As the hurling season begins, where do the teams stand?

Shane Stapleton looks ahead to this summer's action

BY Shane Stapleton 16:19 Thursday 9 February 2017, 16:19 9 Feb 2017

The Liam McCarthy cup. Image: ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

We’ll hand it over to the devil’s advocate for a moment: ahem, testing, testing. Here it goes: in some ways, Clare would’ve been better off to never win the All-Ireland because it has created an unrealistic expectation that they can get back there. *drops mic*

Perhaps that’s what Davy Fitz was getting at in his post-match press conference in 2013 when telling the world to not expect the sun, moon and stars right away.

Thrilling and all as it was, ask yourself this: how often does a team come out of nowhere to win an All-Ireland and then back it up?

Clare are approaching the 20-year anniversary of when they last beat Kilkenny in the championship, and it’s 2003 since last they lowered Tipp’s colours during the summer. It will take a brilliant team to beat either, and certainly to put down both.

We’re still waiting for the day that this Clare team backs up 2013, that it beats the teams that are continually arm-wrestling after everyone has been sent home. The Banner have been knocked out by Wexford (2014), Cork (2015) and Galway (2016) since, so they have’t even got far enough to try it against the big two.

Clare's Shane O'Donnell celebrates scoring a goalin 2013. Image: ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Star man Tony Kelly hasn’t played championship in Croke Park since he lifted the Liam Mac. They’ve a lot to do under new guidance, and the hurling championship needs them to step up.

Kilkenny have been demoted to number two, but one bad final doesn’t end the conversation. Don’t forget, they still have the number one manager of all time. They still have Hurlers of the Year from two of the past three seasons, with the expectation that the 2011 winner Michael Fennelly will return too.

They’ve collected 17 All Stars awards in the past three years, and just one of those rests on the mantle of a retired player: JJ Delaney. So still among the ranks and if fit — you’d imagine — locked into the starting XV for the Leinster opener are Eoin Murphy, Paul Murphy, Joey Holden, Padraig Walsh, Cillian Buckley, Michael Fennelly, Richie Hogan, Walter Walsh, TJ Reid, Colin Fennelly, and Ger Aylward. What crisis? Indeed.

But before we send Mark Bergin off to ready his All-Ireland speech, let’s cast our minds back to the fires breaking out in September. Brian Cody was dumbfounded on the sideline, and decided that the deckchairs were as well-placed as possible while the ship went under. It’s an indictment of his performance that day that he didn’t at least try some switches — and let’s not forget he played a sweeper against Dublin in Leinster 2013, before the purists pipe up — to stem the tide.

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody. Image: ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

First thing’s first, he must leave Reid and Hogan in the forward line. You don’t decommission your attacking weapons just because you can't find someone to carry water at midfield. Secondly, get Aylward right and hope that James Maher, Kevin Kelly and Liam Blanchfield come good. We’ve listed enough star names otherwise to establish that they carry a familiar danger.

Now to the bad news, when you peel it all back and look at the bare bones, Tipp hammered them in the All-Ireland. Nothing to do with the nine-point winning margin overall, but strip it back and look at the more compelling scoreline which came from open play: 2-23 to 1-9. Telling.

Then contrast that with the Tribesmen. Tipp beat the maroon men 2-19 to 2-18 but from play it was just as close: 2-10 to 2-9. Galway should’ve beaten Tipp for the second championship season running in 2016.

The Premier weren’t the better team, they just happened to be ahead when the final whistle went. Both years, Tipp weren’t let play their flowing game and there’s no reason that abrasive style won’t trouble the All-Ireland champions again.

And yet… and yet, Galway are still under Kilkenny’s thumb. They need to beat the Cats and Cody in Leinster this year, and with that the All-Ireland could follow. They have the biggest half-back line in the country, the best full-back in Daithi Burke, David Burke is currently the outstanding midfielder at this level, but they need a few more dependable forwards. Not only that, but Joe Canning has to come back and finally live up to his talent on a more regular basis. His YouTube highlights reels is impressive, but we need to see big 70-minute performances throughout the summer — both graft and guile.

Kikenny's Paul Murphy, Dublin's Liam Rushe, Tipperary's Seamus Callanan, Galway's Joe Canning and Patrick Horgan from Cork. Image: ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Dealing with being numero uno has been an issue for Tipperary before. In fact, it’s been more than a half century since they retained this title. Post-2010, they came out of the blocks slow in the league and it caught up with them in September against Kilkenny when they went 5-0 behind after 15 minutes.

They need to push for a league title, and need new players breaking through to keep competition hot. Just as it is with Dublin footballers now, and as it was with Kilkenny for years. Competition creates hunger.

The Dubs hurlers could be in for a beat-down on Saturday because they are so light on experience up-front, but in Eoghan O’Donnell and Shane Barrett they have brought through some really good young blood.

Both Wexford and Limerick are talking publicly as if promotion doesn’t matter and, in a way, it doesn’t as long as you make a league quarter-final. That way, you’ll still break timber off at least one 1A team in a league quarter-final.

There’s a lot to be said too for beating a couple of mediocre teams in 1B and building confidence, unlike the Dubs this coming season as they face the possibility of some bad trimmings.

When Tipperary had 14 men for almost an hour in the 2016 Munster semi-final, Limerick never had the brains to work the extra man. Supposed redemption came in the form of an embarrassing beating by neighbours Clare, with the only man truly standing up being youngster Diarmaid Byrnes. Really, they have a lot of ground to make up.

Waterford, less so. All the same, they let the Cats off the hook and could manage no more than a pathetic four points from open play in the Munster final loss to Tipp.

John McGrath and Patrick Maher of Tipperary in action during the 2013 Munster Hurling Final. Image: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

The All Star award won the longest time ago by an active hurler was Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh in 2007, a man whose influence remains strong in the half-forward line as a ball-winner. He’ll be 34 in April, so sooner rather than later others have to step up.

They need Colin Dunford to rediscover the form that saw him hit 0-4 in an All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny in 2015. Maurice Shanahan must continue where he left off against the Cats last year, while Patrick Curran and the Bennetts have to stay on an upward curve. Austin Gleeson and Pauric Mahony can’t do all the scoring, but must remain as prominent.

When they moved away from the sweeper last year in the Munster final and the All-Ireland semi-final, Barry Coughlan’s security blanket in front of the square was removed and he was left too exposed. The system needs evolving if they are to take the next step.

The Premier League has a fixation with the 'Big Four'. By accident or design, hurling has followed suit.

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