Martin Breheny: The deadly dozen
Smaller groups, the restoration of semi-finals and the introduction of play-offs to decide on relegation are among the changes as the Allianz Hurling League launches this weekend under yet another new format. Martin Breheny assesses how the top 12 are shaping up ahead of the big throw-in.
DIVISION 1A: Manager: Jimmy Barry-Murphy (First season, second term; previously managed Cork 1996-2000).
2011 League: Sixth Div 1 (P7, W2, D1, L4).
2012 -- Home (3): Waterford, Galway. Kilkenny. Away (2): Dublin, Tipperary
Odds (title): 8/1. Last NHL title: 1998.
JBM's return as manager has lifted the county's spirits, but for all his experience and charisma, the job doesn't come with a magic wand.
Cork have been pretty average for several seasons and while their supporters would always believe the squad can grow virtually overnight, the underage scene hasn't been especially productive for quite some time.
Having three of their first four League games at home is a plus and gives them an excellent chance of a top-three finish and a place in the semi-finals.
Manager: Anthony Daly (Fourth season).
2011: Winners Div 1 (P8, W5, D2, L1).
2012 -- Home (2): Cork, Tipperary. Away (3): Galway, Kilkenny, Waterford.
Odds: 9/1. Last NHL title: 2011.
They begin the League campaign as champions -- something no Dublin team had done for 72 years -- and are heading into territory that's as uncharted as it is exciting. Such has been Dublin's advance in the Daly era, that they now find every aspect of their game scrutinised like never before. That brings new pressures on the player and management.
They are still hampered by injuries, but, on the positive side, are coming off a season where they showed they had finally arrived at the top table with a view to a long term stay.
Manager: Anthony Cunningham (First season).
2011: Fifth Div 1 (P7, W4, L3).
2012 -- Home (2): Dublin, Waterford. Away (3): Tipperary, Cork, Kilkenny.
Odds: 9/1. Last NHL title: 2010.
With three of the five games away, including visits to Nowlan Park and Thurles, it's crucial for Galway to begin the campaign on a high against Dublin tomorrow.
This will be a season of transition, but ambitions have to be set high, even after six successive seasons without reaching the All-Ireland semi-final.
Whatever, the consequences, Cunningham has to persist with his new-look squad, because reverting to players who failed so often in the past would merely guarantee more of the same championship mediocrity which has applied since 2005, when they reached the All-Ireland final.
Manager: Brian Cody (13th season).
2011: Beaten Div 1 finalists (P8, W5, D1, L2).
2012 -- Home (3): Tipperary, Dublin, Galway. Away (2): Waterford, Cork.
Odds: 6/4. Last NHL title: 2009.
Having Henry Shefflin back and fully fit would be a more important landmark for Kilkenny in early May than winning the League title, but, knowing the way they operate, their ambition indicator is pointing towards both.
Kilkenny players simply don't do cruise control -- note the energy levels they brought to Leinster's win over Munster last Sunday -- so expect another driven spring campaign.
Much has been made about the number of departures from their panel, but, with the exception of Eddie Brennan (and even he spent much of last summer on the bench), none were front-line operators.
There's a view among Kilkenny's rivals that the empire could unravel much quicker than might appear possible, but, frankly, that looks like a serious outbreak of wishful thinking.
As usual, some fringe talent will get their opportunity in the League, but, ultimately, Kilkenny's season could be decided by whether Shefflin is back at full throttle for the championship.
Manager: Declan Ryan (Second season).
2011: Fourth Div 1 (P7, W3, D2, L2).
2012 -- Home (3): Galway, Waterford, Cork. Away (2): Kilkenny, Dublin.
Odds: 7/4. Last NHL title: 2008.
This time last year, Tipperary were in hurling heaven, starting out on a new adventure as All-Ireland champions and full of confidence that they were on their way to establishing a lasting dynasty. Now, there's a huge uncertainty in the county after being smacked back down by Kilkenny last September, while the Lar Corbett affair isn't exactly helpful either.
If his self-imposed exile lasts, it could well be a fatal blow to Tipperary. He scored 13-20 from open play in the last two championships, by far the highest return of any forward, so it will seriously reduce Tipperary's firepower if he sticks by his departure statement. Corbett apart, Tipperary need a good League.
Three wins from seven games last year was put down to a post All-Ireland hangover, but there can be so such excuses this season.
Manager: Michael Ryan (First season).
2011: Third Div 1 (P7 W4, D1, L2).
2012 -- Home (2): Kilkenny, Dublin. Away (3): Cork, Tipperary, Galway.
Odds: 20/1. Last NHL title: 2007.
Vying with Dublin for third place in last year's final rankings, Waterford are back down to sixth according to the League and Championship betting.
They should find that amusing as they are almost always start the year undervalued by comparison with their achievements over the previous season.
It's as if they are expected to implode at any time, but it hasn't happened. And with Davy Fitzgerald having churned the panel quite successfully while still keeping Waterford in the top four, he handed over a solid set-up to his successor Ryan. What's more, it will be again extremely competitive, although unlikely to reach the Kilkenny-Tipperary level.
Manager: Jerry Wallace (First season).
2011: Fourth Div 2 (P7, W4, L3).
2012 -- Home (3): Wexford, Laois, Limerick. Away (2): Clare, Offaly.
Odds -- Div 1B: 25/1. Overall: 300/1.
Last NHL title: Never won it.
Loughgiel's advance to the All-Ireland final is a boost for the Antrim club game, but has a downside for the county team, who will be without several top players for the opening three League games against Wexford, Clare and Offaly, the latter two away. That's a huge drawback and is likely to leave Antrim facing a relegation battle.
It would be a huge disappointment for Antrim if they were to drop down a division, especially if it was caused by their county champions doing so well, but it's a real possibility.
Manager: Davy Fitzgerald (First season).
2011: Beaten Div 2 finalists (P8, W5, L3).
2012 -- Home (2): Antrim, Wexford. Away (3): Limerick, Laois, Offaly.
Odds -- Div 1B: 9/4. Overall: 33/1.
Last NHL title: 1978.
Tonight's clash with Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds, which seems certain to attract a big crowd, is huge for both counties -- especially for Clare as it would represent progress if they could beat neighbours who prevailed twice against them in last year's League.
Fitzgerald's arrival as manager has raised expectation levels, even if he has been consistently downplaying them, claiming that Clare are ranked around 10th on the overall ratings.
It's difficult to argue with that based on last year's result despite their recent U-21 All-Ireland success, but there's scope for major development in the squad which Fitzgerald will locate and harness.
Manager: Teddy McCarthy (First season).
2011: Third Div 2 (P7, W4, L3).
2012 -- Home (2): Limerick, Clare. Away (3): Offaly, Antrim, Wexford.
Odds -- Div 1B: 40/1. Overall: 500/1.
Last NHL title: Never won it.
Losing at home to Antrim in last year's Leinster Championship was disappointing enough, but much worse followed for Laois when they were humiliated by Cork (10-20 to 1-13) in the All-Ireland qualifiers.
It was the ultimate in destabilisation and precipitated another change of management.
McCarthy will try to inject confidence into the panel, but with three away games, it is unlikely they will be good enough to get into the promotion chase.
Indeed, it appears far more likely they will be battling relegation.
Manager: John Allen
2011: Winners Div 2 (P8, W8).
2012 -- Home (2): Clare, Offaly. Away (3): Laois, Wexford, Antrim.
Odds -- Div 1B: 15/8. Overall: 22/1.
Last NHL title: 1997
Limerick won all eight games (seven in the group stages plus the final) in Division 2 last year, but 1B is more competitive as it includes Offaly and Wexford, both of whom were in the top flight last year.
Having apparently won promotion to Division 1, Limerick raged against the change in the format, which was understandable.
However, others in 1B regard it as a sign that Limerick believe themselves to be too good for the lower grouping, which will bring its own brand of motivation.
Just as he did with Cork in late 2004, Allen succeeds Donal O'Grady as Limerick manager at a time when expectations are high after an encouraging 2011 in which the seniors made distinct progress, the U-21s won the Munster title and Na Piarsaigh won the provincial club title for the first time.
There's lots of confidence in Limerick, but winning promotion for a second successive year remains a difficult target.
Manager: Ollie Baker (First season).
2011: 8th (bottom) Div 1 (P7, W1, L6).
2012 -- Home (3): Laois, Antrim, Clare. Away (2): Wexford, Limerick.
Odds -- Div 1B: 10/3. Overall: 80/1.
Last NHL title: 1991.
Offaly beat Wexford in a Division 1 clash last season, which turned out to be their only win in League or Championship.
Like Antrim, they will be hit by the All-Ireland club final as the Coolderry players won't be available for county duty until after St Patrick's Day.
It's a serious handicap in a group where Limerick, Clare and Wexford, who are priced ahead of Offaly in the promotion betting, have no such distractions.
On the plus side, Coolderry's advance to the final reflects well on the standard of Offaly club hurling, which Baker will be attempting to harness.
Manager: Liam Dunne
2011 NHL: Seventh Div 1 (P7, W1, D1, L5).
2012 -- Home (3): Offaly, Limerick, Laois; Away (2): Antrim, Clare.
Odds -- Div 1B: 11/4. Overall: 80/1.
Last NHL title: 1973.
If Limerick were upset when the changed format rendered their promotion success last year meaningless, Wexford were even more disappointed to learn that they were to drop out of the top flight after thinking they had saved themselves when finishing ahead of Offaly.
However, with 1A hosting only six teams, Wexford were squeezed into the next tier, from where they may find it difficult to escape in the short term.
There's a patient rebuilding job required in Wexford, something all parties will have to accept.
On the plus side, the League draw has been good to Wexford, handing them a weakened Antrim in the first round, followed by home advantage for three of the remaining four games.
It's an advantage they will be hoping to make the most of.
How the League will
work this season
WITH Division 1 extended to 12 teams (six in both 1A and 1B in order of merit), the number of group games will be cut to five (from seven) per county.
Each team will play five games, with the top three in Division 1A and the winners of Division 1B qualifying for the semi-finals.
The bottom two teams in Division 1A will play off to decide who is relegated, while the winners of Division 1B will be promoted.