Thursday 22 March 2018

Catch them if you can

1: Tipperary: Having finally restored the blue-and-gold to the summit, the pursuit of the All-Ireland double -- something Tipperary haven't achieved for 46 years -- is the next big challenge.

It's also where the quest for consistency comes in. That's one area where doubts remain about Tipperary.

After all, they wouldn't have even got past the first round in Munster last year under the old championship system and came mighty close to losing against Galway too.

So the big test now is to establish real consistency -- if they do, the two-in-a-row is on. They have an excellent panel all the way down to No 30 and I don't think the change of management will have a negative impact.

It appears to have been done pretty seamlessly but then Declan Ryan would know the squad and the overall scene very well, which was a big plus.

2 Dublin

There's always a tendency to doubt a team that a makes a breakthrough in the league.

"Wait until the Championship -- let's see how they go then." Indeed.

Still, any team is an awful lot better going into the Championship off the sort of run Dublin enjoyed this spring than with a string of indifferent results behind them.

Everybody was surprised by the extent of their win in the League final but, even if you put that to one side, there's no doubt that they were the form team right through the campaign, having played with a consistency not seen from a Dublin team for decades.

The have a strong panel, (all the way through) which is crucial, are well organised by Anthony Daly, Richie Stakelum and Co and very definitely have the potential to improve. On the basis of what we've seen so far, a place in the All-Ireland final is within their grasp.

3 waterford

Davy Fitz has them punching above their weight.

What's more, they are capable of delivering a knock-out punch to any opponent on a given day.

Fitzy tried out -- quite successfully too -- a fair number of new players in the League so if he has everyone fit for the Championship, he will have a very powerful unit.

They have been a consistent third in the Championship over the last few years and while that may have led to impatience among some supporters, it was no mean feat at a time when Kilkenny and Tipperary set such high standards.

Waterford are still right up there in the top layer and while they have a tricky opener against improving Limerick in the Munster semi-final, I'd fancy them to reach the final which, at the very least, takes them into the top six nationally.

After that, who knows? An All-Ireland semi-final place is well within their range.

4 Kilkenny

No clever epitaphs yet, please. They'll regroup, reorganise and reprogramme but, most of all, they'll be looking at medical reports.

Slot Henry Shefflin, Tommy Walsh, Michael Fennelly and Richie Power back into the team and watch the difference it makes.

Question is -- will all four be available and remain injury-free?

The Leinster draw (Kilkenny play Wexford/Laois/Antrim in the semi-final) suits them so they are almost certain to be in the final.

The aura they created during the four-in-a-row period isn't quite the same any more but don't be fooled by that.

Kilkenny haven't become a bad team over one season, although there are doubts over whether they can re-establish themselves as No 1 without a period of rebuilding.

5 Galway

The westerners are the great enigma. The jigsaw pieces are there to complete the picture but they have got to be put together in the right sequence.

The League campaign wasn't as good as it looked when they went into the last game against Waterford needing to win to reach the final.

They had been lucky to beat Dublin and while they staged a great comeback against Kilkenny, it's a long time since Cody's boys conceded so many soft goals.

Galway's one consolation from the defeat by Waterford was that they had a few lads coming back after injury who will be more effective later on.

That includes Joe Canning, who will have benefited from a quiet spring. He's the man who can make things happen for Galway but only if he's posted close enough to the opposition square -- where he's most likely to score goals.

6 Cork

Good hurlers, good pedigree, good management, but they lack the depth of quality required to win the All-Ireland. Given the direction both teams took afterwards, it's easy to forget that Cork beat Tipperary so easily in last year's Munster Championship.

That's the level they are capable of reaching on a really good day. Problem is, the consistency isn't there to back it up.

They tried out a lot of new lads in the League but will still be relying on the many of the old guard for leadership. They will relish the clash with Tipperary at the end of the May but, whatever happens there, Tipp are the better bet for the All-Ireland.

7 limerick

After last year's lost season, they are back on track, having won promotion to Division 1 with eight straight wins. Division 2 isn't ideal preparation for the Championship, especially as Limerick face a battle-hardened Waterford in the Munster semi-final, but Donal O'Grady has a lot of experience, merged with promising youngsters, to choose from.

The players feel they have much to prove after taking such drastic measures last year so a win over Waterford and a place in the Munster final would make their season.

Even a good performance against Waterford would be a big boost and could set them up for a decent run in the qualifiers.

8 Offaly

May 29. That date will have been ringed on Offaly calendars for months and was double-ringed after Dublin beat Kilkenny in the league final.

Dublin hammered Offaly in the League but, as Offaly proved last year when they came so close to beating Galway in the Leinster semi-final, they are well capable of matching anybody on a given day.

Dublin will be in new territory as hot favourites, which brings its own pressures so Offaly will try to exploit that.

On all known form, Dublin will win but the Championship can change everything in a matter of minutes. Dublin will be very wary of this one.

9 WExford

Plenty of passion and desire but lacking the necessary all-round balance to compete consistently at the highest level -- although beating Cork and drawing with Tipperary in their final two League games will have been a massive boost as it ensured Wexford stayed in Division 1, which is where they need to be.

They play the winners of Antrim/Laois in the Leinster quarter-final with the prize of a home game against Kilkenny as the reward if they win. There are plenty of incentives there so I'd expect a decent showing from Wexford, even if they are likely to be headed for the qualifiers by mid-June.

10 Clare

Still stuck in Division 2, which is not good for their development. Nor has the Munster draw been kind, matching them against the winners of Tipperary versus Cork.

It looks as if they will be headed for the early rounds of the qualifiers, where they need to make progress. They have a chance too as their young side is vastly more suited to top-of-the-ground summer hurling than to the League slog.

11 Laois

They have been making the best of what they have over the past few seasons but are finding it very hard to move up the rankings.

They have Antrim at home in the first round of the Leinster Championship so they will fancy their chances of getting through to the next round against Wexford, which is achievable.

12 Antrim

After being so unlucky against Offaly last year, they will be quietly confident against Laois in the Leinster first round next weekend.

Well capable of raising their game to a level that can trouble even the best on a good day, they don't have the strength in depth to maintain the required consistency.

13 Carlow

They have made solid progress in recent years, which is good for hurling.

It's much better for them to be testing themselves against stronger opposition in the Liam MacCarthy Cup group than being comfortable at Christy Ring level.

Carlow will be favourites to beat Westmeath in the Leinster first round but they need to be very careful. Westmeath had a poor League but would always feel they have a great chance against Carlow.

14 Westmeath

It's sad to see them dropping back to Division 3 level. It makes you wonder why that sort of thing is happening in some counties where the hurlers should be doing better and where they go on progressive bursts from time to time.

Could it be that football strangles hurling every time it looks as if it's going somewhere?

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport