Breheny Beat: Hurling's journey into unknown
Seismic shift of power in 2013 will prove hot topic on All Stars visit to Shanghai
As the 2012 and 2013 hurling All Stars head east towards Shanghai this morning, so much more than some of the game's most gifted talents will be up in the air.
Accompanying them will be the unmistakable sense of uncertainty about the direction hurling is planning to take next year.
After 14 seasons of All-Ireland dominance -- the longest stretch in championship history -- by Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary, the new millennium needed to show that it possessed some sense of adventure, which it duly did this year.
Apart from anointing Clare as its ultimate-change poster boys, it also appointed Dublin and Limerick to head important renewal work, with the former winning the Leinster title for the first time since 1961 and the latter prevailing in Munster for the first time since 1996.
It did it most unexpectedly too, after hinting at business as usual when Kilkenny and Tipperary served up the tastiest of championship appetisers in the Allianz League final in early May.
Who would have predicted then that neither would have a single representative on the All Stars team? And if that blue moon phenomenon were known, it would be assumed that Galway, who came so close to a major breakthrough last year, were heading for a glorious championship.
Come September, Galway had no All Star either. So too with Waterford, who missed out for the first time since 2005. Instead, the 15 awards were shared by Clare (8), Dublin (3), Cork (3) and Limerick (1). Only Cork's Anthony Nash and Clare's Brendan Bugler won All Stars in 2012 and 2013, an unusually small double-up in successive years.
But then, the period between last June and September delivered a seismic power shift, the impact of which remains to be seen.
One thing is certain, as the players from the various counties mingle in Shanghai over the next week, they will be as uncertain about what lies ahead as everyone back home.
The markets continue to edge on the side of tradition, installing as Kilkenny (5/2) and Tipperary (9/2) as All-Ireland favourites, but the degree to which they are unconvinced is underlined by a rare variation with football.
The football market is usually more strung out than its hurling equivalent on the basis that more counties are capable of winning the big ball title in a given year. Not now.
Only five (Dublin, Mayo, Kerry, Cork and Donegal) are priced at 10/1 or less for next year's football title whereas seven (Kilkenny, Tipperary, Clare, Cork, Dublin, Galway and Limerick) are all in that range in hurling.
Curiously, Waterford, who have competed consistently and quite often successfully with the top seven for many years, are on 30/1, which seems seriously overpriced.
After all, if they had taken a decent proportion of their chances in the opening 40 minutes, they would probably have beaten Clare in this year's Munster quarter-final, while they took Kilkenny to extra-time in the All-Ireland qualifiers.
Despite taking Dublin (Leinster champions) to a replay and Clare (All-Ireland champions) to extra-time this year, Wexford are 100/1.
Brian Whelahan will start his managerial term with an Offaly team that's ranked 150/1 to win the All-Ireland. It's an ideal starting point for 'Millennium Man' as it keeps expectations in check for what will be a longer term build.
This year's delightfully volatile championship has left such a rich legacy of intrigue that even as squads return to training, anticipation levels are higher than for a very long time.
As ever, there are entrenched positions. Some would have you believe that Clare, complete with their searing pace, are taking hurling into an era where mobility and flexibility will reign supreme.
Others insist that Dublin and Limerick are moving their graph line inexorably towards the summit. And then there are those who remain convinced that this year assumed the personality of a rebellious teenager and that all will revert to the previous norm once that's out of the system.
That includes a return to power by Kilkenny, Tipperary or Cork, with Galway capable of beating all three on certain, but not consecutive, outings.
It's a long time since the closed season cracked with so much uncertainty about the future. This season demolished established norms, so it's now either a case of re-building those or continuing on a wild, exciting whirl with no maps or directions.
Either way, it should be quite a memorable journey, just as the trip to Shanghai will be for the All Stars.
Over the coming week, we'll let you know how they see the state of play in the hurling world in these exciting times.
Cavanagh getting captaincy better late than never
THE news that Sean Cavanagh will captain Tyrone next year prompts an obvious reaction: Why did Mickey Harte take so long?
Cavanagh (right) has not only been one of Tyrone's best and most loyal players for over a decade, he has also been high up the consistency ratings nationally. He had an excellent season this year, darkened only by the disgraceful manner in which he was vilified for dragging down a Monaghan opponent to prevent a goal in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
The rules won't tolerate that type of offence next year but, while they did, how could any player be attacked for exploiting them?
Cavanagh's incredible enthusiasm and energy levels were as high this summer as at any time in his career and will no doubt receive another shot when he takes over as captain. It's very much a case of better late than never for player and county.
Gilligan open and honest right to the end
NIALL GILLIGAN waited patiently with his Sixmilebridge colleagues as Na Piarsaigh enjoyed the presentation ceremony after last Sunday's Munster club hurling final in Ennis.
He then stayed on the pitch for as long as required by the media to share his thoughts on the day.
Those included the view that while his immediate reaction was that he wouldn't be back next year (he is 37 years old), he would see how he really felt at another time.
If it was, indeed, his final outing as a senior player, it deserves to be acknowledged, not least from a media perspective where his willingness to always engage did much to promote hurling.
Win, lose or draw, Gilligan was always the same: honest, open and revealing.
And guess what? It didn't do his game any harm, as his impressive honours' haul at county and club testifies.