League sheds light on summer prospects
Clare and Kilkenny leave rest in shade but rivals waiting to emerge from shadows for championship burst, writes Colm Keys
After 30 matches in five rounds over a sustained five-week period, the top 12 hurling counties have scarcely time to draw breath ahead of next weekend's Allianz League quarter-finals and relegation play-offs.
Clare and Kilkenny have shown themselves to be a cut above the rest, while the likes of Tipperary and Offaly have had their struggles.
Here, we assess the state of play for hurling's main protagonists at this critical juncture of the season.
Credits: The enthusiasm and maturity they brought to their five games was incredible. At times against Tipperary and Waterford, they were quite devastating when they had the space to thrive up front.
Conor McGrath, for one, looks to have progressed his game significantly since last year. Jack Browne and Paul Flanagan have emerged as decent back-up in defence.
Debits: What is the quality of their squad when the numbers hit the 20s really like?
Last Sunday Clare used nine of their All-Ireland-winning team – the lowest number in the four games. Naturally there is faith in the established players, but five still had to come off the bench to get a result against Galway.
Credits: So far Brian Cody and his new management team have met their expectations of finding players to strengthen their championship squad.
The trawl has seen 31 players used in the five league matches, with five players really stepping up to the plate: Joe Holden, Brian Kennedy, Padraig Walsh, Mark Kelly and Jonjo Farrell.
Walter Walsh has been recast as a wing-forward of real presence and has shown a turn of pace in that position that few thought he had. Henry Shefflin has missed a few frees, but his touch otherwise has been sharp, while Colin Fennelly has really emerged as a leader of the attack.
Debits: Not many but there's quite a bit of concern over their warrior wing-back Tommy Walsh, who has been taken off at half-time in two matches and has only hurled for a little more than an hour and a quarter.
Credits: They qualified comfortably for a quarter-final without having to draw upon their captain Joe Canning. In Ronan and Daithi Burke they have unearthed two potential championship starters in defence, while Iarla Tannian has held his own and even prospered in the troublesome centre-back position.
Debits: Like Dublin, they possess a wicked streak of inconsistency and an inability to put two really good performances back to back.
Credits: They showed resilience the last day to overcome a six-point deficit in the first half and win back some lost respect from the Tipprary supporters. That took some nerve in their predicament. Seamus Callanan has bounced back to form in this campaign too.
Debits: Constant positional tinkering, while well intentioned, undermined some of their performances. For instance, they started all five games with five different centre-backs – Conor O'Mahony, Conor O'Brien, Padraic Maher, Tomas Hamill and Brendan Maher.
Some experiments, notably Kieran Bergin as an attacker, just didn't seem to work out.
Credits: They won their home matches against Clare and Kilkenny, who are undoubtedly the two strongest league teams, while Alan McCrabbe has made a very successful return after a year out. Colm Cronin will also provide further options after a solid league.
Debits: Lost again in Galway, lost again in Waterford – recent habits they have found hard to break. Inconsistency and failure to create and score enough goals still a familiar trait too.
Credits: If Derek McGrath wants to draw some solace from what was a harrowing campaign he will find it buried in Waterford's scoring statistics. Believe it or not, Waterford conceded fewer scores than the other five teams above them in Division 1A.
Clare (93 from 3-90), Kilkenny (90 from 8-82), Galway (91 from 4-87), Tipperary (98 from 12-86) and Dublin (95 from 5-90) were all higher than Waterford's 89 from 13-76 conceded. Two halves of hurling out of 12 destroyed them.
Debits: Goals, goals, goals. Or rather a lack of them. Pauric Mahony got their only maximum against Dublin and chances created have been few and far between.
In the future, maybe Patrick Curran and Stephen Bennett can provide that kind of devastating touch, but right now the predatory days of John Mullane and Dan Shanahan are a distant memory.
Credits: Did what they had to do in Division 1B without ever hitting their highest notes. Patrick Horgan cemented his reputation as one of the game's best forwards by hitting 2-54, while Alan Cadogan, younger brother of Eoin, looks a prospect.
Debits: Lost decent leads against the two next best teams in the division, Limerick and Wexford, but recovered again against Wexford. Injuries and time did not allow the dual status of Aidan Walsh and Eoin Cadogan to flourish properly so the jury is still out there.
Credits: They showed impressive resilience in their first and last games to come from behind to draw and win against Cork and Laois respectively. And the knowledge that Shane Dowling is their most reliable free taker.
Debits: Losing a four-point lead to Offaly in the closing stages has cost them promotion to the top flight, the fourth successive year they have failed to move up for a variety of different reasons.
Credits: Liam Dunne specified that a quarter-final match-up against one of the stronger teams was their one and only target and that wish has been granted.
They have had to deal with a raft of injuries, especially in defence, but they were quite competitive against both Cork and Limerick. Diarmuid O'Keeffe, Paul Morris and Shane Tompkins have shown up particularly well in this campaign.
Debits: Their attack is still not nearly clinical enough to start really closing the gap on those teams lying ahead of them.
Credits: Have reached a quarter-final in line with their own expectations and might well have beaten both Limerick and Wexford as well as Offaly and Antrim. Didn't suffer a heavy defeat despite the loss of key players including Cahir Healy and Zane Keenan.
Debits: The loss of Healy in particular leaves them vulnerable for cover in defence.
Credits: Picked up three of the last four available points for some small salvation, the draw with Limerick in particular will restore lost faith.
Debits: Their failure to qualify for a league quarter-final reflects badly on them but it should be factored in that there were injuries to key players like David Kenny, Shane Dooley and Derek Morkan at various stages, and that cost them dear in the end.
Credits: They certainly troubled teams at home and Cork had to come from behind last week to eventually dig out a result.
Debits: Getting the time wrong and arriving in Tullamore with just four substitutes points to wider problems in Antrim hurling that were evident in the early stages of last year's U-21 campaign. The game was a dead rubber but it will have stung.