New era threatens open season
GUINNESS delight at the success of their sponsorship last year will have been heightened by a couple of other matters. For a start, the miracle of Clare's All-Ireland not only elevated last season into one of the most joyous of the modern era, but it has also made this summer's championship one of the most eagerly awaited.
Throw in the prospects for next year when the GAA's two-year trial of the hurling reforms begins and it can be appreciated that all of the stalling that preceded the decision to allow a drinks company sponsor the hurling championships ultimately ensured that Guinness's entry was blessed with perfect timing.
As a note of caution it can be pointed out that the recent trend towards openness in the championships began two years ago and was entirely unforeseen. Offaly won a title that had been assumed at the start of the season to be entirely in the hands of the traditional powers.
Given the continuing imbalance in the game, the fact that the resurgence of teams like Clare and Offaly is comparatively fragile and the proven capacity of hurling's establishment to wrest back an initiative when the status quo is threatened, no-one can be sure that this season will be the egalitarian fiesta of common assumption.
Nonetheless, the signs are positive. Rarely has there been such a tightly poised Munster championship in prospect. Leinster is showing signs of developing beyond a two-horse race. Even in the west there is encouragement with Galway showing signs of improvement.
Only in Ulster, where Down's decline has spread some gloom and where the hurling reforms are bitterly opposed, is the province less happy than a year ago
Munster is, however, the most appealing. Of the matches scheduled, only one looks a foregone conclusion. it's not intended to slight Kerry when pointing out that the draw has done them no favours.
Drawn straight into the semi-final, the one team within their reach, Waterford, face Tipperary in the first round, so Kerry will have to play either Tipperary with a match under their belt or Waterford fired up from having perpetrated a major upset.
The prospects of that upset don't appear to be as enticing as some people think, but if it's going to happen anywhere, it will happen in Walsh Park which has been passed as the venue.
Tipperary, after the exertions of the League, have a straightforward run to the final which mightn't suit them when they come face to face with whoever emerges from the Cork-Limerick-Clare corner.
That side of the draw has created more excitement. Limerick's trip to Cork opens the championship on Sunday week, May 26th, and there will be plenty at stake. Cork haven't been beaten at home since the 1920s, so a defeat will be a particularly bitter pill to swallow.
On the other hand, should they win, the mood in Cork will swing extravagantly and if the team picks up momentum in good weather, horizons expand. Jimmy Barry Murphy, Tom Cashman and Tony O'Sullivan could be forgiven for feeling relieved that the team was relegated in March if it helps defuse the Dream Team nonsense.
Limerick will be dangerous opposition. They have lost a number of key personnel from 1994 for a variety of reasons, but the replacement talent may not be as deficient as originally thought. Furthermore they have trained savagely - as usual - and have been clocking up the customary number of challenge matches.
It is also well to remember that Tom Ryan, in his third year as manager, has coaxed at least one good championship performance from the team each year.
Whoever emerges, has the daunting task of facing Clare in their first title defence. From a position in early March when it appeared that the team was slipping after a couple of narrow defeats, Clare finished out their campaign on a perfect note.