The national league is a distant memory, the challenge match circuit is in full swing and the provincials are finishing up this weekend. So it’s time to take a look at how teams are shaping up. What have recent results told us. Are the usual suspects lining up an assault on the O’Duffy, who is waiting in the long grass and who are the favourites to be promoted to the senior ranks for 2020. This week we rank the top teams from 1-12.
The three in a row chasing Rebels have hit a rich vein of form in the provincial championship, hammering Clare before stretching away to take the title relatively comfortably against a Tipperary team who are in a decent run of form themselves.
The won that final without starting Aisling Thompson, Julia White and Hannah Looney which would suggest that there is more improvement to come from Leeside while Linda Collins performance in that game would suggest that she is about to fulfil the potential she has shown at intermediate and Ashbourne Cup level.
Last years minor Laura Hayes looks like a real find, but time will tell whether the leaving cert student is being blooded as one of Murrays long term projects or whether she will feature at the business end.
Some recent unwanted media attention on the squad will not have been ideal but an experienced manager like Murray will have managed the distraction around that and here is nothing to suggest that the Cork women won’t be in Croker in September defending their title.
National league champions Galway have been operating largely under the radar since their win over Kilkenny in Croke Park. With no provincial championship to take part in, Cathal Murrays troops have been released back their clubs and a number of rounds of the club championship have been completed.
The competitive rivalry of these games have often proved a challenge for past Galway managers and the gap between competitive games is another hurdle to negotiate.
That aside, this Galway side mean business. They have a physicality and a cutting edge to them that hasn’t been in evidence in recent seasons and this is a nod to Murray and his backroom team who are only in their first full season with the team.
A return to full fitness for Ashbourne Cup star Niamh Hannify is a huge boost to Galway, her direct running caused Kilkenny huge problems in the league final and she is a constant goal threat from 11 or 14. Alongside the potent threat of O’Reilly, O’Donoghue, McGrath and co. this Galway side have all the tools required to bridge the six year gap to their last title.
You get the feeling that this Kilkenny side is at a crossroads. Losing two finals since their last win in 2016, it’s hard to see how another season without a win wouldn’t lead to a break up of the current squad and management.
Kilkenny have always targeted the league and Ann Downey won’t be happy that they lost their title on such a big stage, adding another Croke Park loss to their growing list.
They have recovered to reach the Leinster final with a big win over an admittedly poor Dublin side but there are serious question marks over Kilkenny. Downey has been accused locally of sticking with the old guard and not developing the youth enough.
Danielle Morrissey has freshened up the forward line but the young WIT forward is still a few years of development away from being the threat that Denise Gaule, Katie Power etc were when they came on the scene and Kelly-Ann Doyle is the only other member of their highly rated 2015 minor winning team who has really nailed down a spot with the senior team.
When it comes to the business end of the championship then Kilkenny of course are still going to be there or thereabouts. But it is unquestionably a huge year for all involved.
If Cork, Kilkenny and Galway are the big three then Tipperary can justifiably stick their hands up and claim to be the leader of the chasing pack. Bill Mullanney will be happy with progress, slowly building on their semi-final appearance last season.
Early season progress was hampered by having so many players involved in the Ashbourne Cup with their players key to the progress of UL and WIT alike. But it is these same players, fresh from a good rest period who will drive Tipperary’s challenge in the summer.
Cork pulled away from them in the Munster final but they operated without All-Star full forward Cait Devane who is central to everything they do. They have been boosted by the return to fitness of centre-back Karen Kennedy and forward Orla O’Dwyer and also the morale boost of winning the division 2 league with their panel players.
Niamh Tracey has the complete skill set needed to put her hand up as a key player this year and fill the gaps left by the absence of the travelling Roisin Howard and Sarah Fryday.
Expect Tipperary to cause a shock along the way but ultimately it looks like any more than a semi-final appearance will be a surprise at this still early stage of their development under Mullanney.
It might be a surprise to some to see Offaly ranked so highly but everything is pointing towards the faithful county being present in the knockout stages come the end of July.
About to face into a fifth consecutive Leinster final, Offaly have been very consistent throughout the league and provincial campaign, one poor result against Kilkenny aside.
Their management of Mick Wall and Ger Walsh have interestingly always won silverware in their second season with a team and they will be eyeing Sundays Leinster Final as a real opportunity to get an historic first senior trophy on the board for Offaly.
They will look to Michaela Morkan and Arlene Watkins to reliably lead the charge once more while upfront the deadly Siobhan Flannery has been joined by the promising minor Becky Bryant. Bryant unfortunately misses the first three rounds of the championship due to a ridiculous camogie suspension rule but they are hopeful of having her for the serious stuff come the end of the summer.
Group 1 of the championship is going to come down to a three way battle for third between Limerick, Wexford and Offaly and recent results would suggest that Offaly are best placed of those three to make it out.
Last years quarter-finalists Waterford are very hopeful of building on last years historic first knockout appearance in the senior championship. Their league form has been patchy and they suffered a bad beating at the hands of Tipperary in the Munster championship.
But manager Donal O’Rourke is a shrewd operator and you can be sure that the Deise have their eyes on the main event in June.
In Beth Carton they have the player of a generation and have some serious talent coming through the St.Angelas production line that have bags of underage medals and bags of confidence. Annie Fitzgerald is really a player to look out for this year.
Waterford will fancy their chances of beating Dublin, Meath and Clare to take that third spot in the group and while the challenge of beating Galway or Kilkenny in a knockout game may be a step too far for them they will be better for their experience in 2018.
Heading into a fifth year in the senior championship since promotion in 2014, Limerick are still seeking their first appearance in the knockout stages. Indeed recently promoted Meath aside, they are the only county in the top flight currently not to have made a knockout appearance in the last decade.
The word from the camp is that morale is very high, the group is very united and the management team lead by Declan Nash are leaving no stone unturned in their preparation.
Traditionally Limerick have been heavily reliant on Niamh Mulcahy upfront and teams know that shutting her down really limits Limericks attacking threat. 0-3 against Galway in the league semi final was followed by 0-4 against Cork in the Munster semi-final is incredibly poor for a senior attack and they will really have to up their scoring rate to have any chance of getting out of the group.
In Rebecca Delee Limerick have one of the best players in the country to build a defence around Sarah Carey provides a strong attacking platform from the back also.
Limerick will battle hard to get out of the group and will see a mini league with Offaly and Wexford as their best chance in a long time to progress.
Clare manager Ger O’Connell openly admits that the Banner ladies are in the middle of a serious rebuilding process. He faces the challenge of knitting their big crop of successful underage players with the established O’Leary, Morey and Kelly to get Clare back to being the highly competitive force they were at the start of the decade.
Middling league results and a heavy beating from Cork in the provincial championship would point towards a short championship season for them, but they have the tools to compete.
Ciara Grogan, Clare Hehir and Aoife Keane formed half of UL’s Ashbourne Cup winning defence with Ciara Doyle being key for WIT in the same competition. Defences win championships and in that quartet Clare have a lot to build on.
They will need support for the ever reliable Chloe Morey up front to really cause problems for teams.
Dublin appear to be a team on the slide since David Heritys departure to manage the Kildare hurlers. They suffered a heavy beating against the Kilkenny in Leinster and subsequently shipped another big defeat last weekend against Offaly in a challenge match.
Frank Browne is an experienced manager and he will back his ability to have his team championship ready. But the reality is that Dublin have flattered to deceive since their semi-final appearance in 2017 and its hard to be optimistic about their chances.
In Orla Beagan they have a forward that can cause serious damage on a given day but the top teams wont fear their attacking threat. A short summer in store for the Dubs.
As Shakespeare once said, all is not well in the state of Denmark! Wexfords struggles have been well documented this year. But the reality is that they have been on the slide for a number of years.
Their minor teams are not competitive and they were very poor last year in the championship.
Two heavy beatings against Offaly in the league play-off and Leinster championship don’t suggest that any major improvements are instore.
Sarah O’Connor is due to return from injury and she is really top class while Chloe Fox is a really impressive performer. This won’t be enough to save Wexford however and I expect them to be in the wooden spoon position.
A surprise entry at 11 for some people, Westmeath have been operating quietly under the radar and I include them as my favourites for the intermediate championship.
Beaten league semi-finalists in division 2, they only lost out narrowly to a Tipperary team allowed the luxury of playing five senior starters due to a loop hole in the rules. They backed up this impressive performance with a hammering of Meath in the Leinster championship and really improving swiftly under the management of Johnny Greville.
In Johnnys sister Pamela they have a real physical presence and consistent scoring threat and they have able support around her from all areas of the pitch.
They are the best placed of the non second teams in the intermediate championship and I expect them to go up the steps in September.
Meath are really struggling. The only senior team operating in division two of the league, they failed to win that competition and subsequently lost heavily to Westmeath in the Leinster championship.
Heavily reliant on the class Jane Dolan, they don’t have the firepower to threaten any of the other counties in this years senior championship.