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NHL preview: Are Kilkenny still in a league of their own?

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DIVISION 1A

Kilkenny

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The constant, the unrelenting, the indomitable. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be… if hurling is your religion, then Kilkenny is the ultimate altar. There’s nothing to suggest that The Cats will be anything other than a force in 2013 and, going by their record since 2002, the league will be important; they have been in eight of 11 finals since then, winning six. Not just that, but five times in those years they’ve also gone on to win All-Ireland titles: 2002, 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2012. Brian Cody stood back as what was effectively an under-21 side participated in the Walsh Cup and not making the final will be of no real concern. The league, as always, will be.

 

Galway

Galway are the team that have proved you can go from naught to sixty in one season, and even quicker. Because up until the relegation play-off replay against Dublin, the Tribe looked rather ordinary. Anthony Cunningham’s side don’t necessarily need to win Division 1A and perhaps developing his panel is the main aim before championship. Last year for Cunningham was reminiscent of what Jim McGuinness did with Donegal in year one because he changed so much, and the effects were so immediate. There was more to come from Donegal, as we saw in 2012, and you feel Galway may be developing at that pace too. There’s more in them, if they can produce 70-minute performances at a greater frequency.

 

Tipperary

Tipperary, the eternal tease. They remain part of hurling’s Big Three despite winning just five titles since 1965. Are they now the has-been that once was and, as much as it sometimes feels as if they will rise again, destined to struggle with a heavy past? There was once a famous line from Tipp man Johnny Leahy after the 1916 All-Ireland final: “Kilkenny for the hurlers and Tipperary for the men.” Well the Premier County will always have stylish hurlers, but it’s time for their men to stand up again. There’s a saying too in rugby which says you have to earn the right to go wide with the ball, that you have to man up before you go spraying the ball to your twinkle-toed men. Liam Sheedy’s side earned that right to win an All-Ireland and now Eamon O’Shea, part of the 2010 Liam MacCarthy-winning ticket, has to re-energise a team that looked jaded by the time Declan Ryan was finished with it. There have been some recent blows in the form of an eight-point loss in the Waterford Crystal final to Clare and Thurles Sars meekly losing the club semi-final to Kilcormac-Killoughey but the year is only beginning if they can front up to it. The Premier County must locate their liathróidís before they can play with them. The players have the manager they want, so there are no more excuses for 18-point embarrassments.

 

Cork

Jimmy Barry-Murphy is in rebuilding mode and, even if you think the likes of Donal Óg Cusack and John Gardiner should at least have been kept on as squad members, ask yourself if either must start ahead of what’s there. We feel there is as good in situ so in terms of building for the future, we can understand JBM’s house-clearing. The losses of Eoin Cadogan, Darren Sweetnam and Damien Cahalane — though the latter two were mostly reserves last year — cannot be underestimated, and their absence should prolong the re-emergence of Cork as a threat to the All-Ireland. Need to good league to boost confidence because Munster also looks beyond them right now.

 

Clare

The team to watch in 2013, and arguably set to become the number two seed in Munster. They’ll have to earn that the hard way as Waterford and then the Rebels are in their road. Davy Fitzgerald is assembling a squad pockmarked with men of a similar style: small, fast and incredibly skilful, as Tony Kelly, Aaron Cunningham and other breakthrough stars could be described. We expect them to be competitive in Division 1A, and perhaps even better if the exciting inside-forward Conor McGrath adds greater accuracy to excellent initial play.

 

Waterford

Last year, Waterford were as good as relegated until John Mullane returned for the final two league games. This season there is no security blanket now that the De La Salle warrior has sadly retired, key midfielder Stephen Molumphy will not feature in 2013, and Ken McGrath has ended his involvement with Michael Ryan’s Déise ticket. Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh, Kevin Moran and Shane Walsh are excellent, established hurlers but this may be a year of consolidation for Waterford. A relegation battle beckons, as does falling down the ranks in Munster.

 

DIVISION 1B

Wexford

Liam Dunne has the same issue as Ollie Baker does with Offaly: trying to recondition his county towards optimism after years under the austere provincial rule of Kilkenny. Wexford have the makings of a decent, if somewhat inexperienced, side but they need something to build on. A Walsh Cup final loss to Dublin was no disaster but it may chip away at their fragile confidence as they face them same side in Division 1B — along with Limerick, Offaly and Antrim — and the Leinster semi-final. Oulart’s continued shortcomings in the Leinster club championship won’t have helped but there is enough in this team to perform better than in recent years.

 

Limerick

Limerick are planning for the championship, make no mistake. They’re doing most of their training on astro turf to get ready for the quick sod and manager John Allen has said that June 9, not the league, is all that matters to him. They still have enough to push for promotion and give Tipp another rattle thereafter.

 

Dublin

It may have seemed insignificant at the time but Dublin’s Walsh Cup loss to Laois in 2012 set a low standard for what was to come all year. The Dubs managed just a single competitive victory throughout league or championship and that subsequently came against a Laois side that, because of local strife, does not actually include all of their county’s best. As such, it was a disastrous season in terms of results for Anthony Daly, particularly as they conspired to throw away a six-point and one-man advantage in Clare. Were the differences from the excellent 2011 so huge though? A Dub could argue that it was simply a case of games that they won by a point in 2011 were lost by the same margin in 2012, with some errant free-taking also proving costly. Daly, too, arguably put too much weight on the returning ‘Cruciate Trio’ of Conal Keaney, Stephen Hiney and Tomás Brady, the latter whom has defected to Jim Gavin’s footballers, rather than trusting those who had played in their absence. Dublin have won the Walsh Cup already this year and have enough to, at least, prove they are as good as what is in the chasing pack.

 

Offaly

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Offaly are underachieving. This is a second year in succession where an Offaly team has won a Leinster club title and gone on to make an All-Ireland club final, with Kilcormac-Killoughey doing this year what Coolderry managed in 2012. Now there is also a caveat to that: neither had to beat a Kilkenny team on the way. That is not to suggest that they do not have the hurlers but more to put the spotlight on a county with an inferiority complex. Too long have they remained under the foot of the Cats and, while we’re not saying they are up to Kilkenny’s standards, years of beatings by Brian Cody’s crew may have conditioned them to failure. But they have shown Galway and Cork, in recent championship season, that they have qualities — now it’s time they started winning a few games.

 

Antrim

If only Antrim could get all of the clans pulling in the one direction. Will struggle to get promoted to Division 1A but have a decent draw in Leinster that may see them make a semi-final (via Westmeath who they owe one to, then Carlow or London)… if they pull together.

 

Carlow

Promotion to Division 1B after a 2A final victory over Westmeath last year was promising but tepid losses to an understrength Laois and an improving Wexford will have hurt confidence. John Meyler has taken over and has a job on to keep this side in 1B.

 

DIVISION 2B

London

Will look to improve upon their Division 2B league form in 2012 this year and build towards a Leinster quarter-final clash with Carlow on May 19. The county side can take encouragement from Fullen Gaels and St Gabriel’s performing well in recent All-Ireland JHC and IHC finals.

 

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Shane Stapleton is the Irish Post's GAA hurling columnist. Follow Shane on Twitter @shanesaint

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