Title talk takes on a harder edge
EVERYTHING has changed. The days when just one, two or three teams set out with realistic claims of winning the Liam McCarthy Cup no longer exist, which is great for hurling. I believe we are in for a particularly good vintage this summer with seven teams, at least, in strong contention.
The strange thing is that almost all the contenders for the championship have problems of one sort or another heading into the campaign. Yet, I expect all the heavyweights to have rectified these inconveniences by the time questions are asked of them in the heat of battle.
The omens suggest that this will be a very interesting championship, a wide-open affair. By extension, the Leinster and Munster championships are also extremely open. Any one of a number of teams possess the abilities required to win out.
If you will pardon me, as team manager, for leaving Offaly out of the equation, there are a number of intriguing possibilities this summer. Munster, I feel, will be particularly interesting.
Kilkenny must be installed as favourites in Leinster, though. Don't worry too much about Kilkenny's National League form. They will use that as a formguide, and nothing more. Winter hurling is not really the way to assess them; the ground is soft and the ball doesn't travel quite so far. Kilkenny are at their best in the better, championship conditions. It is then that the opposition has to really watch out.
Not alone do Kilkenny have a lot of impressive young players breaking through, but they can also still rely on players with plenty of experience. It is a matter of getting the right blend. Although they have lost Eddie O'Connor - although I wouldn't be surprised to see him back - and Eamon Morrissey, Kilkenny can call on the likes of Willie O'Connor and Liam Simpson again; players whose return will strengthen the squad immensely.
Still, it would be unwise to rule out Wexford's chances. Okay, so they were disappointing against Galway in the League semi-final, but that is all part and parcel of the learning process and Wexford are well capable of coming up and playing really well against Kilkenny. After all, look at what, happened Clare last year. They certainly learnt how to turn league defeat to their own advantage. Maybe Wexford can do the same. Who knows?
Laois are the dark horses in Leinster. Playing under Babs Keating has already given them a tremendous lift, as was evident from their National League form. And the time factor - they are not playing in the provincial campaign until June 23rd - gives them the opportunity to get their act together and gear themselves specifically for that match. Babs will be a master at that.
Dublin is the other team straight through to the semi-finals and, of course, every side has a chance in championship hurling. Realistically, however, Kilkenny, Wexford and Laois - and Offaly, of course, even if I feel it unfair to comment further on our chances - are the teams likely to fight it out in Leinster.
Munster is alive with possible champions. The only thing I am certain of is that Tipperary will come through their side of the championship. But the other half can go any way with Clare, Cork and Limerick all capable of making it to the final.
I know Clare are training very hard and appear to be extremely focused on retaining the title. Are they as hungry as last year? If they are, they will be very hard to beat.
Ominously, they got their act together after Christmas - but that was something they had to do. You can't go on living on past performances. You get the opportunity to read about your past exploits in 20 years time. It is very difficult to win back-to-back titles, however, and they have definitely got the hard side of the draw with a possible semi-final meeting with Cork.
Cork must, however, overcome Limerick in the quarter-final. Being relegated to Division Two could actually act as a spur to Cork. Their pride has been wounded and that will be dangerous for, everyone. At one stage in the National League, Cork we're being jouted as a very good side - but they discovered soon enough that they did have problems. Better to find out about those problems in February or March than in the championship.
The silence from Cork is deafening. That should be enough to send warning signals to every other team.
Mike Houlihan's injury is a massive blow to Limerick's chances. He will be very badly missed. Still, I expect Limerick to be well prepared and to give a very good account of themselves. Going down to Cork presents another obstacle, however. Cork seem to reserve their best hurling for Pairc Ui Chaoimh and Thurles.
Whichever way it goes, the semi-final should be very interesting indeed. With Clare and Limerick, you have the derby element. Two neighbouring counties with a lot at stake. With Cork and Clare it would be just a tremendous game. Cork would love to avenge last year.
Tipperary shouldn't have any problems getting to the Munster Final. I know they have quite a number of injury worries at the moment, but things should sort themselves out in time for their assault on the championship.
All in all, the Leinster and Munster Championships should be tremendously exciting and interesting this year. Form has definitely levelled out and no one team is ahead of the rest.
Galway, of course, don't have to worry about falling by the wayside at provincial level (no disrespect to Roscommon, but there can be only one winner in the Connacht Final). They will obviously be a major force to contend with in the All-Ireland semi-final for whoever does manage to emerge from Leinster.
The bottom line, really, is that any one of seven or eight teams can win this year's All-Ireland title. I have no doubts whatsoever that all of them will be superbly prepared, which should make it a great summer for hurling followers. Every team must feel as if this will be their year. Just as Clare believed utterly in themselves last year.
I have no intention of putting my head on the block, however. That would only give some other manager too much ammunition to use. Suffice to say that it will be a wide open race this year - and that has to be good for hurling.