Hurling's guessing game begins

Timmy Sheehan casts an eye over the eight clubs hoping to lift the Neilus Flynn Cup at the end of the County SHC

Kerry's season ambitions, both in the League (Division 2A) and the Championship (Joe McDonagh Cup), weren't fully realised, but that McDonagh Cup win over Offaly in the final game in the Austin Stack Park afforded everybody in the hurling community a tremendous boost at quite an opportune time.

Defeat and relegation would have put a severe dent on the tremendous work undertaken by Fintan O'Connor and his management team since 2017.

Being in the second tier and remaining there is an achievement for Kerry, given that such as Antrim, Westmeath, Laois and Carlow are counties with a strong hurling tradition, and ones that have made considerable progress in recent years. The fact that Offaly have slipped down a grade confirms that Kerry are currently ranked alongside teams of genuine quality if, realistically, somewhat adrift of the top tier.

All of those players who featured for Kerry this year will have come back to their clubs with a spring in their step, confident of their capabilities, given the benefits which playing at inter-county will bring. The gap of three weeks since the Offaly game gives these players the necessary time to recharge the batteries, and affords the team management the opportunity to get their championship fifteen fully operational. So these past few weeks will have been pretty full on for all of the teams involved in terms of endeavouring to get everybody up to championship pace.

Defeat in the first game won't eleminate any team, but the draw made means that there is going to be a few of the top seeds in the hat for round two. So, while some might view the first round games as somewhat meaningless given that everybody will still have a second bite of the cherry, it's always better to be in control of one's own destiny, operating from the front row on the grid.

League form will not really provide a clear indication of any teams prospects given that there isn't any relegation in that competition, while the absence of the inter-county contingent lessens considerably the strength of most of the teams. Last year's championship might provide some indication, but any prediction in terms of who might ultimately end up as outright winners is mere conjecture at this stage. The fact that four clubs have shared the titles over the last ten years indicates that, maybe, the champions will emerge from the top three or four ranked teams in the roll of honour. Clubs who are endeavouring to bridge a significant gap in terms of their last win in the competition might find it difficult to instill the type of belief and confidence so necessary to get over the line. Having said that, Limerick defied all of those odds to capture last year's All Ireland crown.

For the defending champions Lixnaw, they will attempting to put title wins back to back for the first time in their history, and they have been ever present at the business end of the season since 2005, contesting eight finals and winning four of those. Last year's success must have been particularly sweet, given that it was achieved very much against the odds. Having been beaten by Causeway in Round 2 (2-15 to 0-12) they reversed that result in the semi-final (1-17 to 0-15) and went on to edge out Kilmoyley in a pretty pulsating and dramatic final.

Shane Conway, obviously, will be central to their prospects, and given his performances with UCC in the Fitzgibbon Cup he could, maybe, have an even bigger impact on proceedings this time round. They will be strongly fancied to progress from a round one meeting with Ballyheigue, and with a potent mix of youth and experience they will again be a short odds bet.

Kilmoyley, having bridged a 30-year gap in 2001, have won eight titles since then, including a four-in-a-row. They also lost three finals, all of them to Lixnaw, and last year's loss - and the manner of it - will surely be a motivating factor in terms of their ambitions to land their 25th title. Two of their wins in last year's competition were by a single point, against Crotta and Ballyduff, while they lost to Lixnaw twice, by the bare minimum in round one, and by two points in the final. So while they have remained extremely competitive they haven't always been entirely convincing since their last title win in 2016. Daniel Collins remains their standout performer, and despite carrying an injury he scored 2-26 for them in last year's championship. Now back to full fitness he will key to their prospects this season.

Championship specialists Ballyduff, having won more titles than anybody else, will fancy their chances against all opposition, and that belief will always make them strong championship contenders. They scored six goals in their opening two games last year, but failed to raise a green flag in the semi-final and lost out to Kilmoyley by the bare minimum, 0-20 to 0-19. With the inspirational Mikey Boyle in such a rich vein of form of late, and the potential always of goals from the likes of Jack Goulding and the Boyle brothers, Padraig and Aidan, they are always going to be right there in the mix.

Once again Causeway are being talked up big time by a lot of people in terms of their prospects in much the same way as last season when they promised so much initially with those wins over St Brendans and Lixnaw, but dissapointed in their semi-final loss to Lixnaw. More than half of their starting fifteen have featured for Kerry so certainly they have the personnel capable of regaining the title after a lapse of 21 years. However, having fallen short before with the weight of expectations on their shoulders, the jury is still out in terms of their particular prospects.

Ballyheigue pushed Crotta for long periods in their opening game last season losing out by six points in the end. They subsequently lost out to Kilmoyley, 3-18 to 1-11, and while progress is being mantained by them, a place in the knockout stages looks to be beyond their capabilities at the moment, and it's difficult to see them winning any of their two games in the qualifying phase.

Abbeydorney lost out to Ballyduff (4-19 to 3-7) and St Brendans (0-17 to 0-11) in their two outings in last year's championship. Michael Slattery was their top scorer with seven points (two frees), and really they need a more prolific spread of scorers if they are to make an impact in this year's competition. They won last year's minor championship so maybe they will get a boost from the inclusion of some of those players. Even with Michael O'Leary inspiring their challenge it's difficult to see them progressing to the last four.

They are paired with St Brendans in round one and the Ardfert side, whose last title win was in 2013, and who lost out at the quarter-final stage to the eventual winners Lixnaw last year, 0-21 to 2-12, are always strong contenders. Darren Delaney, Kevin Hannafin, Rory Horgan, Darren Dineen, David Griffin, Cian Hussey, and John Egan will provide a solid spine for them. Teenager Nathan O'Driscoll is a player of rich potential but the absence of county players Eric Leen and Fionan Mackessy, due to they being in the United States for the summer, looks like it will impact greatly on their prospects.

Finally, Crotta O'Neills have been building steadily with wins at Minor and Under-21 level in recent years, and they just lost out to Kilmoyley by 1-15 to 2-11 in last year's quarter-final. Finalists in 2011, players such as Shane Nolan, Jordan Conway, Adam O'Sullivan, Sean Weir, Padraig Quille, Darragh O'Donoghue and Tomas O'Connor provide a pretty formidable look to their line-up, but it seems that Barry O'Mahony won't be able to participate due to his involvement with the county's Under-20 footballers. It's certainly a big blow to their chances of recapturing a title they last won over 50 years ago.

Next weekend's games will probably provide wins for Ballyduff, Causeway, Lixnaw and St Brendans. Depending on the draw for round two, Kilmoyley and Crotta, if they are drawn apart, look likely to progress to the quarter-final stage. In terms of what might transpire thereafter is largely a guessing game at this particular juncture. As always, it's a championship full of promise and anticipation.