Saturday 18 November 2017

Martin Breheny: Hurling opened up by season of change

More contenders than ever before primed for 2018 action

Galway captain David Burke raises the Liam MacCarthy Cup last Sunday. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Galway captain David Burke raises the Liam MacCarthy Cup last Sunday. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Nobody knew it at the time but April had a profound impact in shaping a hurling year that has energised the game in a manner not experienced since the 1990s.

It's not down solely to the All-Ireland final producing a novel pairing and the title going to a county that hadn't won it for 29 years but to a wider range of results and trends.

First though, let's go back to April and the conclusion of the Allianz League, where Galway beat Waterford, Limerick and Tipperary in quick succession. Wexford beat Kilkenny and ran Tipperary closer than the winning margin suggested and Cork signed off in better shape than might have appeared to be the case after losing the quarter-final to Limerick.

Having lost out to Wexford for promotion from 1B, it was important that Galway did well in the knock-out stages, starting with the quarter-final against Waterford.

With home advantage and a feeling that after reaching the final in the previous two seasons, Waterford weren't overly-committed to making another big push, Galway sensed a real opportunity.

Dropped

Cork made significant progress with captain Stephen McDonnell lifting the Munster SHC trophy in July
Cork made significant progress with captain Stephen McDonnell lifting the Munster SHC trophy in July

It wasn't that Derek McGrath acknowledged that the league had dropped down his priority list, but there were murmurings in Waterford that a less hectic pre-championship programme than 2015 or 2016, when they reached the league final, might leave them better placed for a big championship surge.

The difference in approach to the quarter-final in Pearse Stadium was underlined by the team selections.

Galway's line-up included 14 of last Sunday's starting team, whereas Waterford had only four of their All-Ireland line-up

Despite that, Waterford led by 10 points in the third quarter before a spirited Galway revival steered them to a three-point win.

It was also a good year for Wexford with Lee Chin celebrating their Leinster SHC semi-final victory over Kilkenny
It was also a good year for Wexford with Lee Chin celebrating their Leinster SHC semi-final victory over Kilkenny

It was a turning point for Galway, who went on to beat Limerick before trimming Tipperary in the final.

Just as April changed everything for the better for Galway, it raised doubts about Tipperary and Kilkenny. Tipp weren't just beaten in the league final, they were crushed.

Still, the view among Tipperary supporters was that all would come right in the summer for the All-Ireland double bid. It didn't.

Meanwhile, Kilkenny lost to Wexford in Nowlan Park for the first time in 50 years in the league quarter-final. Davy Fitzgerald predicted that Brian Cody's men would "come back vicious" for the Leinster campaign which took them to Wexford Park for the semi-final.

As with their Tipperary counterparts, Kilkenny supporters thought it would be back to business as usual in the championship. It wasn't. Wexford won, despatching Kilkenny on the unfamiliar qualifier road.

Their journey was over by July 9, Kilkenny's earliest championship exit for 21 years, after losing to Waterford for the first time in the championship since 1959.

Tipperary's re-mount after falling to Cork in the first round of the Munster championship took them all the way to the All-Ireland semi-final, but with the swagger of last year gone, they lost to Galway.

Granted, it was by a single point in a gripping tussle but the symbolism was significant. Neither of last year's All-Ireland finalists had a September date; nor had Cork, whose re-emergence took them to Munster glory before losing to Waterford.

So when Galway and Waterford lined up in last Sunday's final, they were the embodiment of a year which had taken on a very different personality to its predecessors.

For the first time since 1996, none of hurling's 'Big 3' - Kilkenny, Cork or Tipperary - reached the All-Ireland final. That, in itself, doesn't automatically make it a great year but with so many other interesting developments, it was a season which opened up exciting possibilities for several counties.

It ends with Galway finally fulfilling the promise they have hinted at for so long, while six or seven others are already looking ahead to the championship draw for next year with optimism.

Galway's escape from their demons could have a hugely liberating impact on a squad where competition for places is fierce.

Niall Burke and Jason Flynn would have been disappointed at missing out on starting spots last Sunday, yet, on their arrival, they immediately switched on to the demands of the big occasion, providing fresh impetus that proved so important.

There are several others hustling for starting places too so there's every reason to believe that Galway's title defence will be driven by a ferocious intensity next season.

Apart from Galway's climb to the summit, so much more happened this year to not only make it a fascinating campaign, but also one that suggests intriguing times are ahead.

The Cork public flocked back to support the team as they achieved far more than anyone anticipated when they started the Munster championship as outsiders of five.

And while losing to Waterford in the All-Ireland semi-final was disappointing, Cork ended the year as Munster champions, which is real progress. There was spectacular growth too in Wexford, whose rise under Fitzgerald brought the crowds out in phenomenal numbers, with more than 60,000 attending the Leinster final clash with Galway.

Wexford will be in 1A next spring, resulting in Innovate Wexford Park hosting big attendances in a county convinced it's on the move.

Clare are still labouring under the 'underachieving' tag, but were close enough to Cork (Munster final) and Tipperary (All-Ireland quarter-final) to whet their appetite for 2018 action.

So too with Limerick, whose season might have a taken an exciting turn if the Gaelic Grounds, rather than Nowlan Park, had been drawn as the venue for their qualifier tie.

Limerick lost by three points, leaving first-season manager John Kiely frustrated that they couldn't continue working on a sound project longer into the summer.

"We're building something strong and sustainable for the future," he said.

Waterford are still feeling the pain of last Sunday's defeat but when it subsides - as it will - they will be left with enough positives to nourish their ambitions for next year.

After all, they lost the All-Ireland final by a single score, having earlier beaten Kilkenny, Wexford and Cork. Waterford may have no silverware but they do have real substance to underpin the next phase.

Dublin had their most disappointing season for a long time but there's more to them than what they showed.

For whatever reason, the dynamic in the county skewed in a negative direction, their season eventually imploding in Thurles in the qualifiers when they lost to Tipperary by 22 points. Next year will bring a fresh start under new management.

And so to Kilkenny. After being such a force of nature for so long, it's inevitable that after a mediocre season, questions are being asked about their short-term future.

Only time will provide the answers but those who are predicting further decline would be well advised to remember that Kilkenny drew with Waterford before losing in extra-time.

Grabbed

Who knows how their season would have unfolded if they grabbed a late winner in normal time?

The relatively early exit from the championship could have a refreshing impact on a squad where many have been engaged until September for several years. Suffice to say, it's best to wait for the 2018 season before making any definitive judgments on Kilkenny. Meanwhile, it's wisest to assume they will continue to be among the leading bunch.

The most exciting aspect of the hurling scene now is that so many counties appear to be closely aligned. The 1994-98 era when Clare (2), Offaly (2) and Wexford (1) won All-Irelands, while Limerick reached two finals, is recalled as a golden age when teams outside the 'Big 3' shared the titles.

However, one significant difference between then and now is that Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork were going through recessions in 1994-98, leaving room for others to take over.

That's not the case now. The 'Big 3' are formidable forces but have been joined by several others. It all points towards an era which could be one of the best ever for hurling.

Irish Independent

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