Hold the Back Page: Summer's infinite possibility
Has there ever been such an eagerly awaited hurling championship? Pat Donnellan had barely set down the Liam MacCarthy Cup last year when the nation's collective sporting mind began to reel at the thought of the 2014 renewal. It felt then like a competition with many different possible outcomes and very few certainties. And it feels just the same now.
It's hard to imagine that this time 12 months ago the hurling championship seemed like possibly the most predictable competition in Irish sport. Yet all it took was one gloriously crazy campaign to re-establish its central place in our hearts and make its football counterpart look practically pre-ordained by comparison. With five serious title contenders, and two others who are just one good performance from catapulting themselves into contention, this year's competition looks to contain infinite possibility and permutation. The World Cup will have to go some to beat it.
Not since the late 1990s has the championship appeared so open. And perhaps that's because last year heralded an end to the most predictable spell in the history of hurling. Not only did Kilkenny's eight crowns in 11 years make them the most dominant team ever but the 2009, 2010 and 2011 finals between Kilkenny and Tipperary made it the first time in history that the same teams had contested three consecutive deciders. And the 14 wins on the trot for the big three of Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork was also something which had never happened before.
It was like one of those abnormally long spells of hot weather which, when they break, do so with a spectacular storm. And that's what happened last year.
Limerick set the ball rolling by giving Tipperary the bum's rush in Munster but this was only a mild shock compared to the spectacle of Dublin not just beating Kilkenny but defying all conventional wisdom by doing it in a replay after letting the champions off the hook first time out. That you only get one chance against Kilkenny was just one of the axioms disproved as the carnival rolled on. A first Munster title in 17 years for Limerick followed and then a first Leinster for Dublin in 52. The scenes which followed both victories suggested they might provide the emotional high point of the summer. And they would have in any ordinary summer.
Instead a collective inspiration seemed to seep down to the other counties. Cork dumped Kilkenny out in the quarter-finals, leaving the semis Catless for the first time in 16 years. They then got past Dublin in an absolute classic before teaming up with Clare to produce, first, the best All-Ireland final in many years and then what might have been the best of them all. It had everything, Shane O'Donnell's 20-odd-minute hat-trick, Cork's persistent refusal to go away and Darach Honan's unlikely meandering run to set the seal on a story which had less in common with Hollywood than with the realm inhabited by myth and legend.
It will be a hard act to follow. The hard-nosed realist might opine that it's unlikely this season will be as good. But they said the same thing after 1995 which was merely a pipe-opener for the glorious, unpredictable, riotous joys of '96, '97 and '98. I suspect 2014 won't disappoint.
Oddly enough, the one thing which hasn't changed is that Kilkenny go into this season as favourites. But they are vulnerable favourites who the draw dictates will probably have to beat Galway, Dublin and two of the three Munster powerhouses if they are to prevail.
There have been plenty of comparisons between Brian Cody's Kilkenny and Mick O'Dwyer's Kerry team of the 1970s and '80s. Quite right too, there has been nothing else like them in either sport. Kilkenny
won eight titles in 11 years, Kerry racked up eight in 12. The Kingdom's passing was predicted when Offaly stopped them making it five in a row in 1982. They regrouped, came back two years later and won another three in a row. Kilkenny's passing was predicted when Tipperary stopped them making it five a in a row in 2010. They regrouped, came back one year later and won another two in a row.
The question now is whether Kilkenny's replay loss to Dublin is analogous to Kerry's replay defeat by Cork in 1987, the reverse which proves the jig is finally up. On balance, this seems unlikely. The aura of invincibility has vanished but the most important thing about Kilkenny's league triumph was that it seemed founded to a large degree on hunger. When things got tight in the final it was Kilkenny, crewed largely by men who are coming down with medals, who seemed to want it more than Tipperary. The maintenance of that desire is Cody's signal achievement.
Last year they seemed unusually laboured in attack. This year with Colin Fennelly and Walter Walsh maturing rapidly, TJ Reid and Richie Hogan seeming to have moved up a gear, the emergence of Mark Kelly and the return of an apparently rejuvenated Henry Shefflin, this sector appears to possess something of its old threat.
There are perhaps doubts over a defence which conceded more than Clare, Galway and even almost relegated Dublin in the Division 1A campaign but Brian Kennedy looks immensely promising, and there is the ageless majesty of JJ Delaney to knit it all together. And then there is the awesome power and athleticism of Michael Fennelly in midfield allied to Pádraig Walsh, AKA Tommy's brother, who seems a real find. Kilkenny might be just another team these days but it will take an exceptional opponent firing on all cylinders to beat them.
It seems an odd thing to say about a team which played in two classic All-Ireland finals last year but Cork seem to be flying somewhat under the radar. Yet their progress over the last couple of seasons under Jimmy Barry-Murphy suggests a team on the way up. And though there were times in those All-Ireland finals when they looked 10 points worse than their absolutely inspired Clare opponents, it still took some lenient timekeeping and a wonder score by Dómhnall O'Donovan to stop them becoming All-Ireland champions. In which case we'd all be still talking about the county's uncanny winning knack.
Cork have flaws, they're vulnerable at the back and would have benefited from playing in the top flight in the league. But in Barry-Murphy they have a boss who knows what it takes to achieve ultimate success at this level, they have perhaps the most consistent scoring forward in the game in Pat Horgan, the indomitable character which kept them in contention for so long against Clare, Anthony Nash's avant-garde frees and players like Conor Lehane, Daniel Kearney, Kieran Joyce and Lorcán McLoughlin who'll surely have grown on the back of last year's campaign.
The Rebels also have the knack of plucking stars out of nowhere. Seamus Harnedy's obscurity was proverbial this time last year but he ended up as perhaps their outstanding performer. This time round under 21 forward Alan Cadogan has the ability to be sensational.
Cork's fate may rest on their ability to at least achieve some semblance of steadiness in the central defensive positions. Damien Cahalane and Mark Ellis get their chance at three and six today against Waterford. Cahalane's situation is complicated by the dual status he shares with Aidan Walsh who makes his bow at midfield. With a fit-again Eoin Cadogan likely to see action at centre half-back before the year is out, Cork are taking a huge gamble on the ability of their three dual stars to manage the workload required. If it pays off, the Rebels might well be the team to beat.
Of course there's no logical reason to discount Clare. Three All-Ireland under 21 titles in five years suggest that tomorrow belongs to the Banner and you'd expect them to bag a similar haul of senior titles between now and 2017.
Yet the astounding run of Cody's Kilkenny masked the fact that previously All-Ireland titles had proved difficult to retain. The magnificent Clare team Davy Fitzgerald played on were unable to do it. And there is a slight suspicion that momentum carried the Banner to unsuspected heights last term and that this year they're there to be shot at from the word go. But then you look at the sheer quality of their remarkable young players, of Tony Kelly and Conor McGrath and Podge Collins and Colin Ryan and Conor Galvin and David McInerney, and there seems no reason they can't make it two in a row. A great deal rests on Fitzgerald's ability to get his team fired up again. He may be driven on by the might-have-beens of the Loughnane era when Clare probably had the ability to win four in a row but fell short.
It says everything about the frustrating nature of Galway hurling that when everyone else was enjoying the greatest championship in years the Tribesmen decided to go on one of their periodic holidays. Which makes it tempting to dismiss them from contention this time round.
Yet it can't be forgotten that Galway came within an ace of dethroning Kilkenny two years back, that they have a conveyor belt of under-age talent coming through, that five All-Ireland club titles in seven years indicates the county's great strength in depth and that in Joe Canning they have potentially the best player in the game.
Potentially. Because for all Canning's unparalleled gifts, the outstanding future which promised to be his seems to be slipping away from the Portumna man and there is the danger that, unless things start to happen soon, he'll end up as the top answer in that perennial debate about the greatest hurler never to win an All-Ireland medal. That may sound harsh but before the 2000 All-Ireland final there were still question marks being placed over DJ Carey's ability to deliver on the biggest occasions and if Lionel Messi doesn't shine at the World Cup in Brazil, a shadow of doubt will remain over his reputation too. Lunatic stuff but it merely displays the extent to which truly great players create rods for their own backs by the magnitude of their talent.
Notably stingy in defence during the league where new full-back Ronan Burke was particularly impressive and with Conor Cooney emerging as an able lieutenant for Canning, Galway also seem to have unearthed exciting attacking talents in Pádraig Brehony and Cathal Mannion. It would be a big mistake to underestimate them.
Tipperary's prospects, on the other hand, may be slightly over-estimated. They have as many outstanding players as any team and in the league Seamus Callanan suggested he may fulfil his vast potential and be as influential as Lar Corbett was when they lifted the crown in 2010. When they opened up against Cork and Clare in the league knockout stages, they played the most attractive hurling produced in the campaign by anyone. So what's not to like?
Just the fact that for all their good play and bad luck in the league final it ended up with another defeat by Kilkenny. Just like the ones they'd endured in the league group stages, the previous year's league decider and their previous three championship meetings with the Cats. This time three years ago Tipperary looked set to replace Kilkenny on the throne; since then they seem to have become a team with a knack of losing when the stakes are highest. And defensively, with 20 goals conceded in eight league games, they can seem even more porous than Cork. All the same, Noel McGrath, Brendan Maher, Pádraic Maher, John O'Dwyer and Callanan are a quintet none of their rivals can better, the Munster draw is favourable and it's very easy to see how Tipperary can win it all. It's just that it was easy to see it in 2011, 2012 and 2013 as well.
That's the big five. There was a spell when the momentum seemed to have moved in Dublin's direction in that classic semi-final with Cork and you visualised them as All-Ireland champions. Then Ryan O'Dwyer was sent off, the roof fell in and the Dubs don't seem to have been the same since. Yet the championship draw is kind to them and one big win might set the train rolling again.
Limerick's disappointment in defeat by Clare last year must surely have been assuaged by the thought that a young team had made massive strides and that further riches were there for them in the future. Since then, thanks to officials failing to heed Chekhov's dictum that the important thing in life is to humiliate no-one, the county has reminded us why, despite oceans of talent, they've won just one All-Ireland in the last 73 years. It's hard to see them recovering from the current disarray but unlikelier things happened last year so who knows?
Waterford will hope for one big shock result to make their summer as will Wexford. The ever-improving Laois will hope to confirm the league standings which saw them move ahead of Offaly, and their neighbours will try to reverse them. And Antrim will keep the faith and hope to benefit from the strenuous qualifying campaign they've been playing in for the last month.
But it's today in Páirc Uí Chaoimh that the serious stuff starts. Seconds out. Round one. Deep breath folks and away we go. This will be sheer bliss.
Aren't we lucky to have it?
PS: My personal email account was hacked and shut down last weekend so I haven't been able to see any emails messages sent to me. I can be contacted me through the column e-mail address below.
Sunday Indo Sport