John Mullane: Dark clouds hang over Kilkenny as Cody faces huge rebuilding job
This is the first National Hurling League start during the Brian Cody era where a dark cloud hangs over the Kilkenny manager and his team.
Last year, and with no great pleasure, I did predict the fall of the Black and Amber Empire and now the question on many lips is - will the Empire strike back?
Another question has been asked - is Cody even the right man to oversee another glory period for the Cats?
For me, and without a shadow of a doubt, he is the man to steer Kilkenny through this period of transition.
People who think he isn't need their heads examined and I've the height of admiration for the man as he begins another rebuilding process.
The easiest thing for Cody would have been to walk off into the sunset with his record and reputation intact.
Some other managers would have done so by now and left somebody else to pick up the pieces - but not Cody.
He loves hurling, he's passionate about the game and if the appetite is still there for the challenge, he'll relish and embrace it like he has before.
But something's telling me that in this league campaign it could get worse before it gets better for Kilkenny.
In other years, he would have had the personnel to start that rebuilding job but this time around, the players at his disposal are not of the same quality.
Michael Fennelly has retired, Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly are unavailable for now because of Army duty, while Richie Hogan and TJ Reid are nursing injuries.
But Cody knows, deep down, that come the summer, he'll still have the nucleus of a good team.
The task now is to unearth three or four new players. Cody will be keen to pick up one or two defenders, and another forward to lead the line alongside the ageing Hogan and Reid.
Finding those players and blending them into the mix might come at the expense of some losses in the league but if that happens, Cody will learn key lessons about the temperament of his players.
You can tell a lot about players during adversity.
Winning a trophy of any kind this year would represent a fine achievement for Kilkenny and while Cody has a fine track record of rebuilding teams, this is a monumental challenge.
I think they'll have a sticky league and it wouldn't surprise me to see them in the bottom two come the end of the group stages.
Galway begin the campaign as champions and you'd be naïve to think they can't replicate their 2017 achievements, when they won the league from Division 1B.
Micheál Donoghue can continue to fine-tune his squad in a less-pressurised environment and with two home games to come in the Leinster championship, there's no better way to build towards that than winning the league again.
Other teams looking for a good league campaign are Clare, who were below-par last year, and Dublin, under new manager Pat Gilroy.
Dublin are a bit like Limerick in 1B, with their hands tied behind their back to an extent due to club commitments for Cuala and Na Piarsaigh.
Cork are an interesting project under new manager John Meyler but the Rebels haven't won the league since 1998.
They'll be happy to win two or three games and consolidate Division 1A status while Tipperary's approach to the league will make for interesting viewing. Michael Ryan will be without the services of Seamus Callanan but Tipp will target a few wins while also running the rule over some players from the All-Ireland minor-winning crop of 2016.
Tipp will also be mindful of how they were blowing teams away early last year, and they may instead ease their way into the championship.
Two years ago, a league quarter-final defeat to Clare didn't hinder their summer prospects but the heavy league final defeat to Galway in 2017 did hurt them.
Waterford, for their part, were content on holding on to Division 1A status last year and with that secured, Derek McGrath went into experimental mode.
That raised eyebrows at the time and Galway came from 10 points down to beat them in the quarter-finals.
That result opened up Galway's season and I think we'll see Waterford using 10 established players from game to game, with five panel members making up his starting 15 on any given week.
They'll go all out in the opener against Wexford and gain those valuable points to stave off the threat of relegation first and foremost, before moving on from there.
Davy Fitzgerald's Wexford gained promotion last year and hit the ground running -early wins against Galway and Limerick virtually securing Division 1A status for 2018.
The talk from Wexford is that pre-season this time has followed a similar path and Davy will have earmarked this Waterford game from a long way out. It should be a humdinger.
Their Walsh Cup victory, the county's first in 16 years, has set them up for a positive league campaign but if I was to stick my neck on the chopping block and predict a winner, it's Galway for me.
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