Back on top: Martin Breheny gives his verdict
Brian Cody’s Kilkenny are back in the familiar surroundings of No 1 in this year’s hurling rankings but how do the rest of the Liam MacCarthy Cup counties feature at the end of 2011. Martin Breheny gives his verdict
1 Kilkenny (last year: 2): For the eighth time since 2000, Kilkenny end the year on hurling's summit, surveying the landscape below with a contented eye. The All-Ireland four-in-a-row was a new landmark for Kilkenny in 2009, but one suspects that this year's success brought them even more joy.
Constructed against a background of doubt after their league final defeat, everything built smoothly towards the showdown with Tipperary in the All-Ireland final, a clash which was almost inevitable from the start of the championship. The mood was set in the first 15 minutes when Kilkenny scored five unanswered points while powering up the same type of momentum which beat Cork in the 2006 final.
Tipperary did manage to cut an eight-point second-half deficit down to three points, but Kilkenny weren't going to be denied. The only doubt about their performance was why, given their superiority in so many sectors, they didn't win by a whole lot more. Still, it's not something that will concern Kilkenny as they host Liam MacCarthy for another year.
Nothing sums up Kilkenny's current wellbeing more than the muted reaction to James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick's decision to quit the panel. The departure of such a fine talent in his mid-twenties would be the source of angst in every other county, but not in Kilkenny where the supply lines are so productive.
2012 odds: All-Ireland 11/8; NHL (Div 1) 15/8.
The Big Question: For how long more can the juggernaut roll on?
2 tipperary (1)
A year ago, all Tipperary's hurling gods were in their heavens as the seniors celebrated a first All-Ireland win since 2001 (enjoying the added bonus of having wrecked Kilkenny's five-in-a-row ambitions), while the U-21s were also No 1.
Now, there are some doubts about the future after the All-Ireland final defeat by Kilkenny and the troubled passage against Dublin in the semi-final. However, just as one swallow doesn't make a summer, one wild duck doesn't make a winter, so Tipperary still have plenty to look forward to over the next few seasons, at least.
Together with Kilkenny, they still look to be some way clear of the rest on days when their game comes together at its fluent best. They were disappointing in the All-Ireland final, even allowing for Kilkenny's excellence, but Tipperary's fundamentals remain solid.
Now the challenge for Declan Ryan and his squad is to figure out why they weren't able to respond to Kilkenny's intensity last September, because that really was a central difference between the sides. If Tipperary get that side of their game right, there's every likelihood that they will be back in the final again next year.
2012 odds: All-Ireland 6/4; NHL (Div 1) 13/8.
The Big Question: How will they react to the All-Ireland final defeat?
3 dublin (7)
Who would have predicted 10 years ago that by 2011, Dublin would be Division 1 Allianz League champions, have come within four points of Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final and hold both the Leinster U-21 and minor titles?
Perhaps the hard-working enthusiasts who always had a positive vision for Dublin hurling might have dreamed of such exciting adventures, but most others remained sceptical about Capital gains. Now, the reality is that Dublin are perfectly entitled to their No 3 ranking, based on a year where their only defeats were against Kilkenny and Tipperary (championship) and Galway (NHL).
They beat the 'Big Two' in the league and flattened Galway in the championship, so no county can claim to have dominated them this year.
It was a real case of a work-in-progress edging ever close to being the finished product. Indeed, who knows how the championship might have unfolded for Dublin if they had Conal Keaney, Tomas Brady and Stephen Hiney on the pitch rather than in the stands for so long?
2012 odds: All-Ireland 10/1; NHL (Div 1) 7/1.
The Big Question: Can they kick on again in 2012 or will there be a 'season after optimism' dip?
4 waterford (3)
A consistent No 3 behind Kilkenny and Tipperary over previous seasons, they dip to No 4 this year, having been edged out by Dublin. It's a close call in terms of head-to-head (they even drew in the league), but Dublin's league success gives them the edge on the Deise men.
Waterford's rapid recovery from the humiliating defeat by a Lar Corbett-inspired Tipperary in the Munster final was one of the most inspiring developments of the year as it undid much of the damage, which, if unrepaired quickly, could have left them with a serious hangover going into 2012. Instead, they walloped Galway and did as well against Kilkenny as anybody else.
Davy Fitzgerald's departure as manager ends an era where Waterford rebuilt the squad very effectively, despite fears that they were short of emerging talent. He leaves them in a better place than he found them, which is all any manager can do.
2012 odds: All-Ireland 22/1; NHL (Div 1) 11/1.
The Big Question: How will they fare now that they are back under 'Home Rule' (Michael Ryan is their first local manager since the mid-nineties)?
5 galway (4)
Their worst season for quite some time, they finished in the bottom half of Division 1 before being well beaten by Dublin and Waterford in the championship. It demanded a change of management, followed by a major shake-up of the squad.
New boss, Anthony Cunningham has made several changes to his initial panel and more may be necessary. Too many of the previous panel have developed a history of losing and while there's no guarantee that the replacements will be any better, they deserve a chance. After all, they're not tainted by repeated failure -- indeed, most of the younger players have experienced All-Ireland success at minor and/or U-21 level.
It rem-ains a very uncertain time in Galway senior hurling, but Cunningham is clearly intent on launching a new model rather than carrying out running repairs on the previous one, a policy which failed dismally as Galway's barren spell without even reaching an All-Ireland semi-final extended to a sixth season.
2012 odds: All-Ireland 10/1; NHL (Div 1) 9/1.
The Big Question: Is the young talent, which looked so exciting at underage level, ready to step up to senior standard or will Galway remain the capital of unfulfilled potential.
6 cork (5)
Four wins from 11 games (v Offaly in league and championship, Galway in the league and Laois in the championship) was a poor return, especially as Cork exited the championship limply when losing by 12 points to Galway after leading by six in the 10th minute.
The Cork 'brand' doesn't intimidate opposition any more, but then it was much the same when Jimmy Barry-Murphy took over for his first stint at the end of 1995. It took him four seasons to revive them although, in fairness, it was more difficult back then as there were no second chances in the championship for teams that lost before the provincial finals.
It's very much transition time in Cork, who have the right man to lead them in JBM.
2012 odds: All-Ireland 10/1; NHL (Div 1) 15/2
The Big Question: How much new talent can JBM find as clearly the squad needs a serious overhaul?
7 limerick (10)
A year in which they returned to normality after the trauma of 2010 and made considerable progress, but they started from such a low base that an upswing was inevitable. Donal O'Grady got huge credit for their improvement, but, in reality, they shouldn't have been in Division 2 in the first place and would always be expected to do well against the likes of Waterford, Wexford, Antrim and Dublin in the championship.
They lost by a point to Waterford and by four to Dublin, but, overall, would feel they are in the right groove for a further advance, especially since the U-21s are likely to provide some youthful additions to the squad.
2012 odds: All-Ireland 25/1; NHL (Div 1) 22/1.
The Big Question: Can John Allen take them on a stage further after this year's improvement?
8 offaly (6)
There was very little between themselves and Wexford (Offaly won their league clash by two points) in a disappointing year for both. It was Offaly's only win in league, championship and Walsh Cup. They were a bit unlucky against Cork in the All-Ireland qualifiers, but, overall, it was a forgettable season for Offaly.
New manager Ollie Baker faces quite a challenge, although supporters will be heartened by Coolderry's success in the Leinster championship, which shows that club hurling in Offaly remains at a high standard.
2012 odds: All-Ireland 125/1; NHL (Div 1) 50/1.
The Big Question: Can Offaly get out of Division 1B and set themselves up for the Leinster first-round clash with Wexford?
9 wexford (8)
Without a championship win since 2009, this season brought no cheer on the summer circuit.
However, Wexford did retain Division 1 status, only to find themselves in the second tier in the re-organised league. It's still a very tough group, so promotion won't come easy for any county.
New manager Liam Dunne is promising to bring his own particular brand of persuasion to what is a huge task, where patience will be required on and off the field.
2012 Odds: All-Ireland 200/1: NHL (Div 1) 80/1
The Big Question: Have Wexford bottomed out and are they now ready for an upswing?
10 clare (9)
New manager Davy Fitzgerald was happy to categorise Clare as No 10 in a recent interview and while some claimed he was underplaying their hand, he is actually right.
Clare failed to get out of Division 2 and were well beaten by Tipperary and Galway in the championship so progress was minimal. However, the younger players did gain valuable experience which should be of benefit to them in the coming years.
So, too, will Davy's obsessive personality, especially now that he has four seasons experience behind him in county management.
2012 odds: All-Ireland 66/1; NHL (Div 1) 50/1.
The Big Question: Can Davy Fitz ignite a revival?
11 antrim (11)
Quite why they have withdrawn from the Walsh Cup remains unclear. Surely they would benefit from an early season encounter(s) with Leinster teams, but, instead they have opted to go it alone. They were outside the top 10 this year and are unlikely to break into it next season either.
2012 odds: All-Ireland 375/1; NHL (Div 1) 300/1.
The Big Question: Will the later start to the league help their cause? In previous years they have been without key players from the county champions for the early rounds.
12 laois (12)
Losing a Leinster championship clash with Antrim in O'Moore Park (Laois had beaten them in the league) was disappointing enough, but suffering a 10-20 to 1-13 demolition by Cork in the All-Ireland qualifiers was humiliating. Cork are much better than Laois, but still should not have found it so ridiculously easy.
It suggests that new manager Teddy McCarthy has a big challenge ahead to turn things around.
2012 odds: All-Ireland 400/1; NHL (Div 1) 300/1.
The Big Question: How will Teddy McCarthy fare in his first county posting as a manager?
13 carlow (13)
Carlow beat Westmeath in the league, but the reverse applied in the championship, so, obviously, there's very little between them. However, Carlow had a better league campaign, winning three to Westmeath's none. Both lost to Antrim in the championship, Westmeath by nine points, Carlow by eight.
It's disappointing for Carlow to find themselves in Division 2A, having been squeezed out for the last place in 1B.
2012 odds: All-Ireland 750/1; NHL (2A) No odds available)
The Big Question: Can they make a quick exit from 2A? They need to if they are to maintain progress.
14 westmeath (14)
Seven straight defeats in Division 2 by an average of almost six points a game was hugely disappointing, but they regained a degree of stability in the championship, beating Carlow before losing to Galway (after producing a very good display for a long time) and Antrim.
They will be among the top promotion contenders in 2A next year.
2012 odds: All-Ireland 750/1; NHL (2A) No odds available.
The Big Question: Can they avenge this year's championship defeat by Antrim when the pair renew rivalry in the Leinster first round in Mullingar next May?