Hurling's old order face new challenge
Legacy of Banner's 2013 MacCarthy Cup triumph has shaken established powers and sets stage for wide-open competition in 2014 as 'Big 3' battle to reclaim place at pinnacle
IF further proof were needed of how the hurling landscape altered in 2013, it comes in the odds for the 2014 All-Ireland championships.
In an unusual development not seen for quite a long time, the markets are stating emphatically that more counties have a genuine chance of winning Liam MacCarthy than Sam Maguire.
Seven counties (Kilkenny, Tipperary, Clare, Cork, Dublin, Galway and Limerick) are quoted 10/1 or lower to win the hurling title while only four (Dublin, Mayo, Kerry and Cork) are in the same price range in football.
In the favourites' stall, Dublin footballers are much shorter (6/4) than Kilkenny hurlers (11/4) as market sentiment swings forcibly behind Jim Gavin's squad to record a capital double for the first time since 1977.
Defending All-Ireland champions usually start the new season as favourites but such is the uncertainty in hurling that Clare are behind both Kilkenny and Tipperary, neither of whom reached the 2013 semi-finals.
Meanwhile, Galway, who came so close to winning the 2012 championship, have drifted out to sixth place in the betting.
The 2013 hurling season was the gift that kept giving every day right up to the splendid occasion on All-Ireland final replay day while also bequeathing a very valuable legacy.
It came in the form of a fascination with what the new season will bring. So much so that even the pre-season tournaments will be analysed more closely than usual as team managements attempt to develop a pattern as quickly as possible.
The failure of Kilkenny and Tipperary, who flagged themselves as the biggest beasts around in last season's Allianz League, only to lose momentum from there on, will lead to claims that the spring campaign is an unreliable guide to summer and autumn events.
All the more so since Clare and Cork, who later went on to contest the All-Ireland final, were engaged in a 1A relegation shoot-out in April. Despite that, it would be unwise to ignore the league as a source of nourishment for later in the season.
For a start, a five-game group is more of a round-robin than a genuine league, leaving so little between counties that there's a lottery element to whether a squad finds itself top of the table or battling against relegation.
Also, Kilkenny have been the most consistent side in the league for most of the new millennium, a period in which they also established a series of championship records. That proves how league and championship are a neat fit, despite what some would have you believe.
Dublin had a miserable league campaign in 2012, eventually dropping out of 1A, a setback which appeared to leave them listless for the rest of the year.
It was all so different in 2013 where they flourished in 1B, establishing a winning habit which steered them back to 1A and into a positive mindset for the championship. By early July, they were Leinster champions for the first time since 1961.
The lesson from 2013 and, to a lesser extent 2012, is that the established order no longer applies. Galway's demolition of Kilkenny in the 2012 Leinster final and their close call in the All-Ireland final rematch (draw) hinted at a changing pattern which continued in 2013.
Kilkenny resumed normal service in the 2012 final replay but, for the first time since 2005, they had lost to a county other than Tipperary in the championship.
It's impossible to quantify how valuable that development was to Dublin when they lined up against Kilkenny in the 2013 Leinster semi-final but, at the very least, it provided some cause for optimism.
Certainly, Dublin weren't short of self-esteem when they took on Kilkenny last June. A year earlier, the Cats had blown them away but it was all so different next time.
Confidence can spread from county to county, which is another positive by-product from 2013.
Dublin, Limerick and Clare all experienced a new sense of enterprise last season and while the latter took a major hit when losing to Cork in the Munster semi-final, their capacity to adapt resulted in a quick rehabilitation, which ultimately ended in triumph.
Cork had to rebound too after losing heavily to Limerick in the Munster final, a challenge they embraced most successfully. In the end, they were unlucky that it didn't produce an All-Ireland win.
Still, it was Clare's success story which defined 2013. Not only did it show that just about anything is possible if a squad goes about its business in the right way, it also gave counties outside the 'Big 3' (Kilkenny, Cork, Tipperary) a sense that the old order is facing serious challenges.
Prior to 2013, the 'Big 3' had won the previous 14 All-Ireland titles between them, a dominance which never previously applied in championship history. It was important to break that monopoly and while there's a reasonable chance that one of the 'Big 3' will return to the summit next year, the rest certainly won't have an inferiority complex when they meet them.
The energy and fearlessness which Clare brought to the All-Ireland re-launch did more for hurling than a whole series of national development programmes.
It inspired players everywhere, boosting self-confidence and raising hopes for the future. For instance, who knows what impact Clare's success had on Carlow champions Mount Leinster Rangers, who later made their own history by the winning the Leinster senior club title for the first time.
One of the more interesting aspects of 2014 will be whether it shows that last season was a one-off rebel who refused to be tamed or the start of a new era where the title spread is much wider than over previous years.
The bookmakers, whose judgments are always based on cold, financial considerations, are finding it difficult to decide. They still rank Kilkenny and Tipperary as the top choices, which is understandable given the pair's history, but with seven counties 10/1 or lower, there's a nervousness around the markets which hasn't applied for a long time.
It makes it all the more appealing as a re-energised hurling community wonder what delights 2014 has in store. If it comes close to matching 2013, it will be some season.