NHL Division 1A: All you need to know ahead of the new season
Kilkenny look for a spring to their step in the new campaign while Wexford could struggle
Cathal Dunbar’s sharp eye for goal was evident in his underage years with Wexford. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Most in need of a good campaign
Last February, Kilkenny visited Ennis on a sleepy league Sunday and were served with a 2-19 to 0-12 eviction notice by Clare. Something in the nature of that loss triggered alarm bells: when had anyone seen a Brian Cody hurling team so subdued? The worst fears in Noreside did not quite materialise: Cork were shackled a week later; relegation was avoided.
In exiting the championship, Kilkenny finished on the wrong side of two of the most exhilarating games of the championship against Wexford and Waterford. Whether they “need” a good league is moot but spring torrents are usually a sign of Kilkenny’s summer intent.
The relegation battle
Clare’s league form over the past three years has been schizophrenic: relegated in 2015 with four out of five defeats, bounced back up the following season and skirted around the danger zone last year. Derek McGrath and Waterford have used the league as a springboard to reinvention but with one eye on taking the final, elusive All-Ireland step, they may suffer a few early season wobbles. However, Wexford may find the shock of regular top-flight games tough to handle in the early stages of the season. A good return from the opening two rounds is vital for Davy Fitzgerald’s young side.
Keep an eye on . . .
The clearances continued in Kilkenny, with Michael Fennelly’s retirement further weakening the links to the indomitable years, with rising stars like Richie Leahy expected to take on more responsibility. Cathal Dunbar’s sharp eye for goal was evident in his underage years with Wexford which, along with his speed, could be critical for Wexford this season. Daragh Fitzgibbon’s midfield influence was one of the many causes of Cork optimism last summer and he will be a key figure as John Meyler attempts to pick up where Kieran Kingston left off.
If only the championship could open with the same chutzpah as the league. Saturday night’s programme is laden with rich pickings and old rivalries in both sports. The compressed calendar has heightened the relevance of each game and Kilkenny’s visit to Cork feels like a significant test for both counties.
The brilliant promise of Cork’s 2017 was facilitated by Kieran Kingston’s management tenure but his decision to step down means that the Rebels will be responding to different voices and new motivations under John Meyler. Simply carrying on where Kingston left off is a tricky feat.
On Sunday, Clare and Tipp in Ennis won’t want for any cayenne pepper while Wexford’s visit to Walsh Park feels like a fork in the road moment: an away win could get Wexford rolling but a loss will make the journey ahead seem trickier.
Derek McGrath spent all of October before deciding to commit to a fifth season in charge of Waterford. What a ride it is has been, from the surge from division two through to last September’s All-Ireland final appearance against Galway. Winning the All-Ireland is all they have left to do.
McGrath’s defensive orientation has provoked fierce debate and the calls to abandon the system and return to a more orthodox attacking game have grown louder. But there is never a dull moment with Waterford and they are a hugely charismatic and likeable team. Their illustrious predecessors came tantalisingly close to the breakthrough and this is probably McGrath’s final shot of getting this Waterford team across that magical line.
Did you know?
Tipperary are the most successful league team in history with nineteen titles but this year marks a decade since their most recent success. They have remained one of the most consistent Division 1A sides throughout those ten years, losing three classic finals against Kilkenny and appearing in last year’s decider against Galway, who went on to claim both league and All-Ireland despite failing to gain promotion from Division 1 B.