NO SHADOW boxing and scarcely room for a second chance – the national hurling league has undergone more facelifts than Joan Rivers and yet, like the American comedian, there is something so endearing about it.
The mechanics of the new format are laid out elsewhere on this page, but the key features of the latest model is that there is no room for slip-ups and it will incorporate four quarter-finals instead of two.
Therefore, five months after the best hurling summer in memory, which was also preceded by a very competitive league, the 2014 season could be ramped up another notch. It has to be, in fact, because each game should be meaningful and the quarter-finals will all be played at home venues ensuring large crowds and serious interest heading into the summer.
Those quarter-finals will see battles between Division 1A sides and teams from 1B at crucial junctures of the year. And, as Dublin and Limerick proved last season, the supposed second-tier teams are not all that far behind in terms of quality when it comes to the championship. Both of last year's Leinster and Munster champions hailed from Division 1B and there are not many sports around the world where second-tier league teams can show real championship credentials as a season unfolds.
So last night's throw-in for the 2014 league came not a minute too soon. A flick through the top six teams in Division 1A hints at another outstanding campaign ahead.
Kilkenny want to win the league every year but this time they'll go out of their way to do so. They want to start rebuilding that invincible aura that has slipped and they are definitely more vulnerable than at any stage over the past 13 years. It's easy to throw that out there but the truth is that from 2006 to September 2010 Kilkenny didn't lose a championship game. In 2013, however, they lost two and drew one. The year before they drew one and lost one.
There are definite gaps appearing and yet it will still take a lot to deny them another league crown. They have introduced new blood since the winter and we wait to see if they will adjust their traditional style. John Joe Farrell, the stylish former under 21, will get his chance this spring and he certainly looked the part at full-forward at underage level. Tommy Walsh's brother Pádraig is also in the fold, while Willie Phelan and Joe Brennan will push hard for first-team action.
Last year they lost their first two league games but still won the title. They will not get away with any such lapse this time around. They are carrying a squad of 40 in training and places are up for grabs which, in the past, has always been part of Brian Cody's policy of keeping players honest.
It remains to be seen if they can win an eighth league title under Cody. They certainly won't be far off. They could beat Clare away in their first game but it might be their second clash – with Tipperary – that will tell us where Kilkenny really stand.
What will constitute a good league for Tipperary? Nothing less than the title you would think. Last year they were beaten by the Cats in the Division 1A final but they have a serious amount to prove now. A number of players are fighting for their futures and if they don't measure up in the league they can wave goodbye to the summer.
"To be self-critical, when we came back in last year, maybe it wouldn't have been obvious, but I think we tried to recreate exactly what the model was in 2010," selector Michael Ryan told a recent Tipperary Supporters' Club function. "And we made various assumptions that we could do that, that our players were still the same guys. It was incredibly disappointing – don't underestimate how disappointing it was."
Manager Eamon O'Shea was extremely loyal to his troops last year but on the ground patience is wearing thin. Kilruane men Bill O'Meara and Jack Peters have bolstered his squad since their introduction but they are young guys and an immediate step-up is asking a lot. Football talent Colin O'Riordan, once his exams are over, could play a more meaningful role this year, though. Blessed with bravery, aerial ability and a hunger to succeed, O'Riordan is the real deal; talented and a man of steel to boot. It's time also for John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer to stamp his authority all over this team. He could be one of the best forwards in the land.
Tipperary won the Waterford Crystal series recently and the next year or two is about winning trophies. Nothing else is good enough for a team that has flattered to deceive.
One county that has won nothing but trophies in the past few years is Clare. They will talk themselves up, and the drive remains ferocious, but stability is surely the only requirement for them in this league. They returned to training last November, held a fitness test and four challenge games before Christmas, before flying abroad to Cancun and the USA for a team holiday. On their first meaningful session back from that holiday, at UL, the players laid down a marker that 2014 would not just be one for going through the motions. Some players were in the dressing room an hour and a half before the session started and on the paddock exchanges were ferocious with one player having his finger broken within minutes.
"Davy's even more driven than last year," says Podge Collins. "He's just focused on the league, the Kilkenny game is big for us."
Management are said to be keen to lay down a marker themselves and there could be a squad turnover before the championship starts. Players like Séadna Morey and Cathal O'Connell are best placed to win first-team spots but there is no shortage of under 21s looking to break through, including the hard-working corner-forward David O'Halloran. Clare hardly need to win the league and staying afloat should be good enough for them as this bunch of young men continue to get their heads around the business of retaining an All-Ireland title.
Dublin will seek to be comfortable in this section and their first three games are all winnable which would set them up nicely. There is a danger that they may not be refined enough until the summer but their league displays have been steady over the past few seasons, despite relegation the year after they won the title.
They have been working extremely hard, without any dual players, which is sad to report. Still, they have enough talent on the bench, as they showed on numerous occasions last season, to get by. Alan McCrabbe is back after a year out due to work commitments, and how he reintegrates will be interesting. Dublin are unlikely to be chasing a league title at the end of the campaign but consistency would be the key thing.
Waterford, too, are unlikely to be the champions at the end of this campaign but they are the coming team. They are off the back of All-Ireland minor, De La Salle and Dungarvan Colleges wins and protecting a crop of fine young players must be a priority. "We'll have a cut off everything," says Derek McGrath, their new manager. "But there is a certain realism in Waterford. With the educated supporter there is a realism that success doesn't happen as easy as people think."
More than any other side, Clare fear Waterford, certainly from the underage ranks anyway. And with graduates from the successful college teams streaming through, the likes of Austin Gleeson, Shane Bennett and Patrick Curran will need to be gently infused into the senior set-up. These guys are good enough to make it, but more importantly McGrath and Willie Maher will be well able to handle these youngsters. It was interesting that they named a nicely-balanced side six days in advance of last night's clash with Tipp.
The county is no longer in transition – they have enough young talent coming through, with a highly-rated coach and manager at their helm. For the moment the league might be about hanging in there – and this year will be a struggle for them, although no one can doubt what's coming in the years ahead.
Just when Galway are written off, as they are again this year, they are likely to turn it on. But even allowing for that enigmatic streak, it's hard to see them making much impression in this competition – especially with Joe Canning on club duty. They have made changes to their backroom team but unless the players show the same devotion to the cause that they did for most of 2012 they cannot be considered realistic contenders. In fact, they could find themselves in a battle at the other end of the table.
This year's league will not tell us who will come out on top next September, but it will tell us who is in the mix. And it starts the ball rolling for another potentially exciting season. We could never have it as good as last year, though. Right?
Sunday Indo Sport