be the most important aspect, there is an interesting subplot in Shefflin. A return of 0-13 in a Walsh Cup game may show that there is life left in the ‘king’. Will he lead Kilkenny to a triumphant return or could we even see a ‘Brian O’Driscoll and Warren Gatland’ type scenario? One thing is for sure, King Henry will make an impact this season.
It is now his third full season in the Cork shirt. He has shown glimpses of what he can do and now could be the time for Lehane to start showcasing his talents consistently on the biggest stage. Some of his scores last season were of a very high quality. He scored some great points against Dublin and a great goal against Clare in the drawn All-Ireland final. He will gain more attention now from the hurling public as they look to see more.
His form for his club Midleton was nothing short of sensational as he led them to the Cork County title. His return of 2-10, 2-08 from play, in the county final was one of the finest individual performances ever seen. He has racked up similar tallies with U.C.C and now Cork will look to him to kick on and give more support to the likes Patrick Horgan and Seamus Harnedy. It could be a big season for Lehane.
Forde is one of Tipperary’s more promising prospects. He was a very bright spark in the Munster under-21 championship last year. He played some games with the seniors and this could be the year that he becomes a more regular fixture in the side. Tipperary have struggled up front in the last two seasons, with a huge lack of fluidness and creativity. Could Forde be the answer?
He has a lot of attributes. He is a very skilful player with a good eye for a score. His free taking is also impressive. A change in style could be in line for the Premier as they look to make the most of the resources and the likes of Forde and John O’Dwyer have the ability to prosper. If Tipperary are to improve, Forde could be an important element of their side.
Waterford sent their county into celebration overdrive with their minor success last year. It was amazing to see such a reaction to a county winning a minor title. Waterford people certainly weren’t slow to point out how big a win this was for them. They have progressed well at underage over the last five years or so and now is the time for the seniors to try and kick on.
Gleeson was the most impressive player in the Waterford minor side last year. His performances at centre-back were phenomenal. His reading of the game and quality of hurling really stood out. He showed exceptional aerial power and he marshalled his defence in style. Michael Walsh does look set to remain at number-six for the Déise next season but it’s hard to imagine a player of Gleeson pedigree not seeing action at some point. It will be interesting to see how he fits in.
It’s hard to know exactly how much hurling league action Walsh will see this year taking his dual role into account. He has made his intention clear to play both for Cork this year and there his huge potential there for Walsh to make a big impact of the hurling season. He will be watched very closely by the Cork supporters as he has the ability to make a huge difference. He has huge promise as a hurler. He has a big physical presence, excellent aerial ability, good mobility and he is well able to finish.
He will be a huge option for puck-out’s and could be a massive addition for the Cork half-forward line. Walsh showed for the Cork under-21’s in 2011 just how good he can be. He scored eight points from play in a Munster final loss to Limerick, including one including a colossal effort to force extra-time. Mixing both hurling and football may prove difficult but Walsh could also be the player that allows Cork to go one better in 2014. He is definitely a player to watch.
Cooney is a very capable hurler and Galway be looking to him to try and take some of the burden from Joe Canning. He was the main man in St. Thomas’s run to All-Ireland club glory last year and also played a vital role in bringing Mary Immaculate to their first ever Fitzgibbon Cup final. He played a lot of good hurling and now needs to become one of Galway’s main men.
Canning will be absent until St. Patrick’s Day as Portumna have now reached the All-Ireland club final and this could give Cooney a big opportunity to take responsibility in the forward line. Galway need to make the most of the talent that they have available and Cooney will be looked at as an important player. Not having Canning for a few weeks could help some of these players to develop confidence and belief. Cooney is now free from under-21 and college commitments and he should be watched closely.
They say the danger as champions can be the inability to build on success. Teams often get complacent or fail to add to their squads thinking that what won for them the previous year can work again. The whole concept of a team that stands still will inevitably move backwards will be in the back of Clare’s minds throughout the league and they will have a big challenge to add more to their already impressive squad of players.
Cathal O’Connell is one player that could add another dimension to Clare. Outside of the big names, he was the most exciting player in their two successive All-Ireland under-21 successes. He is small in size but he demonstrated that if he receives the correct service, he can be a very dangerous inside forward. Expect him to get a decent bit of game time in this year’s league and it will be interesting to see how he manages the step up and it will also be interesting to see if he can add something new to the Clare side.
Pundit Arena, Sean Cremin.