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Throw In The Ball – 2014 Hurling Championship Preview

The question is still being asked; was 2013 the greatest hurling season of all time? It was discussed on Pundit Arena, on bar stools and on television shows from mid-summer all the way up to this year’s National Hurling League. 

The 2014 league was subdued in comparison to last year but that was to be expected. The pace and intensity wasn’t as high but there was a very small gap between teams and games were close and competitive. The real championship season kicks off this weekend and now people are wondering is it possible for this year’s hurling season not to be a disappointment such was the quality of last season.

2014 has an awful lot to live up to but the potential is there for us to have another enthralling season. There is very little between each side and this may lead to a lot of very tight affairs. However, if teams play with the same philosophy and freedom displayed last summer, we should be in for another treat.

Last summer’s great weather led to firm grounds that allowed for games to be played at a blistering pace. Conditions favoured the fresher and quicker sides as physicality took a backwards step. Let’s hope for more of the same this summer.

Kilkenny reigned supreme in the league when they added another chapter to their great rivalry with Tipperary. Tipperary showed just how quickly things can turn when what looked to be a crisis turned into being seconds away from silverware and securing the league title. Defending All-Ireland champions Clare had a solid league campaign even though the league probably wasn’t of huge concern to them. Dublin showed character to survive while Waterford seem to be on a slippery slope. Cork got back to the top tier without setting the world alight while Limerick now seem to be in potential disarray. Laois made strides while Offaly and Wexford showed no real signs of progression.

The overall style of play that will be adopted this summer will be a real topic of interest. Cork followed All-Ireland club winners Newtownshandrum and changed the way the game was played when they brought possession and running with the ball to a new level from 2004-2006. Kilkenny then counteracted this through sheer force and power, pressurising players all over the field at a ferocious intensity. The Cats and Tipperary took the game to another level in terms of intensity and physicality from 2007-2012. 2013 saw another change as pace and mobility were the successful ways of playing, but what will 2014 have in store?

The league showcased high-speed hurling and even Kilkenny showed glimpses of short passing and keeping possession. While conditions didn’t exactly allow teams to operate at their top speed, there was a sense that this new style would be repeated in 2014. Both Clare and Cork’s  respective management teams showed last year that playing to a team’s strengths is the way forward. They recognised that they didn’t have the personnel to get into jostling contests with Tipperary and Kilkenny. Jimmy Barry-Murphy even used the comparison between elephants and greyhounds. The trend changed last year. Will physicality return to outmuscle pace? Or will faster,open games win out?

Kilkenny are favourites having secured the league title and a lot of followers are expecting a strong fightback following last season’s disappointment. They failed to even make it to Croke Park last year and will certainly be expecting a change. Brian Cody introduced some new faces in Mark Kelly, Brian Kennedy and Padraig Walsh. Richie Hogan, Colin Fennelly and TJ Reid have shown signs of improvement. Their experienced players still have something to offer. The league shows that there is still life left in the Cats but will they have what it takes to go all the way? While they won the league outright, their side remains vulnerable and it will be interesting to see if they are exposed or not over the course of the summer.

Defending champions Clare will be the team to beat. Their league campaign did enough to keep them ticking over. The only slight concern may be the lack of new faces to the side. However, their marquee players haven’t really started playing yet. There’s a lot more to come from the likes of Tony Kelly and Pádraic Collins. Conor McGrath could also be a massive player for the Banner. Expect Davy Fitzgerald’s side to target the Munster title and then look to go straight through the front door to retain their title. They look to be young enough and hungry enough to maintain their focus.

Waterford may struggle this year. They have a lot of injuries and seem to be lacking in the forward department. They will need another few years for last year’s minor side to come through before they really contend for September honours.

The other counties in Munster will all fancy their chances. A Munster title would be well received by all players, management and supporters. Tipperary have a home game against Limerick and that result will shape both sides’ seasons. Momentum will be gained by whichever side wins and confidence dented for whichever side loses. It’s a big season for both counties and Limerick will be looking to put off field problems behind them.

Cork have another big season ahead of them. They haven’t had a great deal said about them. John Mullane said earlier in the week that they are a half-back line away from an All-Ireland and he may be correct. Either wa,y all Munster counties will be looking forward as opposed to backwards this summer.

The Leinster championship also looks highly competitive with Kilkenny, Dublin and Galway all in good shape. Galway are dark horses for this season. They never got going last year but look to be well positioned  with plenty of new names combined with mature players. They look to have sorted the spine of their defence and now just need to get Joe Canning combining with other players up-front. As always consistency and unpredictability will be the issues.

Dublin are another side coming in under the radar.  They were very close last year and have the players to go all the way. They are one inside forward short of a complete team. Without this they still have a real chance. Leinster is another province where all three teams would gladly welcome a Leinster title and all of this leads to the possibility of another great season.

This writer sees no reason why 2014 can’t be another great hurling season. The points discussed above show just how little there is between the sides. There are half a dozen teams with real prospects of lifting the Liam McCarthy Cup in September. Before we get to that stage, there should be a lot of excitement, twists and turns. While the provincial titles aren’t the be -all and end-all of a team’s season, a lot of counties will want to win Munster and Leinster respectively.

It should be an electric season and we are eagerly looking forward to this summer’s hurling championship. Throw in the ball!

Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena.

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