It’s back baby! Hurling is back!!! Or so the RTE promotion was telling us during the week. Oh thank the heavens for that. I don’t know what I’ve done without the country’s national sport for the last few months. How on earth did I survive without my fix?
So you’re all delira and excira until you pause and think to yourself, well… wait a second…. was Hurling ever gone? With the Kehoe Cup being played before Christmas, and the Walsh cup being played over the last few weeks, and the Fitzgibbon Cup going on at the moment and the All-Ireland club finals finishing at the weekend….
So Hurling’s back? Are you being serious? It was never gone. It just goes on all year round forever. It never ends. Or at least, not until the ocean waters have sufficiently risen to flood every pitch in the country. Then we’re all screwed. And, lets face it, if Joe Brolly is going to sign up as a pundit on a…..dear god…pay per view channel, then we all know the apocalypse is coming.
We’ve only got a limited time-frame left on this doomed little planet of ours so lets enjoy it while we can shall we? And what better way to do that than by making outlandish predictions about what’s going to happen in the hurling world this year. So given this column’s foolproof record to date (Editors note...they’ve been anything but foolproof) it’s time for a deep dive into the bowels of this year’s National hurling league.
So All-Ireland champions, League Champions, Munster title holders and just a disputed 65 away from another potential All-Ireland final appearance. One of the best managers in the country, undisputedly one of the best squads in the country, and a multi-milionaire benefactor who’s never going to let them want for anything. So everything is looking luscious in the Treaty Garden and then oh wait….what the hell happened in New York in the winter?
Now maybe it was a storm in a teacup. Much ado about nothing. The kind of thing that has happened multiple times on multiple team trips before, and would have been brushed under the carpet this time, were it not for that dastardly social media. Still and all it’s not a good look. It needn’t be a big issue, and yet you can’t help admit it COULD become a big issue. With any successful side, discipline is paramount. So, if John Kiely still has the control of the pack then they could be in for a hell of a year. If he doesn’t….well god knows what will happen to them.
The 2019 hurling season was a decidedly….mixed bag for the Westmeath senior hurling team. On the plus side, promotion to the top tier was important and reaching the final of the Joe McDonagh Cup could be seen as consolidation of the county’s standing. However heavy defeats in both the final of said competition and against Cork in the preliminary quarter final left a bit of a sour taste in the mouth and ultimately, you’d have to imagine, cost the unfortunate Joe Quaid his position.
Now Shane O’Brien has been promoted to the top job things don’t appear to be any easier, particularly given the sides they’re facing. Put them in a group with Carlow, Dublin and Laois and they may have fancied their chances of surviving. In this one? Not easy. Not easy at all.
PREDICTION: Bottom of Division 1A and relegation
The best team in the country last year and no mistaking. Yes you could argue all day about the merits of the Richie Hogan red card (I know I have) but it doesn’t change the fact that that Premier side were infinitely more talented and clinical than the Kilkenny one. And why wouldn’t they be? Seamus Callanan, Jason Forde, John McGrath, Bubbles…this is a forward line to die for, and with a hardened defence and an authoritative manager you really can’t complain if you’re a Premier fan.
So the obvious assertion is that they should be winning, or at least in the top 2 for hurling honours this year, except for the fact, ala Eden Hazard, they don’t really do two seasons back to back. Given the talent in their ranks, Tipp could coast to a semi-final in the league, or any other competition, by barely breaking sweat. Will they still have the gear changes in them later on in the year when the going gets tough though? We’ll see I guess.
Hard to place how you feel as a Cork hurling supporter at this point in time. In 2017 you could argue that they would have been in an All-Ireland final if it wasn’t for Damien Cahalane’s unfortunate sending off. In 2018 you could argue they would have got there were it not for Nickie Quaid’s brilliance.
Last year, you couldn’t make any such claim. You were only left with the awkward question that, despite all their classy hurlers, is there a bit of softness in Cork? This spring probably isn’t going to provide us with any answer. The rebels haven’t really “done” leagues in the last few years. They’re a dry ball team, of that there is no doubt, but maybe it’s time Kieran Kingston and the Rock started playing a bit of hardball with them. It’s fine getting the old team back together and having a savage group of young hurlers coming on stream. Ultimately now though, they have to produce.
PREDICTION: Fifth in Division 1A
There was a time, only 2 and a half years ago remember, when Galway seemed unquestionably the best side in the country. They had power, they had skill, they had leaders. But now you look at David Burke’s dip in form, Joe Canning’s injuries and age, the lack of strength in depth, the comings and goings of the county board and you start to wonder….is there actually much juice left in the tank? Have we actually already seen the best of the team? Sean O’Neill is pretty much an unknown quantity in inter-county managerial terms. Unfortunately for him, the honeymoon period mightn’t be very long.
Did someone mention the All-Ireland of 2017? With all due respect to the Galway hurlers, they’ve only partially collapsed since that moment. Injuries, misfortune, being put out of the championship by two teams drawing a game you didn’t expect them to…You could still reasonably claim that they’re not too far off being the best team in the country. Their opponents that day however…..
What on earth has happened to Waterford in the last couple of years? Having one duff season in 2018 was unfortunate. Another last year was pure reckless. At this stage you’re starting to wonder, well what really is the fuss about them? Derek McGrath appeared a broken man by the end of his tenure. Pauric Fanning got to that stage in an even shorter time, and while Liam Cahill has come in with a decent track record the loss of Phillip O’Mahony, Brick Walsh, Noel Connors and Maurice Shanahan already, does not necessarily bode well.
So who knows what to expect from Waterford this seaason. The most peculiar aspect of last year is that their spring form gave absolutely no indication of their summer collapse. On paper at least, there’s still some serious hurlers there. It would be time to start proving that on the pitch now though.
PREDICTION: Fourth in Division 1A
Anaemic. That’s pretty much all that could be said about Kilkenny’s performance in the recent Walsh cup game against Wexford. Obviously there were extenuating circumstances, but if you were looking at the game with a view to Kilkenny’s future, then you would have left with a mild trepidation.
On saying that though, to the layman, the side put out for that game would be practically unrecognizable. Put back Walter Walsh, Paul Murphy, Huw Lawlor, John Donnelly, Padraig Walsh, Conor Browne Cillian Buckley, Colin Fennelly, Adrien Mullen, Joey Holden and most importantly, TJ Reid in the starting 15 and it’s a whole new ball game altogether. Not to mention the fact that their club sides swept the board at Croke Park last week. There’s life in the old cat yet.
So yes, they haven’t been as successful at underage and senior recently, and yes they did get hammered eventually in the All-Ireland final last year, but bar a controversial sending off, and a few duffed goal opportunities they were well in that game. So Kilkenny have definitely not gone away. No, not by a long shot.
It’s as if there was a competition on Shannonside as regards administrative strife over the winter, as the Clare county board appeared to say “We’ll see your fiasco in Galway and we’ll raise you….”The reputation of the Clare county board at this stage would be decidedly…..mixed. The same guys who wouldn’t refund one of their own players (Darach Honan) the money for a hip surgery, suffered while playing for the county, made just about the most botched managerial change possible last October. Donal Moloney, and Brian Lohan himself, deserved better.
Now there’s still plenty of hurlers in the county but last year wouldn’t necessarily fill you with confidence this side is on an upward curve. Brian Lohan is a legend of Clare Hurling but this is a more difficult task than anything he had to deal with in the 90’s. Back then, the red helmet was like a fire engine charging out of defence. He might have to put out a few more fires before the year is out.
Second season syndrome. That’s the fate that has befell many players and managers in the past, and it will be the exact thing that Eddie Brennan will be trying to guard against this time around with his Laois troops. So yeah, they won the Joe McDonagh cup, they put pride back in the Jersey and yes they were the story of the hurling summer last year, but how far can they actually progress from here?
In a sense the warning signs that a ceiling have been hit are already there. While the pride and passion of the side last summer was there for all to see, Eddie has been in the media recently speaking about how frustrating it is he doesn’t have a full complement of players to pick from this year. One would have thought they’d be chomping at the bit to get involved https://www.independent.ie/sport/gaelic-games/hurling/it-is-disappointing-to-the-point-of-frustration-eddie-brennan-on-stay-away-laois-hurlers-38823864.html It’s a big season for Laois. Hopefully they can build on the foundations of the last one.
PREDICTION: Fifth in Division 1B
One giant step forward. Two massive leaps back. The big Dublin breakthrough looked like it had happened last year with that landmark victory over Galway in Parnell Park, but that Laois game the week after just brought all the old doubts back to the surface again. All they needed was an All-Ireland quarter final appearance, after a National League semi-final spot, to cement what had been a promising year. Defeat in that fateful game, and now everything is back to square one again.
Do Dublin have the forwards, the ambition, and perhaps most importantly, the mental strength to compete at the top level, or are they always going to be the overlooked brother to the monolith that is the football team? The next few months will tell a lot. The jury is still out on the Mattie Kenny project. The first year was just about a pass. The second year, they need to be looking for honours.
PREDICTION: Fourth in Division 1B
Life is not thriving just merely surviving. That’s what Gareth Brooks sang once and it could easily apply to the Carlow hurling team. With such a small population and having to contend with football taking a lot of their players you could say, as Phil Collins would, that they’re fighting against all odds down there (ok, I’ll quit with the music references now).
Colm Bonner has performed a sterling job as Carlow manager, and their club teams have performed heroics in recent years, with St Mullins beating Cuala being one of the best results of the recent club championship. They did well, to just about, survive in the top division last year. If they can repeat that and get promotion back from the Joe McDonagh Cup again, that will have been a successful season.
PREDICTION: Sixth in Division 1B
That last 20 minutes of the All-Ireland semi-final last year will haunt many a Wexican (or Sixmilebridge man) for years to come. Everything that you would want in a Davy Fitzgerald side, or just a hurling side, was present for 50 minutes of that game, and then, once Lee Chin had struck what appeared that decisive goal, it all just collapsed. We haven’t got answers yet as to why it happened. Who knows if we ever will?
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, Davy’s had his customary winter “Will he, won’t he” return saga and now everything has finally settled down to focus on what could be another momentous year. Already silverware has been secured with an impressive victory in the Walsh Cup. Diarmuid O’Keeffe is back after his brief sejourn abroad and there haven’t been any other major losses so this is a side that’s in good shape. There’s just those final few steps that need to be taken.
Wexford are a solid spring side. The last few years have proven that. More than that though, they need a statement victory. Most counties don’t win an All-Ireland unless they’ve had a successful league. So a National title would be great. If it was a precursor to greater things come the summer, that would be even better.
PREDICTION: League Winners
PREDICTION FOR THIS WEEK’S GAMES
DIVISION 1A: Tipperary/Galway/Waterford
DIVISION 1B: Wexford/Kilkenny/Clare