As Clare and Limerick prepare to face off in Thurles next Sunday we’ll attempt to predict the outcome of the 2015 All- Ireland Hurling Championship. From where we’re looking inter-county hurling is in fantastic health heading into this year’s championship. Kilkenny –while still the team to beat- no longer have the relentless stranglehold over the championship that the rest of Ireland was forced to endure from 2006-2012. Tipperary were a Hawkeye’s breadth away from a twenty-seventh All Ireland title last September while Limerick gave Kilkenny what may well have been their toughest challenge of the summer in the Croke Park floodplain last August. The defending champs are in good shape going into their title defence, but arguments can and will be made for the chasing pack, who may just sense the first hints of the demise of an empire. Although we’ve heard that tune before. We’ll start our previews in Munster, where the Liam McCarthy winners of 2013, Clare, face a steadily improving and for our money, underrated Limerick side on Sunday. We’re going to keep it simple with an overview of the main contenders and our prediction for the winners of Munster and Leinster and ultimately who we feel will be crowned champions after the now annual All-Ireland hurling final replay in late September.
There is always tension abound when Davy Fitzgerald is around. The furiously –some say excessively- intense manager has ushered in a new era of success in his native county following the halcyon days –of which Fitzgerald was a fundamental piece– of Clare hurling in the mid to late 90s. 2013’s All-Ireland was fantastically unexpected and a shock exit last year at the hands of an exciting young Wexford side, in a stunned Cusack Park was probably an unexpected reintroduction to reality for some of the previous year’s starlets. Fitzgerald seems to know one speed only- maniacally fast- and similarly strict inter-county regimes have drawn some unfavourable comparisons with stricter masters of another era. The league campaign was classed as a disaster in some quarters despite relegation to Division 1B coming only after successive one point defeats to Kilkenny in Nowlan Park. Still, Podge Collins defection to the footballers and the furore over Nicky O’ Connell and Davy O’ Halloran’s departure from the panel suggest a less than content camp. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald has no doubt used these minor upheavals to further convince his players that the entire universe is against Clare. The feeling remains that the 2013 edition may have delivered the Liam McCarthy earlier than anticipated in the team’s cycle. Time to see this summer whether the players still buy into the Davy Fitz manifesto. We think it will be all duck or no dinner for the Bannermen.
One to Watch: You can forgive Shane O’ Donnell a ‘distracting’ winter after his 2013 heroics but –fully fit once more- he appears to be back to his predatory, clinical best.
Limerick must have looked back numerous times on last year’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kilkenny and wondered what if? What if one of those balls had splashed its way past David Herity? What if they had killed the game when they had the chance? What if Kilkenny didn’t have someone like Richie Power to spring off the bench and change the game’s outcome? Soundly beaten by Dublin in the League quarter- final one suspects T.J. Ryan’s men have bigger fish to fry, preferably in September. Limerick are possessed of some the most underrated hurlers in the country- even all-star cornerback Seamus Hickey seems that little bit under appreciated. Honest, hard and smart from front to back Limerick now have a genuine threat inside in Shane Dowling, ably supported by Declan Hannon and tireless captain Donal O’ Grady’s surges from midfield. Injuries need to clear up –particularly O’ Grady’s ankle- if Limerick are to contend seriously but we’ll be very surprised if they are not involved in the business end of the championship. For the first time since the superbly talented, though cruelly unrewarded team of the 90s, Limerick are enjoying consistency in terms of both personnel and playing style. Limerick can match Tipperary and Kilkenny as illustrated in recent years, but they need to get the job done as the summer winds to a close. We believe they can.
One to Watch: Shane Dowling’s consistent free-taking has now been matched by real menace with the ball in hand. If he catches fire so will Limerick.
Helmed by perhaps the most popular man in hurling, Jimmy-Barry Murphy, Cork know that this is the year where they’ll have to make use of the pot or lift themselves off it altogether. Amidst all the drama of 2013’s drawn game and replay is the reality that Cork were denied an All-Ireland victory by an absolutely ludicrous first ever championship score by Clare corner-back Domhnall O’ Donovan. Cork regressed badly in the All-Ireland series last year getting absolutely savaged by a ruthless Tipperary team. What stuck out that day –apart from Tipperary’s excellence- was just how anaemic Cork’s performance was. Was it just the case of a young team hitting a bump in the road or is there a deeper question about this side’s character? The biggest game Cork have faced since then was in this year’s League final where they were systematically picked apart by this year’s surprise package, Waterford. Waterford were very good on the day, but they aren’t that good. Conversely, Cork simply aren’t all that bad. They’ve uncovered some real talents in recent years –Séamus Harnedy, Mark Ellis, and Conor Lehane- who have injected real vigour and zip into the team. However, all eyes will be on Aidan Walsh who realised that juggling two relationships just isn’t worth the hassle. A winter and spring devoted exclusively to the small ball should see his game come on from last year. Cork could go deep but we feel there are too many question marks, particularly in relation to their porous defence.
One to Watch: Patrick Horgan. As good a dead ball specialist as there is in the country, Horgan also poses a huge threat in and around the ‘twenty-one’ and always has a goal in him.
The surprise package of this year’s National League, Waterford were superb in catching Tipperary and then comfortably despatching Cork to win the minor national title. Derek McGrath has come in and admirably filled a panel with men who are pulling entirely in the same direction. Waterford have been possessed of fine hurlers over the last twenty years but rumours of factions and divisiveness were never too far from the mix. Frankly the bar was set low last season but the Deise have thrown their hat in the ring with that unexpected though highly impressive dismantling of Cork. Young, inexperienced groups thrive on success and Waterford’s new collective, led by the immense Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh have the look of the side who will cause the established order some real headaches this summer. Maurice Shanahan –whose goal-machine brother Dan now forms part of the management team- should return to the twenty-one but despite the presence of the hugely promising Jake Dillon and Colin Dunford, very few of the side are championship hardened. Derek McGrath garners silverware everywhere he goes and has created a very impressive C.V. in a relatively short period of time. This Waterford project appears to be one into which he will invest heavily. There’s a temptation to say that it’s too early in the team’s progress to go for the ultimate glory but remember Clare took the chance when it was there in 2013. The Munster semi-final battle with Cork in three weeks will be truly indicative of where Waterford are really at. Until then, and despite their League victory they remain somewhat of a mystery.
Player to Watch: Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh. The heartbeat of Waterford throughout this decade. He’ll lay the foundations but it’s up to others after that.
It’s very interesting to see how Tipperary will react to last year’s defeat to Kilkenny after one hundred and forty minutes of engrossing spectacle. We’ve watched a lot of sport –too much- but no game we’ve seen comes close to last year’s epic drawn game in terms of sheer skill, spectacle and sporting theatre. It was a game that flew and almost felt free of time and not one of the 82,000 0dd in attendance –and millions watching around the world- could take their eye of that fizzing sliotar until Hawkeye intervened and ensured there would be a conclusion three weeks later- which incidentally is too long to wait. The biggest fillip for Tipperary is the return of manager Eamon O’ Shea, a man with an easy authority and a calm belief in his players. The players in Tipperary –and their sometimes fickle fans- have absolute faith in this man, faith which was bestowed after a remarkable mid-summer turnaround against Galway, when Tipp’ displayed a heretofore unseen steel. Tipperary steamrolled from there until they went gunslinging with Kilkenny in the game that still thrills on repeat watching. One wonders how much defeat at the end of such a memorable battle will drive Tipperary on this summer. Noel McGrath –who we all hope makes a speedy and full recovery- will miss the remainder of the season but even still, Tipperary probably boast the best starting fifteen in the country. The suspicion remains that their bench is thin and now more so than ever it is squads that win you matches. Tipp will go deep but it will be interesting to see if they can get the black and amber monkey off their back.
One to Watch: When he is allowed marshal the forty-five in his favoured wing-back position, Padraig Maher is one of the most athletic, dominant defenders in the country.
And now to the main contenders in Leinster……
Ok, this is probably a bit of a stretch and while Offaly aren’t going to uproots tress this summer bear in mind that they turned Limerick over in this year’s league. Brian Whelehan, one of the greatest half-backs of all time, has re-instilled the midlanders with the pride missing from a once classy, successful side. A Leinster title is beyond them but don’t be surprised if the forgotten team of Leinster hurling cause an upset in the qualifiers. Especially if they can drag someone down to Tullamore.
One to Watch: Shane Dooley. A persistently bright light in an otherwise dull sky for Offaly of late.
Wexford made up the final piece of those glorious mid 90s summers –for neutrals- when they, Limerick, Offaly and Clare fought furiously for the Liam McCarthy without the distraction of the usual suspects. For Kilkenny fans of a certain age the sight of Billy Byrne –the traditional, edge of the square, paw in the air full forward- usually meant impending doom. Wexford are back –after a lengthy spell in the doldrums- and this is fantastic for hurling. Unquestionably the surprise package of last summer, Liam Dunne’s emerging side took the hugely unexpected scalps of Clare in a Cusack Park replay and then, perhaps more impressively –given the sudden weight of expectation- Waterford, in a thriller in Nowlan Park. The steam eventually ran out the following week and Limerick were in no mood to hold back, dishing out a twenty-four point lesson in clinical ruthlessness. There will be no hiding in the long grass for Wexford this June. They’ve found some scoring in Ciaran McDonald and Liam Óg McGovern and the driving, tireless Lee Chin is a star in the making. Kilkenny, though, will be waiting patiently on 21st June. If Wexford are serious about being taken seriously then they need to take the scalp of the champions in Nowlan Park. A Leinster championship would mean more to Dunne’s team. Possible but unlikely.
One to watch: Lee Chin. In the five games prior to the Limerick abomination Chin was truly outstanding and unlucky not to get a nod for an All-Star. The heartbeat of the team.
Anthony Daly made fantastic progress with the Dublin hurler’s, highlighted by their 2011 National League and 2013 Leinster Championship victories and a first All-Ireland semi-final appearance since 1948. Following listless performances and chastening defeats to Kilkenny and Tipperary respectively in last year’s championship, Daly decided to step aside, perhaps knowing he had brought Dublin hurling as far as he could. Daly’s efforts really transformed Dublin hurling from whipping boys to genuine contenders but there was a feeling that things had gotten a little stale. Former Cork goalkeeper, Ger Cunningham, has taken up the mantle and –for better or worse- his tenure will be judged on whether he can take Dublin to the Liam McCarthy Cup. Dublin are producing conveyor belts of talent at underage level- although Limerick and Galway will testify that this is not a guaranteed formula for success- and they already have quality throughout their team. They stumbled badly in the second half of the league semi-final against Cork but they battled that day without their best attacking option, Danny Sutcliffe. They’ll make a quarter final but to go any further they need to find consistent scoring outside of Sutcliffe and a settled home for Liam Rushe. For our money, an All-Ireland championship is too much to expect in the new regime’s maiden season.
One to Watch: Danny Sutcliffe. Given the right ball the St Judes club-man will run up big scores on any opponent. The supporting cast need to step up when necessary.
In the past people used to make predictions about how Galway would fare in the All-Ireland hurling championship. Then the penny dropped and with it the realisation that it’s completely pointless to pursue such an impossible task. Useful indicators like, say, league form, the previous year’s championship performance and injury reports seem to have absolutely no bearing on how Galway will perform in the championship. For years there was a clamour for Galway to enter one of the major provincial championships. So, along with Antrim they joined the Leinster championship in 2009 with mixed results. While the provincial championship has grown stronger, Galway, heading into their seventh summer in the east, have reached just one All-Ireland final -2012’s replay defeat to Kilkenny- and it still proves difficult to gauge how much progress has been made. Galway clubs –Portumna in particular- perform magnificently on the national stage yet the county’s collective don’t seem to gel quite as well. It’s hard to put your finger on it. In Joe Canning they’ve got probably the most talented –though sometimes absent- forward in the country and the supporting cast of Damien Hayes, Jonny Coen, Iarla Tannion and company should be delivering more. Why then the regular July exits? Perhaps a fear of missing that week of madness in Ballybrit -masquerading as a race meeting- is to answer for these inexplicable drops in performance. Ridiculous theories aside, there seems to be little expectation amongst the people of Galway for the success of their hurling team this summer. Which, given the lack of logic attached to the Galway hurling team, probably means an All-Ireland final appearance.
One to Watch: Joe Canning. Until some of Galway’s talented underachievers step up all eyes will be on the phenomenal Canning. Needs to be in the middle. At all times.
And so, to the reigning champs. The winter of 2014 saw forty-eight combined All-Irelands medals ride off into the sunset. While J.J. Delaney –whose masterful hook of Seamus Callanan in last year’s replayed final was the iconic moment of two breathtaking afternoons of hurling- is the only departed starter from last year, there is no questioning that the panel has been weakened by the further departures of Henry Shefflin, Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan, Aidan Fogarty and David Herity. Some of those players will go down as all-time greats and we’re inclined to think that Shefflin is –not even arguably- the most influential hurler of recent generations. But, while “the king stay the king” there is life after Henry. In the immediate future, it is Delaney’s absence that will be most keenly felt. Moved from half back –where he was peerless- to the edge of the square after Noel Hickey’s departure in 2010, he took to his adopted role almost effortlessly and it is fitting that his thrilling joust with Callanan last September would be his last in the black and amber. Still, the only person that moves on quicker than time is that famous sentimentalist, Brian Cody and he would have immediately put his thoughts to finding Delaney’s replacement. The job to fill the Johnstown man’s intimidating boots has gone to All-Star cornerback Paul Murphy. It will be very interesting to see how the Danesfort man goes. Kieran Joyce’s emergence at centre-back bodes well in light of Hogan’s departure while John Power has fit seamlessly into the forward unit. Kilkenny’s new leader is, without a doubt, Hurler of the Year, Richie Hogan, who –free from comparisons with past greats- is thriving in his role further out the field. Everyone bar Cody will objectively view this season as a year of transition. But, given the balanced mix of veterans and the recent influx of fresh talent Kilkenny are better equipped to defend their title than they were in 2013. If they don’t win it all then their conquerors in late summer –whoever they might be- most likely will.
One to Watch: Richie Hogan. With all eyes on the 2014 hurler-of-the-year it will be interesting to see if he can dominate in the manner of the latter end of last summer.
Legitimate arguments can be made for far too many teams so we’ve chosen to get off the fence and make a definitive call –which will most likely make us look idiotic come September. When all factors are taken into account, Kilkenny and Tipperary are the two best teams going into this year’s championship. And for us this year the winner is coming from one of last year’s two finalists, Cork or Limerick. We’re inclined to stick our neck on the line and go for 2013 Munster champions, Limerick. T.J. Ryan’s side hardly set the league alight, instead taking the opportunity to blood some youngsters, fully aware that the crescendo in their performance needs to come in September. It’s too early for Waterford and Wexford and too crazy in Clare. It would be disingenuous to suggest we know what to expect from Galway and we’re not entirely convinced by Dublin. Cork are the most likely team to leave us with egg on our face as last year’s aberration against Tipp’ may just have been an off day for a young team. Last year’s beaten finalists should have the same single-minded hunger of the 2010 winning team, while Kilkenny, well, their recent record provides a compelling enough argument, but the panel is unquestionably weakened in light of the raft of high-profile retirements.
Limerick could easily have toppled Kilkenny last year and will be just as motivated as Tipperary. In an open championship, with no outstanding side –at least from the outset- T.J. Ryan must know that this is his side’s big chance. The upheaval and parochial nonsense that constantly nagged at Limerick hurling has been put to the side in recent years. The path through Munster will prove difficult so don’t be surprised if they depart on the road less taken –for eventual champions- through the qualifiers. The sense is that hurling is about to enter another golden age and who better than Limerick –so often the bad beats of hurling- to prevail.
Munster Champions: Tipperary
Leinster Champions: Kilkenny
All-Ireland Champions: Limerick (9/1 generally)