Martin Breheny: Hurling outstrips football for title hopefuls
More genuine contenders in small-ball code
Hurling boasts a higher number of real contenders for All-Ireland and Allianz League glory this year than football, despite being the second-choice sport in at least two-thirds of the counties.
That's according to the early-season markets, which show an unusual degree of hesitancy as to how the hurling season, in particular, will unfold.
Last weekend's opening series of league games merely added to the confusion in the public mind as four of the six favourites in Division 1 were beaten while another drew.
Cork, Dublin, Clare (1A) and Laois (1B) were the beaten favourites while Limerick (1B) drew.
That left Wexford (1B) as the only fancied team to win. Even then, they were pushed to the limit by Antrim, only grabbing a late winning point in Wexford Park.
Early-season volatility is nothing new, but coming at a time of uncertainty across the broader hurling landscape, it adds to the intrigue. It has also extended the band of All-Ireland hopefuls further than in football.
Seven counties are priced between 5/2 and 20/1 to win the hurling championship, whereas only five are lower than 20/1 in football. It's the same for the leagues, where seven are 10/1 or lower in hurling with only five in the same range in football.
Last weekend's hurling results have spooked the markets, ranging from Dublin's 12-point win over Tipperary to Cork's poor effort to live up to their 1/2 odds to beat Kilkenny.
Limerick were also 1/2 to beat new-look Waterford, but were held to a draw, while Wexford's 1/6 odds looked misplaced when Antrim led by a point after 63 minutes.
Despite the unsustainable claims that Kilkenny are heading into unknown territory because of the departure of five experienced squad members, it was still a surprise to see them dominate Cork a whole lot easier than their two-point winning margin suggests.
"A lot of our players all over the field were beaten too many times to the ball," said Jimmy Barry-Murphy, who must have been exasperated by his side's anaemic performance.
It was even worse for Tipperary manager Eamon O'Shea who saw last year's All-Ireland and league runners-up outgunned by Dublin across all the lines in Parnell Park.
"We were second to the ball - the opposition were hungrier," he said.
Over in Pearse Stadium, Galway were adding to Munster's misery by staging a late smash-and-grab raid on Clare.
Rarely has a series of first-round results influenced public opinion to such a degree. Kilkenny went into the Cork game as a 4/1 shots to top 1A at the end of the five rounds and came out as 1/1 favourites.
Tipperary started as 5/2 second favourites but have drifted out to 15/2 to head 1A. Clare shot out from 4/1 to 11/1. Galway have tightened from 13/2 to 4/1 while Dublin have come in from 10/1 to 5/1.
Kilkeny are 15/8 to win the title outright (the top four in 1A and 1B qualify for the quarter-finals), followed by Tipperary and Limerick at 6/1. Limerick's room for error in the 1B promotion race was greatly reduced by dropping a point at home to Waterford.
"It's the very same as last year - we've been here before," said Limerick manager TJ Ryan. Limerick drew with Cork in the opening round last season and later missed out on promotion after dropping another point against Offaly.
Antrim's close call in Wexford Park suggests that the gap between the so-called top three (Limerick, Wexford, Waterford) and the other trio (Antrim, Laois, Offaly) may be a narrower than was generally thought.
But then, that's the exciting possibility right across Division 1. And while the high-pressure five-game format, especially in 1A, leaves managers with little chance to experiment, it adds to the entertainment value for the paying public.
That was underlined by the financial take from last year's NHL, which came in at €1.6 million, a 76pc increase on 2013. Last year was the first time that the quarter-finals were played in a four v four format across the two groups.
The line between success (quarter-final slot) and failure (relegation) is so narrow in 1A that the markets are finding it very difficult to make a call on various placings. Other than deciding that Kilkenny, who are priced at 20/1 for the drop, won't be in relegation trouble, there's no real pattern elsewhere, with the other five all ranging between 3/1 and 4/1 to avoid the trap door.
Seven counties (Kilkenny, Tipperary, Clare, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Dublin) are priced at 20/1 or less to win the All-Ireland hurling title, while only Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, Cork and Donegal are in the same category in football.
Even then, Dublin footballers, at 6/5, are seen as more likely to win the title than Kilkenny hurlers who are at 5/2, despite taking seven of the last nine titles. It's highly unusual that hurling is regarded as having more contenders than football for the big prizes.
However, even allowing for Kilkenny's remarkable consistency, several hurling teams are regarded as being capable of beating each other on a given day.
Last weekend's opening league games merely served to illustrate how unpredictable the season may be.