Cyril Farrell: Chasing the Cats
THE hurling championship system may have its quirks and eccentricities but it has still lined up an All-Ireland final between the two best teams in the country for the second successive year.
We're thankful for that, while also excited by the prospect of Kilkenny taking their five-in-a-row bid in against a Tipperary side that forced last year's final right into the red zone over the last 10 minutes. There's two weeks to go on that front, plenty of time to assess all the exciting possibilities at a time when Kilkenny's injury worries are rapidly balancing the books.
But what of the rest who were chasing the big two? Where do they stand at the end of Championship 2010?
So Davy Fitzgerald got the tactics wrong last Sunday? Funny that because he was hailed as a tactical genius after the Munster final replay. Liam Sheedy was classed as a tactical mastermind last Sunday by people who savaged him after Tipperary's defeat by Cork in May.
It comes down to this: the winner is always right, the loser always wrong. Several Waterford players didn't perform to their best last week and when that happens, there's damn all the manager can do.
Overall, Waterford and Fitzgerald had a good year. Winning Munster and being third in the overall rankings won't slake their All-Ireland thirst but Waterford have to be realistic enough to accept that this group of players have given tremendous service to the county.
Bearing in mind that last year's Munster minor win was Waterford's first since 1992 and that the U-21s haven't won even a provincial title since 1994, it's quite an achievement for the seniors to be so consistently good over the past eight years.
Failed to reach the All-Ireland semi-final for a fifth successive year. Not fulfilling their potential. Must go for radical shake-up. There's no point tinkering around the edges and coming up short again in 2011.
Pat Gilroy completely overhauled Dublin footballers after they had won five successive Leinster titles because they weren't good enough to go further.
If Galway haven't been good enough to reach the semi-final since 2005, there's no point going back with essentially the same group. Give young lads a chance. All they can do is fail, which has been happening anyway. It's better to lose with newcomers who might learn a lot than with a group which has failed several times.
There's plenty of fine young talent in Galway who must be given their chance to merge with the best of this year's team. Be radical or redundant -- it's management's choice.
They deserve to be in fifth place but they must be concerned for the next few years. The older players all gave brilliant service but their very best days are behind them, while the emerging talent isn't of the same quality. Of course, Cork haven't done well at underage level for quite some time.
In hindsight, Cork's big win over Tipperary in May was probably down to the latter taking their eye off the ball.
Top priority must be to keep Joe Dooley. The manager has rebuilt Offaly slowly and solidly and, while they were lucky not to lose to Antrim in the Leinster championship, they could well have beaten Galway next time out. The qualifier draw sent them in Tipperary's direction, which was unfortunate but, in overall terms, they should be happy with their year.
Just as retaining Dooley is important to Offaly, it's crucial for Dublin that Anthony Daly stays in place for the next two years. They've got to learn that to survive at the higher level, they must be able to not only raise their game against the big powers but also to impose themselves against teams that would be rated below them.
They didn't do that against Antrim in the qualifiers and paid the price. All part of the learning process.
I watched Colin Lynch playing for Kilmaley in a challenge game against my own club, Tommy Larkins, recently and thought, 'what Clare would give for him to be still in his prime'.
They are lacking real presence to guide the good young talents up through the gears. The latest Clare project still has quite some way to go.
No Leinster minor title since 1985. It's a grim statistic that highlights their problem. There's plenty of work going in at underage level now but it will take time to yield a senior harvest. One worrying aspect of the senior side was their un-Wexford-like approach to the qualifier game against Tipperary.
Wexford are renowned for their battling spirit but they looked like men who had accepted their fate even before throw-in. That's dangerous territory for anybody, let alone such a proud hurling county as Wexford.
Niall Rigney's exit is a loss. They are a whole lot better than when he took over and now have a structure and a commitment to the jersey that wasn't always there before Rigney's arrival. It's got to be maintained, so it's crucial to appoint the right manager.
Dinny Cahill is an excellent coach and it showed with Antrim this year. He got them back on track after a dismal 2009 and now the challenge is to move things on. Based on championship displays, they should be serious contenders for promotion to Division 1.
They did more than enough to justify their elevation to the Liam McCarthy Cup tier. A lot of counties who regarded them as a soft touch don't risk that attitude anymore.
*Limerick -- I refuse to rate them on the basis that what happened this year will bear no relation whatsoever to 2011. It was a disastrous year for Limerick hurling, one where nobody gained and the game lost heavily. That's what happens when ego overrules common sense.
Providing new management is put in place, they will be back as a force next year or certainly at a level commensurate with their talents, as opposed to this year when, despite the best efforts of the squad, it wasn't the best Limerick had so it was scarcely surprising they didn't win any competitive games.