Treaty County won’t be flat out but the six new top-flight managers will be keen to gain momentum
Looking at the 2022 Allianz Hurling League through the prism of Waterford, the competition’s eventual champions, and Limerick, the eventual All-Ireland champions, you get a sense of the paradox it can present.
On the evening of their first Munster Championship game – a win over Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh last April – the Limerick manager John Kiely accepted they were nowhere ‘flat to the boards’ during that spring, as they lost their first three matches, drew with Clare, and then beat Offaly to ensure their top-flight status.
Put simply, it was indifferent to them – they had won the 2019 and 2020 competitions, so that box was ticked. Their investment in ‘catch-up’ training during league games for the summer ahead deprived them of energy sometimes on the day of games – and that was, said Kiely, “the price we had to pay really.”
A small price in the context of what happened as the summer unfolded.
Waterford soared in the concluding stages of the league, hitting Wexford for five goals, and then dismantling Cork in the final in a manner that suggested they had to be Limerick’s biggest summer challenge.
But by their third game in the round-robin, they were hanging by a thread – and with just one win from four games they were soon out, as was their manager Liam Cahill.
It’s far too simplistic to suggest a sustained league run had cost Waterford, but the perception is that the benefits weren’t all that great.
Just as they weren’t for Cork who reached the final – they were still unlucky not to get to an All-Ireland semi-final – and Wexford, who won all five regulation games but still couldn’t get past Clare in an All-Ireland quarter-final.
Kiely’s confession that their priorities in February and March lay elsewhere is likely to be replicated in the weeks ahead by other teams.
In analysing the league and predicting a potential outcome then you have to ask, who does it really benefit? And there is not a strong answer.
Still, there are six new managers who will be keen to take any momentum that a few league wins can give them.
Derek Lyng’s predecessor in Kilkenny always sought league wins, any wins really, from his teams while Cahill, now in Tipperary, has always projected a competitive streak from the sideline. After a harrowing 2022, what better therapy for Tipp than to land a title now?
Cork, without a league title since 1998, might have similar designs and motives.
In Waterford, Davy Fitzgerald will have different peaks in mind but will still target the Kilkenny and Tipperary games as benchmarks.
Micheál Donoghue in Dublin won’t be under the same requirement for early results – player development is his priority, just as it is for William Maher in Laois.
Indeed, player development is a priority across the board – and the league is a likely testing ground more than a full-blooded competition.
Without the risk of relegation, the big teams can afford to pick and choose, unlike their football counterparts.
Pat Ryan’s appointment in Cork comes at a time when many of his 2020 and 2021 All-Ireland U-20 winners are stepping up – players like Ethan Twomey, Brian Hayes, Ben Cunningham, Daire O’Leary joining Ciarán Joyce, Shane Barrett and Alan Connolly who have already made the breakthrough. The pace of personnel change will only accelerate now, and these games will help that process.
Once again there is a slight leaning in terms of strength and competitiveness towards Division 1A – and for Limerick, opening games against Cork away and Clare at home before they head for Galway is as tough a start as they could have.
The benefit of Galway’s win over Limerick in the corresponding 2022 game in the Gaelic Grounds was banked for later in the year.
The next few weeks will be full of those head-to-heads and private battles with future dates in mind.
The progress of the new managers, particularly Lyng as Brian Cody’s replacement, will be watched with great interest. He’ll have to do without All-Ireland final starters from last year, Michael Carey and Conor Browne, while Richie Leahy and James Maher have also departed.
But Kilkenny can still summon enough momentum and energy to track far in this competition with Tipperary in their slipstream, the most likely final pairing.
Manager: Brian Lohan (4th season)
Captain: Tony Kelly (right)
Main man: Tony Kelly’s form, an All-Star in each of the three years during the Lohan era, has been sensational. He won’t be overly taxed in this league, but when they need to chase games, he’ll lead it.
One to watch: Feakle’s Adam Hogan got a taste of it when he was brought in for the last quarter against Waterford in the 2022 Munster SHC and more exposure in the full-back line can be expected now, following progressive underage and schools stints.
Critical Question: Tony Kelly does it all for Clare but would they benefit from relieving him of free-taking duties completely?
Fixtures: Feb 5 v Westmeath (h), 2.0; Feb 11 v Limerick (a), 7.0; Feb 26 v Wexford (a), 2.0; March 12 v Galway (h), 1.45; March 19 v Cork (h), 1.45.
Manager: Pat Ryan (1st season)
Captain: Seán O’Donoghue
Main man: He was ‘one to watch’ in 2022, but so rapid has been his elevation that Ciarán Joyce can firmly establish himself as the team’s defensive pivot.
One to watch: Football’s loss is hurling’s gain, with Brian Hayes, who links up with his two-time All-Ireland U-20-winning manager. He scored in both those All-Ireland finals while also an influence for St Finbarr’s in the 2022 Cork championship. He can bring much-needed size and physical power to attack.
Critical Question: Does Patrick Horgan, clearly irked by his exclusion for the All-Ireland quarter-final with Galway, make the starting 15?
Fixtures: Feb 4 v Limerick (h), 7.0; Feb 12 v Galway (a), 2.0; Feb 26 v Westmeath (h), 1.45; March 12 v Wexford (h), 3.45; March 19 v Clare (a), 1.45.
Manager: Henry Shefflin (2nd season)
Captain: TBC (Dáithí Burke in 2022)
Main man: Pádraig Mannion just turns up every day for Galway, a consistency reflected in his 2022 All-Star selection.
One to watch: Tiernan Killeen has already had league game-time, but he can expect more to road test his athleticism.
Critical Question: Can Evan Niland step up and offer consistency from placed balls that Galway crave, post Joe Canning?
Fixtures: Feb 4 v Wexford (a), 5.0; Feb 12 v Cork (h), 2.0; Feb 26 v Limerick, (h), 2.30; March 12 v Clare (a) 1.45; March 19 v Westmeath (a), 1.45.
Manager: John Kiely (7th season)
Captain: Declan Hannon
Main man: Take your pick, but with Cian Lynch back from the injury that bedevilled him last year, expect a big push from the two-time Hurler of the Year.
One to watch: Not much room for manoeuvre for hopefuls with a team set in stone, but Effin’s Fergal O’Connor, last year’s U-20 full-back, can make a strong claim for championship squad inclusion in the weeks ahead.
Critical Question: The fate of Aaron Gillane and his status in the squad will hang over them, but in broader terms, getting the right balance again with championship preparations is imperative.
Fixtures: Feb 4 v Cork (a), 7.0; Feb 11 v Clare (h), 7.0; Feb 26 v Galway (a), 2.30; March 12 v Westmeath (a), 2.0; March 19 v Wexford (h), 1.45.
Manager: Joe Fortune (2nd season)
Captain: Killian Doyle
Main man: With 0-58 in five Leinster Championship games in 2022, 0-10 from play, look no further than their chief marksman Killian Doyle.
One to watch: Mark Cunningham. Fresh from driving Ringtown to intermediate success last year, he can bed down in midfield.
Critical Question: There are opportunities - they drew with Wexford in the 2022 Leinster SHC - but there is also the prospect of some tough afternoons and evenings. Can they retain enough morale for a likely relegation playoff with Laois or Antrim.
Fixtures: Feb 5 v Clare (a), 2.0; Feb 12 v Wexford (h), 2.0; Feb 26 v Cork (a), 1.45; March 12 v Limerick (h), 2.0; March 19 v Galway (h), 1.45.
Manager: Darragh Egan (2nd season)
Main man: Rory O’Connor has yet to return to playing action but was one of the outstanding players in the 2022 league.
One to watch: Richie Lawlor got the goal for the win against Kilkenny in the recent Walsh Cup semi-final and the Faythe Harriers man, who captained Wexford to 2019 Leinster minor final glory, offers new possibilities at midfield or on the inside line.
Critical Question: Won all five regulation games in last year’s league before being hit for five goals by Waterford in a semi-final, will the emphasis be more on running players than chasing wins this time?
Fixtures: Feb 4 v Galway (h), 5.0; Feb 12 v Westmeath (a), 2.0; Feb 26 v Clare (h), 1.45; March 12 v Cork (a), 3.45; March 19 v Limerick (a), 1.45.
Manager: Darren Gleeson (4th season, right)
Captain: Eoghan Campbell
Main man: Keelan Molloy. Neil McManus remains the primary source of scores, but Molloy has the explosive acceleration to open up defences.
One to watch: Paul Boyle, the Loughgiel forward, made scoring contributions in each of Antrim’s Walsh Cup defeats to Dublin and Galway.
Critical Question: They’ll fancy Parnell Park on February 12, but can they beat Laois a month later and enhance their chances of avoiding a relegation play-off?
Fixtures: Feb 4 v Kilkenny (h), 2.0; Feb 12 v Dublin (a), 3.30; Feb 26 v Waterford (a), 1.0; Mar 12 v Laois (h), 1.0; Mar 19 v Tipperary (h), 1.45.
Manager: Mícheál Donoghue (1st season)
Captain: Eoghan O’Donnell
Main man: Donal Burke. A supreme striker of the ball and consistently one of the most prolific players in the country over the past three years.
One to watch: Dara Purcell, the outstanding attacking prospect from the 2020 Dublin Under-20 team that made an All-Ireland final, he draw more attention on himself after scoring 0-5 against Ballyhale Shamrock in the recent Leinster club final.
Critical Question: With 10 players gone from last year’s panel, including a handful of their most prominent leaders, how much depth is there on the Dublin scene and how quickly can it be coached into a functional team?
Fixtures: Feb 5 v Waterford (a), 2.0; Feb 12 v Antrim (h), 3.30; Feb 25 v Tipperary (h), 5.0; Mar 12 v Kilkenny (a), 1.45; Mar 19 v Laois (h), 1.45
Manager: Derek Lyng (1st season)
Captain: Eoin Cody
Main man: TJ Reid. For his leadership, his scoring return, his steely determination, the Ballyhale great remains Kilkenny’s most important player.
One to watch: Billy Drennan. One of Ireland’s outstanding handball prospects, Drennan was inspirational in Kilkenny’s All-Ireland Under-20 win under Lyng last year.
Critical Question: None of the Kilkenny players have played senior inter-county hurling under anybody other than Brian Cody. Can Lyng produce the same ferocious competitiveness from the group while bringing fresh ideas?
Fixtures: Feb 4 v Antrim (a), 2.0; Feb 11 v Waterford (h), 5.0; Feb 26 v Laois (a), 2.0; Mar 12 v Dublin (h), 1.0; Mar 19 v Waterford (a), 1.45.
Manager: Willie Maher (1st season)
Captain: Willie Dunphy.
Main man: Enda Rowland. Consistently, one of the best goalkeepers in the country for the past six to seven years and a regular contributor to the scoreboard from long-range frees.
One to watch: James Duggan, with 0-6 (4f) v Wexford and 1-2 from play against Offaly in the Walsh Cup, has already nailed down a spot in the Laois attack.
Critical Question: The first three rounds hold little enough promise. Can they scalp Antrim or Dublin in either of the last two?
Fixtures: Feb 4 v Tipperary (a), 5.0; Feb 11 v Waterford (h), 5.0; Feb 26 v Kilkenny (h), 2.0; Mar 12 v Antrim (a), 1.0; Mar 19 v Dublin (a), 1.45.
Manager: Liam Cahill (1st season)
Captain: Noel McGrath
Main man: Hard to look past the captain. Symbolic of Tipp’s success in the last decade, McGrath remains one of the most stylish and creative threats in the game.
One to watch: Ciarán Connolly. Won an All-Ireland Under-20 title under Cahill in 2019, Connolly has added a county title with Loughmore-Castleiney and a Fitzgibbon with UL before opting out last year in favour of travelling.
Critical Question: Where will the pace come from? Cahill succeeded in turning Waterford into a dynamic, explosive team in possession. Does he have the same kind of raw materials in Tipp?
Fixtures: Feb 4 v Laois (h), 5.0; Feb 12 v Kilkenny (a), 1.30; Feb 25 v Dublin (a); Mar 11 v Waterford (h), 7.15; Mar 19 v Antrim (a), 1.45.
Manager: Davy Fitzgerald (1st season)
Main man: Stephen Bennett. Dessie Hutchinson provides the sparkle to Waterford’s inside line, but Bennett’s huge scoring return is essential.
One to watch: Patrick Fitzgerald, one of the few Ballygunner players left on the Waterford panel, marked his first season with the club’s seniors by scoring 3-9 from play in their three Munster Championship victories.
Critical Question: Is the ‘Davy-Bounce’ a real phenomenon or just a coincidence in his previous inter-county jobs?
Fixtures: Feb 5 v Dublin (h), 2.0; Feb 11 v Laois (a), 5.0; Feb 26 v Antrim (h), 1.0; Mar 11 v Tipperary (a), 7.15; Mar 19 v Antrim (a), 1.45.
— Colm Keys and Conor McKeon