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The Battle for Liam MacCarthy

 

 

Will Kilkenny’s dominance continue? Will Tipperary rediscover their form of 2010? Can Jimmy Barry-Murphy inspire a Rebel uprising? Can Galway finally fulfil their potential? … We preview the race for hurling supremacy

 

Antrim

Manager: Gerry Wallis (1st season)

The Saffrons were 0-7 to 0-1 ahead of Westmeath last weekend but lost by two points in the end. Not good — especially when you consider that the unfancied opposition played with 14 men for 46 minutes. Loughgiel Shamrocks may have won the club All-Ireland in March, but it’ll be a long a time before the county side make an impact on the national stage.

Three key men: Liam Watson, Shane McNaughton, Neil McManus.

Verdict: Early exit from the qualifiers

 

CORK

Manager: Jimmy Barry-Murphy (1st season, previous stint from 1995 to 2000)

It will take more than the second coming of JBM to resurrect Cork hurling after five years of drift away from the game’s standard bearers. Early-season optimism was tempered by a trimming from Kilkenny in the League final, so the Munster semi-final against Limerick or Tipperary on June 24 is hugely significant. Assuming Tipp account for Limerick, a repeat of Cork’s League semi-final win will see them as favourites to arrive in Croke Park as Munster champions. Lose and the Rebels go down the qualifier slip road, which they have found to be full of Galway-shaped pot-holes in recent seasons.

Cork’s lack of underage success (no minor All-Ireland since 2001, no U-21 since 1998) illustrates their malaise. They have the raw hurling talent down south, but lack the necessary physical presence and nous. The good news is it’s far easier to add muscle and a streetwise edge than it is to cultivate top class players. If exciting talents like Conor Lehane, Luke O’Farrell and Stephen McDonnell can learn from the defeat to the Cats — instead of shrinking as a result of the mauling — then there is hope for the reds.

The fact that Tipp are not performing at their optimum level means Cork can turn them over, but ultimate glory will be harder to come by.

Three key men: Eoin Cadogan, Pa Horgan, Conor Lehane.

Verdict: Munster champions, All-Ireland semi-finalists.

 

CLARE

Manager: Davy Fitzgerald (1st season)

Good things are on the horizon for the winners of Division 1B. Fitzgerald’s policy of meticulous preparation with a view to high-intensity and disciplined hurling sits better in his native county than Waterford. Also there’s the underage success. Clare are back-to-back Munster minor champions and recently gave Cork a trimming at that level. The fruits of the 2009 U-21 All-Ireland winning panel are now to the fore and will put it up to anyone in Munster and, as they showed recently in the League semi-final, the game’s top Cats – even if Kilkenny pulled away towards the finish.

Fitzgerald is certainly returning at the right time. He was part of a side that emphasised fitness and physicality. Today’s young Clare hurler is a more nimble, wristy ball player. It will be interesting to see how the styles merge.

Three key men: Cian Dillon, Conor McGrath, Donal O’Donovan.

Verdict: Will beat Waterford but fall in the Munster final

 

CARLOW

Manager: Kevin Ryan (4th season)

Pound for pound, Carlow have been as successful this century as their single issue-candidate neighbours from across the Barrow. Six senior hurling clubs in a small county, which mostly favours football, have propelled Carlow from third-tier also-rans to Christy Ring Cup winners (twice) and rivals to the likes of Laois and Antrim. This inspirational bunch would have been expected to put it right up to Teddy McCarthy’s O’Moores, but it seems they took their foot off the gas since winning Division 2. Ryan complained that training numbers were as low as 14 in the lead up to last weekend’s clash with Laois, which they lost by seven points.

Three key men: Mark Brennan, Marty Kavanagh, Shane Kavanagh.

Verdict: Won’t last long in qualifiers.

 

DUBLIN

Manager: Anthony Daly (4th season)

Dublin are going to be a successful hurling county or the GAA are going to go broke making them one. The GAA have so much cash they think it’s okay to pay Jedward to hop around the Croke Park pitch so take it as a given: Dublin will succeed. But not yet.

Winning the National League in 2011 failed to materialise into a bona-fide breakthrough. Relegation from the top flight — and shipping four goals to Galway — shows the stagnation of Daly’s side. To win Leinster they’ll have to beat Kilkenny and then Galway. Unlikely. However, with the return of the ‘Cruciate Three’ — Stephen Hiney, Conal Keaney and Tomás Brady — expect them to account for Laois and then give the perhaps slightly over-rated Cats an almighty rattle, but eventually fall short.

Three key men: Conal Keaney, Liam Rushe, Alan McCrabbe.

Verdict: All Ireland quarter-finalists, via the qualifier route.

 

GALWAY

Manager: Anthony Cunningham (1st season)

The one county that should have matched Kilkenny blow-for-blow since 2006: They have had by far the most competitive club championship in the land this century yet have never converted their riches into a county team that’s the sum of its parts. Will that change in 2012? No.

The League indicates that it’s the same old brand new Galway: their young side (22 of the panel were U-21 last season; there is, if anything, too much talent out west) scored a superb away win against Cork followed up by an embarrassing defeat in Kilkenny. Again, they showed what they can do in the last League game against Dublin.

Will show one or two more teams what they can do in the championship but will likely also provide a lesson in abject capitulation at some stage.

Three key men: Joe Canning, Joe Canning, Joe Canning.

Verdict:Will come a-cropper against Kilkenny in the Leinster final. All-Ireland semi-finalists.

 

LAOIS

Manager: Teddy McCarthy (1st season)

Division 2 winners Carlow were seen as a potential banana-skin to Teddy McCarthy’s men but, with Willie Hyland in top form, Laois chalked up a seven-point win.

The O’Moores’ manager compared Hyland favourably to Henry Shefflin and the Laois sharpshooter will need to be as his Shefflinesque best for his side to be competitive against Dublin in the next round.

Three key men:Willie Hyland, Brian Dunne, Eoin Reilly.

Verdict: Dublin will have too much for power and speed for Laois, who won’t make a big impact in the qualifiers.

 

LIMERICK

Manager: John Allen (1st season)

It seems hurling Buddha John Allen’s managerial reincarnation on Shannonside is coming up against some dodgy karma. An unconvincing Division 1B campaign and the resignation of selector Ciaran Carey would have you believe that this is not a happy unit. Carey was unimpressed with the group’s physical preparations and Tipperary, even off-key, will expose these weaknesses on Sunday.

Three key men: Declan Hannon, Kevin Downes, Graeme Mulcahy.

Verdict: Defeat to Tipperary, possible quarter-finalists if given a handy qualifier draw.

 

OFFALY

Manager: Ollie Baker (1st season)

Their clash with Wexford would have been a real mouth-waterer — if this was 1997.

Oh for the days of defiance, deft skill, Dooleys, Whelehans and Pilkingtons, five-minute All-Irelands, sit-ins, mid-season resurrections and tri-colours dancing on Hill 16 all summer and into early September.

Like with Wexford, hurling is the poorer for their absence.

Hopelessly ill-equipped to revisit their glory days, when they would run Kilkenny ragged and make it look like a carefree way to spend an afternoon. Home advantage should see them over Wexford but Galway will take them out in the Leinster semi-final.

Three key men: Rory Hannify, Shane Dooley, Joe Bergin.

Verdict: All-Ireland quarter-finalists.

 

KILKENNY

Manager: Brian Cody (14th season)

A fact doing the rounds after Kilkenny’s recent empathic win over Cork was, “Since 1966, 14 teams have won the Division One Final by 8+ points — none have won the All-Ireland later that summer.”

Those wishing for streamers coloured other than black and amber being pumped from the roof of Corporate Park on September 9 had best cling to this little ray of statistical hope. It’s all they’ve got.

Another fact is: the team with the best hurlers usually win. Cody’s men are the most skilful, most physical and most driven unit out there and chances are they’ll collect title No 34 in the autumn.

What could go wrong? High-mileage stalwarts like JJ Delaney, Jackie Tyrell and Tommy Walsh could be exposed by a pacey young set of forwards. Henry Shefflin, Richie Power, Michael Rice and Michael Fennelly may not be at their best due to injury. Still, in the unlikely event Kilkenny are not at 100 per cent, it’ll take Tipperary to rediscover their form of 2010 or Cork or Galway’s young sides to undergo a major growth-spurt over the next four months for things to change. Don’t bank on it. Bank on Kilkenny.

Three key men: Henry Shefflin, Tommy Walsh, Richie Power.

Verdict: All-Ireland champions.

 

TIPPERARY

Manager: Declan Ryan (2nd season)

Lar Corbett is back, but he’d need to bring the old coaching duo of Liam Sheedy and Eamonn O’Shea with him to unleash Tipp’s potential.

Simply, the Premier County have regressed under Declan Ryan – the Munster final goalfest of 2011 the only really convincing championship performance on his watch. Hugely talented panel – all of whom have tasted success, be it at All-Ireland senior, minor or U-21 level — but they will need to start playing like champions again if they are to make an impact this season.

Three key men: Lar Corbett, Noel McGrath, Shane McGrath.

Verdict:Will beat Limerick, but are vulnerable to Cork in the Munster semi-final. Can still make the All-Ireland final if and when they rediscover their rhythm.

 

WATERFORD

Manager: Michael Ryan (1st season)

Grunt … hump … Huh-hhnnh-heeeave.

The hurling equivalent of a day’s hard labour with no tea-and-biscuits break. We never thought we’d write this sentence up until a couple of years ago, but aren’t Waterford a joyless bunch? In place of the artistry and cavalier spirit of Paul Flynn, Ken McGrath and Dan Shanahan, there are extra defenders and sweepers and fellas in sweeping up behind the sweepers.

The end result of Davy Fitzgerald’s modernising via sports science, conditioning and enhanced tactical awareness is they are no more successful than Justin McCarthy’s team of old — and a heck of a lot less entertaining.

Michael Ryan lacks the quality of personnel available to McCarthy and Fitzgerald (in his first season at least) so expect it to be as you were for the Deise: not easy to watch, not easy to beat and yet not easy to back.

Indicators for their Munster clash with Clare on June 17 are not positive. Eoin Kelly and Maurice Shanahan are injury doubts. Noel Connors and Paraic Mahony are definitely out with groin injuries. Shane O’Sullivan may travel abroad for the summer (never a great sign that) and, crucially, Clare and ex-Deise boss Davy Fitz lies in wait. Fitzgerald knows everything about Waterford — he invented their boring style and will find a way to out-boring them with his native county.

Three key men: John Mullane, Michael ‘Brick’Walsh, Noel Connors.

Verdict: Narrow loss to Clare.Will make progress in the qualifiers until they meet a decent team.

 

WESTMEATH

Manager: Brian Hanley (1st season)

Superb win against Antrim at the weekend sets up a repeat of last year’s Leinster Championship quarter-final with Galway. They were competitive for three-quarters of the match in 2011, and if they get within nine points (last season’s margin) then that will represent progress for the Lake County.

Three key men: Paul Greville, Niall O’Brien, Paddy Dowdall.

Verdict: Defeat to Galway, will not emerge from the qualifiers.

 

WEXFORD

Manager: Liam Dunne (2nd season)

Can it really be 16 years since they were dancing at the crossroads? Yes it can. And it’ll soon be 17 years of regression for the Model County. Pity. When they are on song, they splash colour on the hurling landscape like few other counties.

Even in doldrums you have to hand it to these guys: would a player from anywhere else ever get caught up in a porno film? No, no, nooooo!

Wexford hurlers used to be front and centre in the south-east. Now they have to house-share with Jason Ryan’s improved footballers and Mick Wallace’s Wexford Youths and increasingly it seems the once-dominant sport is being forced into the box room. John Leacy’s recent decision to concentrate on football is the latest depressing corroboration of this trend.

A recent minor victory over Dublin hints at underage progress.

In the here and now, expect them to struggle against fellow fallen giants Offaly on June 2.

Three key men: Jack Guiney, Rory Jacob, Darren Stamp.

Verdict: Another disappointing year in purple and gold.

 

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Ronan Early
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Ronan Early is Sports Editor and columnist with The Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @RonanEarly

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