Five things to look forward to ahead of the 2014 National Hurling League
Just 20 weeks since Clare defeated Cork in the All-Ireland Final replay, the 2014 season gets underway properly this weekend with the start of the National Hurling League.
Last year was widely accepted as one of the best in recent memory and the league campaign may give us a number of clues as to how the 2014 season will unfold.
Of course early season form shouldn't be taken as gospel – Kilkenny won the league, Cork were relegated to 1B, while Clare narrowly avoided relegation – it will give players opportunities to put their hands up for selection for the summer months and in some cases, the Autumn climax.
Here are five things to look out for over the coming weeks.
Will the All-Ireland champions be a ‘mile off the pace’?
Either Davy Fitzgerald is already attempting to take the pressure of his young guns, or the exploits of winning an All-Ireland have taken their toll for the early stages of the season, but time will soon tell.
Last week a team containing eight of the starters in last September's All-Ireland final replay victory over Cork suffered a 14-point defeat against Tipperary in the Waterford Crystal Cup final at the Gaelic Grounds and Fitzgerald said his team are likely to struggle early season.
“We're a mile off the pace and we'll struggle to win games in the league,” he said.
“Kilkenny are training since November – like dogs," Fitzgerald added. "I know what's coming.”
What’s coming is those Kilkenny ‘dogs’ he mentioned to Cusack Park this Sunday and an early indication of what shape the Banner men are in.
Cork and Limerick to battle for promotion
Division 1A was a closely fought-affair last year, with the Rebels dropping down after an extra-time defeat to Clare and Jimmy-Barry Murphy will hope to blood players while also getting his side back into the top-flight for more competitive action.
Their biggest rivals for top spot – only the winners will be promoted – will be the Treaty men who have been plying their trade in the second tier for the past three seasons.
Despite the handicap of weaker opposition, they went onto claim provincial glory before exiting the championship after a disappointing All-Ireland semi-final display, which was the end of John Allen's reign.
Donal O’Grady and TJ Ryan will hopeful of facing Kilkenny, Tipperary and Galway next season as opposed to the likes of Antrim and Laois as top-level preparation for the championship and the opening game against their main promotion rivals in Páirc Uí Rinn on Saturday night will most likely decide their fate.
Kilkenny and Tipperary no longer top dogs?
Last year’s League finalists have dominated the hurling landscape in recent years, but are now playing catch-up after what was a disappointing 2013.
Kilkenny boss Brian Cody has said he does not consider the Cats to be in the top four and will look to rebuild confidence before the heat of the championship.
Cody places great stock in the competition and following six of those seven wins Liam MacCarthy was lifted by the Cats captain beneath the Hogan Stand the following September.
Eamon O’Shea was bitterly disappointed with his first year in charge, two defeats from two championship outings and has said that a lot of mistakes were made by both management and players.
Victory in the Waterford Crystal Cup was a fillip and the trip to Nowlan Park in round two will be eagerly anticipated.
Few would be overly surprised to see both reach another final.
End of Anthony Nash’s close-range frees?
Anthony Nash has proven himself to be the outstanding inter-county goalkeeper since taking over from Donal Og Cusack, but his exploits at the other end of the pitch added excitement, not to mention debate, over his style of free-taking.
The Playing Rules Committee has brought forward a motion to ensure all close-range frees and penalties are struck before the 20m line and will be debated at next month’s Congress.
It could spell the end of hitting the ball from within the 20 metre line, a decision former Cork hurler Diarmuid O’Sullivan has said would be ‘farcical’ as it would encourage more cynical fouling.
The League may just represent the last opportunities to see his style in its current guise.
While Division 1B struggles to generate publicity – the presence of Cork and Limerick should change that somewhat – never mind below that, a couple of teams will be worth following to see if they can build towards a more competitive outfit.
One such team that will be worth keeping tabs on are the Carlow hurlers.
The success of Mount Leinster Rangers this season has put the small ball game back on the map and nearly pulled off a shock championship victory over Wexford last summer.
Under the tutelage of John Meyler, they will hope to piggyback on the club success and return to 1B for 2015.