Golden Age for hurling

Golden Age for hurling

ON Seo Spoirt on TG4 recently Joe Connolly, the former Galway All-Ireland winning captain, was asked for his views on Galway’s prospects for the season.

Connolly was extremely pessimistic. He took aim at the county board and the powerbrokers within the county for not facilitating the development of young players, which, in Connolly’s opinion, denied them a full opportunity in making that step up to senior level.

Connolly may have been getting some stuff off his chest, but he revealed one interesting statistic to back up his claims of the inconsistency which has dogged the senior side in recent years. Since 2012, Galway had failed to win consecutive league games. Whether Connolly was correct or not, nobody was arguing against him. Still in that time, Galway should have won an All-Ireland title. They reached consecutive league semi-finals. They were in this season’s league quarter-final. When they lost to Waterford, they were hammered again afterwards. Then Waterford went on to win a league title.

In the betting odds for this year’s championship, Galway are eighth favourites, priced at 14/1. The bookies rarely get it wrong, but Galway were priced at longer odds at the outset of 2012 after barely surviving a league relegation final. Who also remembers now that they drew with Kilkenny and seriously rattled Tipp in last year’s championship? They’ve done that plenty of times over the last 27 years and still failed to win an All-Ireland. Injury to Conor Cooney and Daithi Burke further depletes their options, but the point is this: it still wouldn’t be outlandish if Galway were to win this year’s All-Ireland.

Waterford manager Derek McGrath. Photo: INPHO. Waterford manager Derek McGrath. Photo: INPHO.

Waterford’s price has been seriously clipped down in the last month to 10/1, especially when compared with their longer odds at the outset of the season, but their emergence has underlined how this looks set to be the most open championship since 1998. Back then, nine counties had serious ambitions of winning Liam McCarthy. This year, eight teams believe it is within their compass. Compare that to the beginning of the decade when a Kilkenny-Tipperary All-Ireland final was locked into the mind’s eye of most supporters from May.

Even after Galway’s breakthrough in 2012, the Kilkenny-Tipp dominance was still the theme at the outset of the 2013 championship, especially after the sides played out another epic league final that May. Clare, Limerick, and Dublin looked years away from fulfilling the potential reflected in their underage breakthroughs, but then the hurling world spun on its head that summer.

Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald. Photo: INPHO. Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald. Photo: INPHO.

Limerick and Dublin won provincial titles while Clare sprinted from the pack and won a historic and memorable All-Ireland title. That summer came out of the blue because nobody saw it coming. It had so many linear sub-plots, so many brilliant games, including one of the greatest All-Ireland finals ever, that it set a standard which was always going to be difficult to maintain last season.

Clare’s breakthrough success in 2013 gave confidence to every other county with serious ambitions, but Limerick and Wexford were the only counties in that chasing pack (outside of Kilkenny and Tipp) who reached, or exceeded expectations last year. Overall, the standard was well down on 2013. The Leinster final, both All-Ireland quarter-finals, and the Cork-Tipp All-Ireland semi-final were hugely disappointing.

The drawn All-Ireland final though, set a whole new standard again. It produced a quality, a level of speed and accuracy never seen before. Kilkenny and Tipp may still be at the top of the pack, but the big difference between now and 2009 and 2010, when those counties also crossed a new threshold, is that the majority of the chasing pack believes they can reach, match, and possibly exceed a standard all of them would have seen as unattainable five years ago.

Division 1A of the league was a bearpit again this season, with the last two All-Ireland champions contesting the relegation final. The competitiveness of Division 1B, which produced the last two Munster champions, was further underlined by Waterford’s march to a league title.

The Munster championship is a lottery, with every one of the five teams involved having serious ambitions of winning it. In Leinster, Kilkenny still run the terrain like a Panzer Tank, but they still know there are enough minefields around to inflict serious damage.

Brian Cody and Eamon O'Shea following last year's drawn All Ireland final. Photo: INPHO. Brian Cody and Eamon O'Shea following last year's drawn All Ireland final. Photo: INPHO.

The direction of the championship will also be heavily defined by three massive fixtures in the space of 14 days between May 24 and June 7. Clare and Limerick meet in Thurles, Dublin and Galway clash in Croke Park a week later before Cork get another crack at Waterford on June 7. And one of the key words attached to all those games is momentum.

Waterford are the only team with it at the moment -even though Pauric Mahony’s injury does deflate some of the air from their balloon - but one big win is all those other five teams need to generate a head of steam behind them at the right time. The three losers head into shark infested waters and one of them will be gone out of the championship by early July.

The intrigue is added to the mystery by the form shown by most of the teams during the spring. Cork were impressive, but still too inconsistent. Dublin blew the league semi-final against Cork, but it was still a very positive campaign for the Dubs. Clare got relegated, but they could realistically have won four of the five games they lost and they finished the campaign with two hugely positive performances against Kilkenny, both in Nowlan Park. Galway and Limerick had very disappointing leagues, but both teams will still expect to secure a result against Dublin and Clare. Cork will come like a train to avenge the league final defeat to Waterford.

John Mullane said back in February that the losers of the Clare-Limerick game will win the All-Ireland, but the qualifiers don’t offer enough security for a more accessible pathway than the one which exists through the front-door. Tipp’s season turned last summer in their qualifier against Galway, but it’s also easy to forget how close they sailed to the wind that evening when trailing by six points heading into the last quarter.

Apart from Waterford, the most impressive team during the league were Tipperary. Some of the hurling they played against Kilkenny and Clare contained flashes of their best form from last summer. Crucially, they also found some brilliant new players to invigorate the team and give it an ever sharper edge up front.

This team has still to win anything under Eamon O’Shea and the question marks remain. After two early goals in the league semi-final against Waterford, which put them in a brilliant position with how Waterford set-up, Tipp couldn’t close the deal. Their legs may have been heavy after just returning from a foreign training camp, they may have been affected by the news of Noel McGrath’s diagnosis of testicular cancer just days earlier. That match still highlighted the difference which exists between Kilkenny and Tipp. If Kilkenny found themselves in the same position against Waterford, they’d have drilled them and nobody would be talking about Waterford now.

Kilkenny didn’t look as intimidating during the league as they normally do in spring, partly because they lost so many big names to retirement and they were missing the Ballyhale contingent for the majority of the campaign. The young players coming on stream don’t look as good as what Kilkenny normally produce. It’s unknown if they can maintain their relentless drive, but that question has been repeatedly asked now for the last five years and Kilkenny keep answering it.

Kilkenny remain the standard and whoever wins the All-Ireland will still have to go through them. Tipp still look the best placed to do so, but none of the other big teams will fear them in the same way they might fear Kilkenny. And if a team like Clare got the All-Ireland champions in an All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park, with a plan to stretch them at the seams with their pace, how intriguing would that match-up be? Just imagine the tactical curiosity of it alone?

In the meantime, the mystery will continue to unfold in this golden age for the game. So for the moment live it, embrace it. And enjoy it all while it’s happening.