Allianz National Hurling League preview

Keith Duggan’s county-by-county guide to the start of this year's hurling campaign

Cian Dillon of defending Allianz league champions Clare at Croke Park this week.  Photograph: Inpho/Ryan Byrne

Cian Dillon of defending Allianz league champions Clare at Croke Park this week. Photograph: Inpho/Ryan Byrne

 

Division 1 A

Cork

Status: Trying to recover their role as one of big three. Looked short on confidence last summer and really need a strong league to restore that.

Momentum: They got a bit of January luck when Alan Cadogan’s injury-time goal turned the Munster League final in their favour against Limerick. More pertinently, they defeated Clare in the same competition and need to double up on that in their opening match tonight.

Strength: Several true stylists, a metronomic placed-ball striker in Pat Horgan and speed to burn all over the field. Possess the traditional Cork virtue of being able to strike form in a rush. Kieran Kingston has been auditioning younger players Killian Burke and David Griffin in the full-back line, where they need greater depth and cover.

Prospects: If they can win their first two games – at home – they will be set up for a quarter-final place. But a poor start leaves them vulnerable to a bottom two finish.

Clare

Status: In a league sense, reigning champions. In a general sense, second Grammy-winning album well overdue. The terrific series of jousts against Waterford in last year’s final proved to be one of the highlights of the season. Davy Fitzgerald said afterwards that no matter what, nobody could take their league title from them – as if he knew they would try.

Momentum: Tony Kelly’s luminous form for Ballyea gives Clare hurling a nice lift and has thrown the spotlight on his clubmate Niall Deasy. Donal Maloney and Gerry O’Connor, the incoming management team, will be keen to make positive inroads over the league.

Strength: A squad of consummate hurlers, early indications are that the management squad have been encouraging them to play expressive, off-the-cuff hurling. The senior players are keenly aware that they have under-achieved since their All-Ireland winning season of 2013.

Prospects: A top four team capable of returning to the final – if their interests lie in that path. Semi-final exit more likely.

Dublin

Status: No longer the best new force in hurling. The exclusion of half a dozen big names from this year’s winter panel indicates a new direction for Ger Cunningham’s team, while his management style was heavily criticised by one former player last winter. Dublin will open their campaign in Croke Park tonight against the All-Ireland champions and without the services of the Cuala players.

Momentum: Is not clear to see yet. Donal Burke was among the younger players to impress in the Walsh Cup but the team faded in the finish in that competition. They did not make a strong impression in the championship last year and could badly use a streak of wins this spring.

Strength: The team belongs to the most populous, best organised and best funded county in the GAA. The county will continue to produce quality young hurlers – even if some of those will ultimately excel as footballers. Have a significant number of excellent senior hurlers back, including David O’Callaghan, Liam Rushe and Cuala pair David Treacy and Mark Schutte.

Prospects: In a division filled with tough assignments, Dublin will do well to avoid the last two spots after the final round.

Kilkenny

Status: Still the Imperial Star Destroyer, in imagination if not fact. Brian Cody has returned and, already, the Cats have claimed the first available silverware on offer, the Walsh Cup.

Momentum: Has cooled in the league since their three-in-a-row success between 2012-2014 but they remain a forbidding prospect in Nowlan Park and should have signalled their form by the time they visit Tipperary on March 11th.

Strength: The retirement of Jackie Tyrell marks the departure of the famously rapacious defence which dominated for the bones of a decade. Cody will build his championship team over this league. The contenders have lost none of the magnificent bloody-mindedness and endeavour which have characterised Cody teams. As an attacking force, not as omnipotent as in the Shefflin era but still an exceptionally strong, driven and ambitious hurling team.

Prospects: Should ease into the quarter-finals and make a push for the final just to lay down a marker.

Tipperary

Status: Poised to dominate. A deep squad brimming with attacking talent and stylists, with its key players reaching their prime. Lost their way after winning the All-Ireland in 2010: that cannot happen this time around.

Momentum: Have demonstrated take-or-leave it form in the league in recent years and last won the competition in 2008. They may decide to go for this one just to underline their status as the team to beat. Are certain to rest their regular championship stars over the league, giving squad players a chance to impress.

Strength: This squad had their moral worth questioned both quietly and loudly after failing to follow-up on their 2010 All-Ireland win, even though they were the only team to consistently challenge Kilkenny. Appointed a driven captain in Pádraig Maher. Broke free of under-achievement tag last September and have developed a strong sense of character to go with the thrilling ball skills. They have a chance to do something special over the next few seasons.

Prospects: Are bound to be aware of the dangers of mentally drifting in post All-Ireland satisfaction. They have been the second most consistent league performers over the last decade and are a good bet to lift the Allianz title.

Waterford

Status: Tantalisingly close to a breakthrough with a defensive system which divides opinion. They came desperately close to unseating Kilkenny and making it to the All-Ireland final last summer. There is a sense that their time must be now if it is to be at all.

Momentum: Derek McGrath used the league to revitalise Waterford. After his team were relegated in his first season, he went with youth, developed his system and came storming back to win the competition outright from division 1B in 2015. Competed and lost after two highly exciting league final games against Clare.

Strengths: A rigorous defensive system revolving around hurler of the year Austin Gleeson – who won his All-Star award in the centre-forward position. Jamie Barron’s ability to conjure space in a midfield which Waterford like to crowd was crucial. Need to become more efficient in their score-taking but will pose a problem for all teams.

Prospects: Another league title is not what Waterford needs. Translating scoring opportunities and broadening the scope of their attack should be high priority over the league. Relegation should not be an issue.

Division 1B

Galway

Status: Wandering tribe. A spring outside the top tier will do nothing to advance Galway’s belief that this is the year. Pushed Kilkenny hard in the Walsh Cup final in what was the first of many reminders that they shouldn’t be in this division.

Momentum: Lost by a single point to All-Ireland champions Tipperary in the semi-final last year. They know they are close. They need to build up a winning habit in this division and then make a strong run in the play-offs as they need all the top-tier games they can get. Likely to be the lone semi-finalist from this division.

Strength: A squad packed with strong hurlers. Michael Donoghue has recalibrated the defence and will use the league to try new players. Joe Canning’s prolonged rehabilitation should stand to him in the summer. The crucial question for Galway is how they want to use the Portumna man this year.

Prospects: Anything other than a convincing promotion run will be worrying for Galway. Irrespective of last season, they have been consistent league performers over the past decade and should resume that habit here.

Kerry

Status: Endured a few scolds in this division last spring, not least the 0-8 to 2-25 lesson handed out by Wexford. But they survived to tell the tale and a memorable away win in Offaly was crucial to preserving their status.

Momentum: The end result against Galway, Limerick and Wexford is not the point. Trying to improve against those teams is. They will look to pick points up against Laois but may not find Offaly as generous this time around.

Strength: Have appointed a highly rated manager to succeed Ciarán Carey in former Waterford selector Fintan O’Connor. Have a superb scoring forward in John Egan and a group of players, led by Daniel Collins, who have made huge strides over the past three seasons.

Prospect: Sticking around in this division would represent solid progress and will require another league Sunday shock by the Kerry men.

Laois

Status: Starting from scratch after Cheddar Plunkett stepped down following last year’s championship exit against Offaly.

Momentum: Couldn’t get going at all in this division last year and finished without a win. Almost fell into a hole against NUIG in pre-season competition, trailing by nine points before recovering for a win.

Strength: Have found a very experienced manager in Eamonn Kelly who knows the Laois panel well. They have strong leaders in Willie Hyland and Ross King and will take encouragement from their performance against Galway in late January.

Prospects: If Laois can rediscover the feistiness they exhibited under Plunkett two seasons ago, they can make visiting teams uncomfortable. But they are punching against heavier fighters here.

Limerick

Status: Have been stuck in neutral since their famous Munster championship win in 2013. Several ifs, buts and maybes, but it hasn’t fully happened for them.

Momentum: Limerick didn’t make the impact they hoped for in last year’s provincial championship and failure to make the All-Ireland quarter finals compounded an underwhelming season. New manager John Kiely has said that promotion to Division 1A is a realistic target – and it should be.

Strength: Limerick have eye-catching talent in Shane Dowling and Kevin Downes. Both, however, will be absent for the first game of a league which is expected to feature debuts for former minor captain Kyle Hayes and the Casey brothers, Mike and Peter, from Na Piarsaigh. The retirement of the livewire Wayne McNamara, after 10 years in the Limerick defence, leaves a vacancy for leadership in that sector.

Prospects: A squad with streaky form, Limerick are capable of pushing for promotion but may find themselves squeezed again.

Offaly

Status: A long nuclear winter for the thoroughbred GAA county that for decades thrived on skill and a carefree approach.

Momentum: None as such. The departure of Colin Egan and Chris McDonald leaves Offaly without five of last year’s championship starters as they welcome Galway.

Strength: Shane Dooley has been a terrific servant in lean times and will lead the attack with Oisín Kelly who has made consecutive starts in the Walsh Cup under new manager Kevin Ryan. Shot 20 wides against Meath a month ago: they will need most of those to go over the bar to live with Galway.

Prospect: It is difficult to see the Faithful County doing more than break even in this division, with a couple of punishing Sundays in store.

Wexford

Status: The Davy Fitzgerald era begins for real this Sunday under the glare of intense local and national interest.

Momentum: Cathal Dunbar saw a well-struck shot brilliantly saved by Kilkenny’s Richie Reid to prevent what would surely have been a winning goal for Wexford over Kilkenny in the pre-season semi-final – 3,500 showed up for that game, in the rain. The Wexford public are behind this team.

Strength: Lee Chin leads a highly athletic team which enjoyed numerous highlights under the stewardship of Liam Dunne. Their task now is to force their way into consistent contention. Fitzgerald comes with a reputation for having a quick transformative effect. Conor McDonald and Jack Guiney are on their way back to full health while Andrew Shore, Liam Óg McGovern and Shane Tomkins continue to work their way back from cruciate injury.

Prospects: Davy Fitz has publicly stressed that promotion is probably a bridge too far for his team as he runs the eye over a cast of new players. Privately, he may be telling his players a different story.

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