Saturday 22 July 2017

John Mullane's hurling power ranking - Galway still ahead of chasing pack in Liam MacCarthy race

Galway players celebrate their Leinster SHC final victory over Wexford – a win which underlined their position as the team to beat. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Galway players celebrate their Leinster SHC final victory over Wexford – a win which underlined their position as the team to beat. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

John Mullane

The race for the All-Ireland senior hurling championship has reached the quarter-final stage and next weekend, two more teams will be eliminated.

That will leave two to join provincial winners Galway and Cork in the last four.

Here, I'm ranking the remaining contenders, from 1-6, in order of how likely they are to win the big September prize.

1. Galway

Their consistency has been questioned in the past but the Tribesmen are unbeaten since losing to Wexford in the league in February.

That tells me there's something different about them this year. The bookies have them as All-Ireland favourites and while they've secured two trophies already this year, their focus is very much on Liam MacCarthy.

Seasonal setbacks: Injuries to Paul Killeen and Cathal Mannion, although the latter is on target for an All-Ireland semi-final recovery.

Reasons to be cheerful: Physical power, strength and balance. They're primed to go all the way and led by a tactically astute manager in Micheál Donoghue.

They have two top-class man-markers in Adrian Tuohy and Daithi Burke, and they'll need them at the business end of the season.

Where they're weak: I still think they're one or two guys short in defence.

2. Tipperary

After showing fine early-season form, they hit a wall against Galway in the league final, and in the Munster championship defeat to Cork. But last Saturday, I got the feeling that their 'mojo' is on the way back. They scored 6-26, and that inside line collected 5-17.

Seasonal setbacks: Those aforementioned losses, Jason Forde's suspension and Cathal Barrett's exclusion from the panel.

Barrett has to come back because I don't think Tipp can win the All-Ireland without him.

There has to be an intervention soon - and it might need a knock on Michael Ryan's door from Barrett.

Reasons to be cheerful: Firepower up front. Tipp, in full flow, are unstoppable at times and will be relying on their front men to kick on and help them win back-to-back titles.

Where they're weak: There's a lack of pace at the back and that was exposed against Cork. Dublin got in for a goal last Saturday too - and could have had two or three more. Donagh Maher has been a big find but they need Barrett back and goalkeeper Darren Gleeson, if he holds his place now, needs to recapture his best form.

3. Cork

The team of the championship so far. The Rebels blew the race wide open with that stunning victory over Tipp.

The introduction of youth has made them a different animal, allied to the experienced lads leading the way.

Seasonal setbacks: They've experienced plenty of disappointments in recent years but, to date, things are moving along nicely and they look mentally strong.

Reasons to be cheerful: Speed up front and they're playing with an exuberance you'd associate with Cork teams in the past.

They look to be a united group, and that's having a knock-on effect on the field.

They've also found a good man-marker in Colm Spillane, and Mark Coleman is a superstar.

In goal, Anthony Nash is the conductor of a sweet-sounding Cork orchestra.

Where they're weak: A bit like Galway, Cork could be exposed defensively when they hit Croke Park. They'll be wary of complacency setting in because when you win a Munster championship, you can become a bit casual in your approach, and start to believe your own hype. That can lead to softness and a drop in training standards.

The five-week break could disrupt them, as it did in 2014, and they'll need to time their run to perfection.

4. Waterford

Their seasonal highlight was the ending of that 58-year wait for a championship victory over Kilkenny, and the performance showed the character and bottle that was questioned in the lead-up to the game.

Seasonal setbacks: The defeat to Cork and the manner in which they lost that game left a sour taste in many fans' mouths. The loss of Tom Devine could still prove critical before the year is out.

Reasons to be cheerful: The sweeper system - and being comfortable in how they go about playing it. The experience of Kevin Moran, Michael 'Brick' Walsh and Noel Connors complements the younger players like Jamie Barron, Tadhg de Búrca and Austin Gleeson, and makes them dangerous opponents for every team left in the competition. They also have a strong bench to call upon.

Where they're weak: They have a tendency to experience lull periods in games, which allows opponents back in.

If they fall behind, they'll need a plan B to kick on and push for a first All-Ireland crown since 1959.

5. Clare

Outside of the league performance against Kilkenny in Ennis, and flashes of good play in the Munster semi-final victory over Limerick, Clare haven't reached the potential that I feel is in them.

Seasonal setbacks: They were disappointing in the Limerick game and really disappointing last Sunday in the Munster final, particularly in how they went about their business when trying to nullify the influence of Anthony Nash's puck-outs.

Reasons to be cheerful: David McInerney is solid at full-back and they'll hope he's fit to face Tipp next weekend.

Conor McGrath has had good moments in attack and Clare have a strong panel. Tony Kelly and Podge Collins have yet to hit the high notes but if they get David Reidy back in the team, and their forwards produce, they could be firing on all cylinders again. Where they're weak: They're lacking pace at the back, and need a real 'go-to' player in attack, particularly under puck-outs.

6. Wexford

They gained promotion to Division 1A of the league, beat Galway in Salthill and then defeated Kilkenny in league and championship.

Seasonal setbacks: Losing Damien Reck, Liam Óg McGovern and David Dunne to injury, and the manner in which they lost the second-half against Galway in Croke Park.

Reasons to be cheerful: The powerhouse that is Lee Chin. Wexford will need another mammoth performance from him against Waterford next Sunday.

They're very fit, they have the 'Davy factor' and they'll be tactically aware from here on.

They possess a very good man-marker in James Breen and Shaun Murphy is now comfortable in the sweeper role.

Where they're weak: I feel that their forwards will come up short in terms of posting the totals needed to win big games.

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