Wednesday 20 September 2017

Hard to look past Kilkenny despite half-back concerns

Cats lead my hurling top 10, though Clare will not relinquish their title easily

Kilkenny sharpshooter Richie Hogan
Kilkenny sharpshooter Richie Hogan
Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash
Clare Defender Brendan Bugler

John Mullane

Strengths: On a given day, any of Kilkenny's forwards can step up as potential match winners. The Cats also boast massive championship experience. They lost the All-Ireland final of 2010 and responded to win two-in-a-row. Their full-back line, which includes Paul Murphy and JJ Delaney, is solid and Brian Kennedy seems to have found a position for himself in the left corner.

1. Kilkenny

Weaknesses: I worry about the half-back line. Brian Cody settled on Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan and Delaney in recent times but there has been chopping and changing there. And when the half-backs are run at, they seem to be in all sorts of trouble. Going through the front door is also crucial to their chances of success.

Key man: Richie Hogan.

2. Clare

Strengths: Clare won the All-Ireland last year with brilliant movement in their forward line. They can change systems, from sweeper to conventional 15 on 15, with great effect. If Brendan Bugler can have another big year, along with Patrick Donnellan, they won't be too far away again.

Weaknesses: The great Clare team of the 1990s was not able to achieve what this team is trying to achieve – back-to-back titles. They came in under the radar last year but now opposition teams will zone in on how they play. Clare don't win too much primary possession in their half-forward line and if their goalkeeper is forced to go long, that's an issue.

Key man: Brendan Bugler.

3. Tipperary

Strengths: Tipp have found a solid spine with Pádraic Maher at full-back, Brendan Maher centre-back, Kieran Bergin in midfield, and 'Bonner' Maher and Seamus Callanan up front. Throughout the league they have racked up massive scores and they have a bench to call on now. 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer, Niall O'Meara and Denis Maher have impressed up front and they still have Lar Corbett to return.

Weaknesses: Mental strength and an inability to close out games against big teams. The loss of 'keeper Brendan Cummins is another factor. Darren Gleeson should develop into a good replacement but he showed a bit of inexperience at a crucial time in the league final. That's how valuable your 'keeper is at times like that.

Key man: Seamus Callanan.

4. Dublin

Strengths: Dublin have a top-class manager in Anthony Daly; crucially, he's tactically astute. When they come up against the big guns, Daly's influence could be the difference between winning and losing. Liam Rushe is key at centre-back and if he has another big year, I'd expect the Dubs to push on again. Danny Sutcliffe is another massive presence in attack.

Weaknesses: I just wonder if Dublin have the strength in depth to challenge for the All-Ireland. They're probably one key forward away from being truly good enough to compete. I also wonder how will they react to having a good year. In 2011, they won the league and contested an All-Ireland semi-final but they capitulated in 2012. It's very important that they don't allow that to happen again.

Key man: Liam Rushe.

5. Cork

Strengths: From 8-15, Cork are as good as anything in the country. They have forwards capable of clocking up big scores and that Anthony Nash weapon will be called upon if needed. Goalkeepers are so vital in the modern game and Nash has it all, with his ability to start play allied to the capacity to score goals from penalties and 20m frees.

Weaknesses: Defence. Cork scored 3-16 in both All-Ireland finals against Clare last year but it still wasn't enough. The loss of Brian Murphy is huge. He was their best defender in 2013. Tactically, they were very poor against Clare and they'll need to improve in this area.

Key man: Anthony Nash.

6. Galway

Strengths: Joe Canning. But the big question is where to play Joe. I'd have him more involved in the game, out around midfield, similar to his role with Portumna. Galway have also unearthed a number of young players such as Padraig Brehony, Cathal Mannion and Ronan Burke.

Weaknesses: It will be interesting to see how Galway react after exiting the 2013 championship in such tame fashion. I worry about their over-reliance on Canning. Manager Anthony Cunningham needs to be more tactically aware. There's no point playing Joe close to goal if there's a sweeper in front of him, so it will be interesting to see what he does.

Key man: Joe Canning.

7. WATERFORD

Strengths: Kevin Moran and Michael 'Brick' Walsh. Here, you have two men that would walk into any other team in the country. They're match winners and against Kilkenny last year, they almost dragged Waterford over the line themselves. Pauric Mahony is another big plus, a solid free-taker who enjoyed a very good league campaign.

Weaknesses: Unfortunately, Waterford are crippled with injuries and while other counties could afford to have some key players missing, we can't. Waterford conceded a total of 17 goals in their National League campaign and that's far too many. We have no goal threat. We managed just two goals in the entire league.

Key man: Kevin Moran

8. Limerick

Strengths: Limerick are coming off the back of a solid 2013 championship and they now know what it's like to win a trophy. Their half-back line is key to success; they were solid there last year. And Seamus Hickey and Declan Hannon are key men to come back from injury. The financial backing of JP McManus also works in their favour.

Weaknesses: Limerick have been hit by managerial upheaval once again. And potentially, they are one or two key forwards away from pushing on and reaching an All-Ireland final. Thurles hasn't been a happy hunting ground for them either and after beating Tipp last year, lightning is unlikely to strike twice.

Key player: Declan Hannon

9. Wexford

Strengths: There's no doubt that Wexford have a very good manager in Liam Dunne and they're developing nicely as a team. Lee Chin is an important player for them and his decision to concentrate exclusively on hurling this year is a big boost to them. Jack Guiney is a talismanic figure in attack and as Wexford showed against both Clare and Dublin in last year's championship, on their day they are a match for anyone.

Weaknesses: Wexford haven't contested a Leinster final since 2008 and that's something that will play on their minds. Being stuck down in Division 1B won't help them either. Discipline, too, can be suspect at times and it cost them big time in the Leinster SHC replay against Dublin last year.

Key man: Lee Chin.

10. Offaly

Strengths: As they showed against Kilkenny last year, Offaly do have the potential to rise up for one-off games. They have a very good man in charge of them in Brian Whelahan, and Shane Dooley is one of the country's finest forwards. They have also found a very good young forward in Stephen Quirke to take some of the scoring load off Dooley's shoulders.

Weaknesses: There have been concerns raised about their fitness and conditioning and you can probably see why. Against Waterford last year, they almost died in the last 10 or 20 minutes, when the game was there to be won or lost. Defensively, they have shipped big scores against weaker opposition than they will face in the championship.

Key man: Shane Dooley.

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