Who can dislodge Kilkenny? Martin Breheny ranks every hurling county
The long road to Croke Park on the first Sunday in September begins this weekend when the Munster Senior Hurling League and the Walsh Cup in Leinster get underway. How are the contenders lining up behind Kilkenny?And what of teams in the other competitions? Martin Breheny ranks all the counties.
For the 11th time since the turn of the Millennium, Kilkenny begin the new year as the undisputed No 1 on a hurling table where the pursuers are racked by frustration in their pursuit of Brian Cody's relentless forces.
Here's how the counties rank as they re-group for a new season:
Played 10, Won 7, Lost 3
(2015 League and Championship)
When Dublin, Galway and Tipperary, the latter by 12 points, beat Kilkenny in three of their first four Allianz League games, leaving the Cats facing a relegation play-off with Clare, the rest of the hurling world dared to dream that the black-and-amber empire was cracking.
It proved no more than idle presumption. Kilkenny avoided the drop and delivered a summer/autumn business-as-usual routine to land their 11th All-Ireland title of the new Millennium. They have won 62, drawn five and lost only eight Championship games in that remarkable run.
The current Kilkenny squad is not as good as the 2006-09 four-in-a-row group but have still managed to shape themselves in a manner that their rivals still quite can't figure out.
It's what makes them such an irresistible force that shows no sign of losing power, even if Galway had them rattled in the All-Ireland final. However, as Tipp discovered a year earlier, there's a big difference between testing Kilkenny to the limit and beating them.
P10, W7, L3
They won the Munster title for the first time since 2012, but still ended the season with a hollow feeling after losing to Galway in that dramatic All-Ireland semi-final shoot-out. It was a massive disappointment after coming so close to beating Kilkenny in the final a year earlier.
Now under new management and with several long-servers having retired, there's a touch of uncertainty in the Premier air.
Nonetheless, Tipp still have greater playing resources than most of Kilkenny's pursuers so they look certain to remain among the main contenders.
P12, W9, D1, L2
In 2015, Tipp (Munster final) and Kilkenny (All-Ireland semi-final) were the only teams to beat Derek McGrath's squad, which makes them clear winners of the 'most improved' award.
Waterford's rate of progress was phenomenal, all carefully calibrated under McGrath's new vision for how they should play.
It yielded promotion to Division 1A, followed by winning the League title outright, and while they couldn't quite match Tipp and Kilkenny in the Championship, there's a justifiable feeling in Waterford that the season was part of an exciting journey.
In 2016, the Deise will be up against opposition who will have their approach analysed in the finest detail. It's the next big test for McGrath and his players.
Why fourth place, despite reaching the All-Ireland final? Galway's win over Tipp in the semi-final was so marginal as to be negligible in an overall context, while Tipp's form over the season was superior.
So too with Waterford who, like Tipp, beat Galway in the League. Galway should be looking forward to the new campaign with real optimism but instead the county is dripping with apprehension after the managerial ructions.
Effectively, the players blamed Anthony Cunningham for the All-Ireland final defeat, a bizarre conclusion not backed up by any evidence. Their mutiny leaves them facing a different kind of pressure to anything they faced before as the only way they can justify their actions is to win the All-Ireland title.
New manager Micheal Donoghue will start with a clear slate, unlike the players, who are carrying heavy baggage.
P12, W7, L5
When they reached the League final with an exhilarating fightback against Dublin in the semi-final, hopes were really high for the season.
Instead, Cork lost the final to Waterford, who repeated the success in the Munster Championship a few weeks later, defeats which resulted in a flood of doubt swelling the Lee.
Wins over Wexford and Clare revived Cork but they bombed against Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final. It was a dismal performance which drew the usual recriminations, but Cork are a lot better than they looked that day and new manager Kieran Kingston has more to work off than might appear to be the case.
P11, W5, D1, L5
The season ahead will be crucial for Dublin in terms of shaping where they go over the next few years. They appear to be stranded on a plateau, and while the ambition to press on remains high, there are doubts about the squad's strength in depth.
Ger Cunningham was always going to have a tough job after the success of the Anthony Daly era, but with one season behind him, he knows exactly what's required. It might not please everyone but he has to trust his instinct; this is a really important year for him and Dublin.
P10, W5, D1, L4
Limerick hit none of their targets in 2015. They failed (again) to win promotion from 1B, failed to get past the League quarter-final, didn't reach the Munster final and were bundled out of the qualifiers by Dublin.
It makes 2016 hugely important for TJ Ryan and his players. There's a feeling that the squad haven't fired with maximum power since winning the 2013 Munster final, except perhaps in the win over Clare last May, which served as an illustration of what they can do on a really good day.
However, the sloppy days have rung in far too often, with the Munster semi-final clash with Tipp serving as a typical example.
The first priority for Limerick is to get out of 1B, which will again be a difficult task in a group that includes Clare, Wexford, Offaly, Laois and Kerry.
P9, W2, L7
Two wins from nine games (Dublin in the League, Offaly in the qualifiers) was a miserable return for a group that looked set for a period of empire-building after winning the 2013 All-Ireland title.
In fairness, Clare didn't enjoy any luck in 2015, losing by a point to Galway and Kilkenny (twice) in the League and to Limerick by the same margin in the Munster Championship.
Even the toss went against them in the League when they had to travel to Nowlan Park for the relegation play-off. If it had been in Ennis, it's very possible that Kilkenny, not Clare, would have been relegated.
For whatever reason, Clare just haven't got their game working over the last two seasons, but the talent is still there so it can only be a matter of time before it clicks into a high-powered outfit again.
Donal Og Cusack's arrival as Davy Fitzgerald's sidekick adds an intriguing dimension to what will be a crucial season for the Banner, who face Offaly and Wexford in the first two rounds of the 1B campaign. They need to have full points from those games to maintain a promotion drive, which, in turn, is crucial to the rest of the season.
P9, W4, L5
They didn't kick on as anticipated after a promising 2014, which raises the stakes for 2016. A home game in the final round with promotion as the prize for a win is as good as any 1B team can hope for but Wexford failed to take the chance last March, losing to Waterford, who used the victory as a springboard to a season of substantial progress.
Meanwhile, Wexford's season took a downward turn, with their Leinster semi-final wipeout by Kilkenny followed by a qualifier defeat by Cork in Wexford Park.
Again, it was a game which Wexford would have felt they were capable of winning but they turned in a disappointing performance, losing by eight points to a Cork team that were later well beaten by Galway.
Wexford play Clare and Limerick in their first two 1B games in February, fixtures that could have a major bearing on the direction their entire season takes.
P12, W5, L7
Beating Offaly in the Leinster Championship for the first time in 43 years was a 2015 highlight but it was a difficult season for Laois, who had to survive a relegation play-off with Antrim to survive in 1B.
Subsequent thrashings by Galway (20 points) and Dublin (10 points) showed how much work is required if Seamus Plunkett's men are to join the big boys. It's a challenge that will be made all the more difficult in 2016 by the departure of several players due to retirement and unavailability arising from work commitments.
The win over Offaly last summer means that Laois will avoid the Leinster round-robin in 2016, instead going directly into the quarter-finals against the top two from the Offaly/Carlow/Westmeath/Kerry play-offs.
P8, W3, L5
Losing to Laois in the Leinster Championship really shook them but then their stock plummeted a long time ago, so the latest setback came as no surprise. New manager Eamonn Kelly faces a big rebuilding job so patience will be needed.
There's good work being done at underage level in Offaly but that will take time to yield dividends at senior level. Meanwhile, it's a question of improvising as best they can.
Offaly will be in the Leinster round robin section next May, battling with Carlow, Westmeath and Kerry for two quarter-final places.
Bizarrely, it's better to finish second rather than first in the group, since the winners will play Laois, while the runners-up take on Galway.
P11, W9, D1, L1
Welcome to the top flight! After enjoying a superb 2015 - when they clinched promotion to 1B before winning the Christy Ring Cup, which carried promotion to the Liam MacCarthy Cup tier - Kerry could have entered the Munster Championship, but opted to take a place in the far less competitive Leinster round-robin.
Finishing in the top two, thus reaching the quarter-finals, is the target for new manager Ciaran Carey, who has the task of providing the leadership required to take Kerry to the next level. It's an exciting challenge for him and a squad which have been improving steadily over recent years.
P11, W6, L5
They topped 1B but missed the promotion boat, losing out to Kerry in the final before being well beaten by Wexford and Limerick in the Championship. They have a good chance of winning 2A, where Antrim and Carlow are likely to be the other big challengers.
P8, W4, L4
They retained Liam MacCarthy Cup status but there wasn't much else for Carlow to celebrate last season. They would have expected to be in the top two in 1B but lost out to Kerry and Westmeath, both of whom beat them by a point. As with Westmeath, they're finding it very difficult to reach the next level.
P11, W2, L9
Antrim's steep decline should be of concern inside and outside the county as hurling cannot afford to have Ulster's greenest field turn brown.
Relegated from 1B and, even more worryingly, from the Liam MacCarthy Cup tier, the restoration work needs to get underway immediately. It's a long time since Antrim's hurling stock was this low and the longer it stays that way, the more difficult it will be to recover.
Dropping into Division 2 and the Christy Ring Cup tier should serve as a wake-up call to all hurling people in Antrim
P9, W5, D1, L3
They reached the Christy Ring Cup final, giving them a chance of winning a place in the Liam MacCarthy Cup tier, but came up well short against Kerry, having drawn with the Kingdom in the League.
P9, W2, L7
Finished second last in 2A and came up short in the Christy Ring Cup too.
P11, W8, D1, L2
The 2B winners reached the Christy Ring Cup semi-finals, losing to eventual winners Kerry.
P9, W4, L5
Beaten 2B finalists, they made little impression in the Christy Ring Cup.
P12, W7, L5
The days when they enjoyed jousting with hurling's elite are long gone and showing no signs being re-visited.
P8, W2, L6
Relegated to 2B but avoided as similar fate in the Christy Ring Cup, beating Mayo in a play-off.
P10, W8, L2
Finished third behind Tyrone and Monaghan in 3A but improved significantly in the Nicky Rackard Cup, winning all four games to take the title before clinching promotion to the Christy Ring Cup with a play-off win over Mayo.
P9, W6, L3
Reached the Nicky Rackard Cup final but lost to Roscommon, having earlier finished mid-table in 2B.
P10, W2, L8
They lost their place in the Christy Ring Cup, being replaced by Roscommon, who beat them in a play-off. Overall, it was a poor season for Mayo, who finished second last in 2B.
P12, W3, D1, L8
Struggled to survive in 2B, they did better in the Nicky Rackard Cup, reaching the semi-final, where they lost to Armagh.
P10, W7, D1, L2
Won 3A, but unable to build on it in the Nicky Rackard Cup.
P9, W4, D2, L3
They missed out on a promotion chance from 3A, losing the final to Tyrone.
P9, W3, L6
What a contrast between League and Championship. They lost all five 3A games before recovering impressively to win the Lory Meagher Cup.
P8, W2, D2, L4
No escape from 3A and no impetus in the Nicky Rackard.
P7, W4, L3
Beaten by Warwickshire in 3B final and made no impression in the Nicky Rackard, eventually surviving a relegation play-off.
P9, W1, D1, L7
Relegated to the Lory Meagher Cup after losing Nicky Rackard play-offs, having earlier held on to 3A status.
P8, W5, L3
They will be progressive mood in 3A in 2016, having won 3B last season.
P7, W3, L4
They will be hoping for better luck than last season when they lost the 3B final to Warwickshire and the Lory Meagher Cup final to Fermanagh.
P7, W3, L4
They beat Sligo in the League but lost heavily to their neighbours in the Lory Meagher Cup - hence the bottom placing behind their neighbours.