Martin Breheny: Pack must stand up to the 'Big Two'
Various contenders have taken their cases so far - but they need to do more to break the monopoly of Kilkenny and Tipperary
If Kilkenny are removed from the equation - and their remarkable success range demands that such a proviso has to be attached to almost every assessment in hurling - it's reasonably safe to predict that Tipperary will not win this year's Allianz Hurling League title.
That has nothing to do with their talents, which have been proven as being of the highest quality, or their ambition but rather on patterns over an extended period.
With the exception of Kilkenny, who have done it several times, only one team has won the League title in the season after winning the All-Ireland over the last 40 years.
Galway followed up on their 1988 All-Ireland win with a League title in 1989, after which they entered a championship desert that still entraps them.
Tipperary did not win the League in the seasons after winning the All-Ireland title in 1989, 2001 and 2010 so it will be very interesting to see how they fare this year. Their supporters won't be especially bothered if the League is not secured, since the target is very much on winning the All-Ireland double for the first time since 1964-'65.
Still, it would enhance Tipp's status if they were to show their black-and-amber neighbours, who still remain the biggest threat to the double dreams, that their ambitions are for total domination, rather than being one-hit wonders.
That has always been the Kilkenny way under Brian Cody and even extends to the Walsh Cup, which they won again this year. Galway may have left Nowlan Park last Sunday happy that the pre-season competition set them up nicely for their attempt to win 1B but Kilkenny went home with the cup, thus maintaining their superiority over the Tribesmen.
It may be only a small marker but Kilkenny still wanted it on their side against opposition they have beaten nine times (plus two draws and one defeat) from their last 12 championships meetings.
It's that mentality which has helped make Kilkenny so ferociously competitive for so long, a condition that isn't going to change, definitely not this year anyway as they re-calibrate after last year's All-Ireland final defeat.
In Tipperary's case, winning the League would make a bold statement about their determination to build a substantial empire. Kilkenny have applied that principle to the League for years and Jim Gavin has adopted it successfully with the Dublin footballers too.
They didn't let up after winning the 2013 or 2015 All-Ireland titles, instead powering on to more League glory, an aim that's again in their sights this year.
The argument will be made that, other than for Kilkenny, winning the hurling League has not done much for other counties.
Galway (2010), Dublin (2011), Waterford (2015) and Clare (2016) didn't even win provincial titles in the seasons they took the League title but that actually proves nothing.
Margins are tight, whether in League or Championship, and with Kilkenny's giant thumb pressing down on everybody else, dominating a full season is extremely difficult.
Since Kilkenny and Tipperary have been the top two for a long time (with the exception of 2013), there's a tendency to assume it will continue that way. And it will, unless the other contenders raise their game.
Galway, Waterford and Clare appear best placed to do that, followed by Limerick, Dublin and Cork. Wexford, under Davy Fitzgerald, will be interesting too.
Galway's case remains the same as it has been for a long time. Always capable of delivering a special performance, they lack the gritty consistency required to take them all the way.
They can justifiably contend that they were Tipperary's equals over the past two seasons, winning by a point and losing by a point in successive All-Ireland semi-finals.
However, whereas Tipperary capitalised on their win last year by beating Kilkenny in the final, Galway lost a year earlier. Indeed, there's every reason to believe that the same would have happened if Galway reached last year's final as Kilkenny appear to have them in an unbreakable grip.
Waterford could easily be bidding for a League treble this year, having lost so narrowly to Clare in extra-time in last year's replayed final but, of course, Derek McGrath knows that the supporters are now only really interested in championship success.
It's a very big year for the Déise. Despite the inexplicable implosion against Tipperary in last year's Munster final, the season was saved in terms of maintaining a high level of optimism when they came so close to Kilkenny in the two All-Ireland semi-final clashes.
There's no reason to believe they won't be very close contenders again. The same goes for Clare, while Limerick also have a good chance of making considerable progress.
Clare is a very interesting case, not least how players perform under new management. It greatly increases the responsibility on them, since it was all too easy to quietly point the finger of blame in Davy Fitzgerald's direction for the past few years.
Now, they will be required to spend more time looking in the mirror if they don't reach the levels everyone tells them is their destiny. Perhaps too many of them believed that more than the hard fact that ultimately it's players, not managers, who win and lose games.
Martin Breheny runs the rule over all the Allianz HL Divisions
Cork, Clare, Dublin, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford.
Treble winners in 2012-2013-2014, Kilkenny survived a relegation play-off with Clare in 2015 and were beaten semi-finalists last year. Dublin won the title in 2011 but were relegated in 2012 before returning to 1A a year later. They lost to Limerick in last year’s quarter-final after winning three of five group games. Cork lost finals in 2012 (Kilkenny) and 2015 (Waterford) and spent one season (2014) in 1B. They survived a relegation playoff with Galway last year in what was their only League win. Like Kilkenny, Tipperary have remained in 1A through all five seasons and reached the final in 2013 and 2014, losing both to the Cats. Tipp lost to Clare in last year’s quarter-final. Waterford won the title from 1B in 2015 and reached last year’s final where they lost a replay to Clare, who had come up from 1B.
Gerry O’Connor and Donal Moloney replacing Davy Fitzgerald in Clare is the only change. Kieran Kingston (Cork) and Michael Ryan (Tipperary) begin their second years; Derek McGrath (Waterford) and Ger Cunningham (Dublin) are in their third seasons and Brian Cody begins his 19th season in Kilkenny.
LAST LEAGUE TITLE
Clare 2016; Waterford 2015; Kilkenny 2014; Dublin 2011; Tipperary 2008; Cork 1998.
WHO NEEDS TO WIN IT MOST?
Cork. They are 16/1 to take the title, which suggests no confidence anywhere in their ability to make the necessary progress to transform them into contenders. Still, they have got to believe they can produce a sudden surge. Cork haven’t w on the title since 1998, the county’s longest unsuccessful run in the history of the competition.
CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?
Tipperary be warned! Other than Kilkenny, no county has won the League title in the season after being crowned All-Ireland champions since Galway in 1989.
Two wins from five games is usually enough to earn a quarter-final place (four of the six qualify) while a similar haul pushed others into the relegation zone for the last three years. It usually comes down to scoring difference or head-to-head results whether a team stays in line to win the League or faces a relegation play-off.
Group placings: 1.Tipperary. 2. Kilkenny. 3. Waterford. 4. Clare. 5. Cork. 6. Dublin.
To top group: Kilkenny 7/4; Tipperary 11/4; Waterford 9/2; Clare 8/1; Cork 10/1; Dublin 28/1. To win title: Kilkenny 5/2; Tipperary 11/4; Waterford 9/2; 9/1; Cork 16/1; Dublin 33/1.
Galway, Laois, Kerry, Limerick, Offaly, Wexford,
Galway are out of the top flight for the first time in many years, having lost a 1A relegation play-off with Cork last season. They were quarter-finalists in 2015 and semifinalists in the two previous seasons. Offaly, Limerick and Wexford have been permanent residents in the second tier since Division 1 was split into 1A and 1B in 2012. Laois dropped into 2A at the end of 2012 but were promoted in the following campaign. Kerry were promoted to 1B at the end of 2015 and kept their place last season, beating Laois in a relegation play-off.
Other than Micheál Donoghue in Galway, who is in his second season, all the rest are in new surroundings, although two of them managed different counties last year. Davy Fitzgerald switches from Clare to Wexford while Eamonn Kelly goes from Offaly to Laois. Former Carlow and Antrim boss, Kevin Ryan takes over in Offaly while John Kiely and Fintan O’Connor are in their first seasons in Limerick and Kerry respectively. Kiely steered Limerick to All-Ireland U-21 success in 2015 while O’Connor previously served as a selector with Derek McGrath in Waterford.
LAST LEAGUE TITLE
Galway 2010; Limerick 1997; Offaly 1991; Wexford 1973. Laois and Kerry have no Division 1 titles.
WHO NEEDS PROMOTION THE MOST
Galway and Limerick. Galway finished four points ahead of Cork in 1A last year but lost the relegation play-off. Limerick haven’t been in the top tier since 2010, when they were relegated after playing with a second string team, arising from a players’ strike over management issues.
CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?
Division 1B has provided the League’s outright winners in each of the past two seasons (Waterford 2015 and Clare 2016).
Four points were enough to earn a place in the quarterfinals for the last three seasons.
Placings: 1. Galway; 2. Limerick; 3. Wexford; 4. Offaly; 5. Laois; 6. Kerry.
To top group: Galway 4/5; Limerick 6/4; Wexford 5/1; Offaly 50/1; Kerry 100/1; Laois 125/1.
To win title: Galway 11/2; Limerick 9/1; Wexford 25/1; Offaly 150/1; Kerry 500/1; Laois 500/1.
Antrim, Carlow, Westmeath, Armagh, Kildare, London.
Westmeath won this division last year but missed out on promotion under the ridiculous format which offers the bottom team in 1B (Laois last year) two chances to avoid relegation.
Carlow and Westmeath are evenly matched but could face a real challenge from Antrim, now back under the management of ‘Sambo’ McNaughton and Dominic McKinley. At the very least, there will be a big uplift in Antrim’s spirit and determination. Also, unlike most previous years, they won’t be impeded by the All-Ireland club championship weakening the team as Slaughtneil (Derry) won the Ulster title.
Kildare and London will be very competitive too but Armagh, who have come up from 2B, could find the pace a touch too quick.
Finalists: Westmeath, Antrim.
Derry, Down, Wicklow, Meath, Mayo, Roscommon.
Down lost to Armagh in last year’s 2B final, while Derry have dropped down from 2A. Derry’s promotion prospects are not helped by Slaughtneil’s involvement in the All-Ireland club series. Meath, who won the Christy Ring Cup final last year and are now looking forward to competing in the Leinster championship qualifiers, will be in the promotion mix.
Finalists: Meath, Down.
Donegal, Monaghan, Tyrone, Louth.
Donegal have dropped down from 2B while Monaghan finished second behind Roscommon in 3A.
Finalists: Donegal, Monaghan.
Sligo, Fermanagh, Longford, Leitrim, Warwickshire.
Fermanagh won this division last year but were later relegated from the Nicky Rackard Cup tier. Longford look likely to be their main challengers.
Finalists: Fermanagh, Longford.