Five things to expect in 2014
Damian Lawlor looks ahead and predicts what's in store for the GAA public this year
NO END TO THE DUAL DEBATE
YOU have to laugh. The dual player was said to be a thing of the past. Now, however, Anthony Daly wants Ciarán Kilkenny to respond to an invitation to join the Dublin hurlers in 2015. Jim Gavin says Kilkenny must chose one or the other, he can't have both. The same invitation has been extended to Cormac Costello and Eric Lowndes.
Daly knows there is no chance of any of those guys coming on board with the hurlers this year. Sure, Kilkenny has indicated in the past that he would like to play with both teams -- and he was part of the under 21 side that lost to Carlow in last year's Leinster championship -- but there is no chance of him being able to play both. With the level of commitment required from both Dublin squads, and no great desire on the part of Jim Gavin to see his players try hurling, the prospect of seeing some compromise is extremely low.
In Kilkenny's case, it's understandable that he would stay with the footballers -- he is a first-team player, an integral part of the attack, and Dublin look set to dominate, but both Costello and Lowndes are down the pecking order at the moment. They must have some carrot of first-team football dangled in front of them but it will be hard to break into the team.
In the meantime, why not try hurling and help Daly aim for an All-Ireland title? They are exceptional players in both codes but they'll find -- as they did last year against Carlow -- that a couple of seasons without regular stick work will mean the opportunity to play senior inter-county hurling might disappear.
In Daly's native Clare, the dual issue is also proving to be a worry for the county board. A number of their All-Ireland-winning hurlers won senior football medals with Cratloe whose manager Colm Collins has taken over the Banner footballers. Collins' sons Podge, a 2013 All Star and hurler of the year nominee, and Seán are amongst them and both have indicated they may wish to play football as well as hurling this coming season.
The others involved with the All-Ireland hurling champions last season were Cathal McInerney, Liam Markham plus another two All Stars, Conor Ryan and Conor McGrath. Davy Fitzgerald has said he will not drop any hurler from his panel for playing football but it remains to be seen how feasible it will be to play both.
Similar problems exist in Tipperary -- with players in the 18-20 bracket especially -- and Wexford, while Cork football manager Brian Cuthbert faces a huge challenge with both Eoin Cadogan and Aidan Walsh in line to play hurling. A few years ago the GAA public considered the dual player to be a thing of the past. It's anything but the case.
THE KINGDOM RECLAIMING THE THRONE?
Not that they are ever too far away, but having maintained their Division 1 status last year and come within a hair's breadth of beating Dublin, Kerry came through a winter which could have been a lot tougher. The expected raft of retirements didn't materialise and instead Tomás ó Sé, a massive loss all the same, was one of just two players to walk away, along with Eoin Brosnan.
Paul Galvin has indicated he is ready to commit fully to the cause again and the new season arrives with the Kingdom looking as likely as anyone to topple the Dubs.
With Cork down so many experienced players, Kerry will be fancied to come through Munster and unleash another assault on the All-Ireland series. Who fills ó Sé's number five shirt -- and how well they fare -- will be the crucial thing. Jonathan Lyne, Peter Crowley and Fionn Fitzgerald all look equipped to take on the challenge.
There is serious competition for places at midfield this time around with David Moran looking to finally banish a horrible run of injuries by slotting in there if the Anthony Maher-Johnny Buckley partnership is in need of a rejuvenation at any stage. Once Dr Crokes' run in the club championship ends, Brian Looney and Dáithí Casey should get a chance to impress Eamonn Fitzmaurice, while it's a big year for Kieran O'Leary and Patrick Curtin. Barry John Keane, meanwhile, has shown terrific form at club level and could be an addition to this year's squad.
HANDBAGS AND THE GLADRAGS
Well, not quite. But as fashion continues to play a bigger part in GAA culture, we can expect that in 2014 more players will push the boundaries. Already teams have given collars the heave-ho -- Tipperary, Derry and Cavan, to name a few counties, have opted for collarless designs following in the footsteps of Offaly and Monaghan.
We're also likely to see a flurry of changes before next December's Christmas market opens. Just last week Donegal unveiled a new shirt that looks like the iconic Brazilian soccer jersey. Before long, of course, players' names will be on the back of those shirts.
It gets better; Roscommon manager John Evans has gone a step further by suggesting that we'll see ponchos in 2014 as players get to grips with the black card rule. The new ruling will see players who are black-carded replaced by a substitute and won't allow time for the player coming on to change from a tracksuit. With the speed of substitutions crucial, it could prove very costly if managers delay in getting a player in to replace a black-carded footballer. Otherwise a team could be down to 14 men for two minutes while they are getting a replacement ready and Evans feels ponchos are the answer as they are easy to whip off.
A SERIOUS KICK-BACK FROM KILKENNY
They'll probably come out and make an immediate statement by winning the Walsh Cup and take it from there. Traditionally when they've been challenged or undermined, they have come back with a vengeance.
Remember after Galway in 2001? Remember how they responded to Cork's threat in the mid noughties, how they dealt with Tipperary in 2009, in '11, '12 and '13 after losing to the Premier County in 2010? They also taught Galway a lesson in 2012 after losing to them in the Leinster final.
This time, though, things are a little bit different. Some of their players are looking slightly exposed; there are a lot of miles on the clock and notwithstanding the downright bravery they displayed to hang on against Waterford in Thurles last summer, there is no denying that there are now chinks in the armour.
A pacy Cork team found them out last summer and it will be interesting to see if Clare can expose them further if they meet in the championship. We certainly won't find out much about that when the two clash in the league -- that will be a phoney war.
But, as the summer progresses, and Kilkenny reach the All-Ireland series, which they doubtless will, we'll know more about their credentials.
They've taken a look at 14 players over the winter and one or two of them will be in situ come championship time, for the expectation is that Brian Cody will shake up his team as the year unfolds. Tommy Walsh could be moved to midfield and, if he is, there will be an almighty battle for places in that section between himself, Mick Fennelly, Mick Rice, Lester Ryan and Eoin Larkin.
They are already installed as favourites for 2014 but the landscape has never been tougher at any stage in the last 15 years.
The aura has waned a little. No doubt about it they were the greatest team hurling has ever seen. We wait now to see if they still are.
A NEW STYLE OF HURLING
Would Kilkenny have allowed Patrick Donnellan to solo 60 yards through their defence and handpass to a team-mate for a crucial goal in an All-Ireland final replay? Would they hell!
Still, Clare won an All-Ireland title with a dynamic style of hurling that incorporated flexibility and movement, with players covering each other's positions with ease. Perhaps midfielder Colm Galvin was the only Clare player to hold his position as a fluid, mobile and high-scoring Banner side beat Cork after a rematch.
While Dublin's footballers showed the way with an all-out attacking style, it's unlikely many others will copy them because they have neither the depth nor the artillery that Jim Gavin's side possesses. It will be interesting to see, though, how many teams will copy the Clare way. Traditionally, Kilkenny have based their game plan on strength in the skies, physical power and downright brilliance for carving open defences and finding goal opportunities. Will they change? Probably not.
But Galway could play like Clare and Tipperary could too. Cork have been operating a running, close-control game for years now -- even at colleges level. Waterford look well-equipped to try a similar style with so many promising youngsters on their books as well. Limerick manager Donal O'Grady is obviously acquainted with the short-passing and movement style while Tipperary have the forwards to pull it off too. Meanwhile, it could suit Wexford, who have a strong spine in their defence to keep it simple and contest aerial tussles. Offaly, too, scored four goals against Kilkenny last year with direct ball into their forwards. So it will be fascinating to see what unfolds in the league.
The All-Ireland finals of 2009, 2010 and, to a lesser extent, 2011 were startling for their sheer raw intensity. This year's final and replay stood out for touch, deft control and movement without the full-force collisions of a few years back. We'll see an array of diverse game plans in 2014 and it will be fascinating to see what model comes out on top.