Wednesday 22 November 2017

Hope springs eternal for chasing pack

The power has shifted to Leinster but Tipperary have class to retain title, says Jamesie O'Connor

T here was a time, going back about 10 years or so, when it seemed as if every hurler or footballer interviewed in a match programme listed The Shawshank Redemption as their favourite film of all time. The most plausible explanation for this is that it's a genuinely great and uplifting movie. However, maybe the central role the theme of hope played also had something to do with it.

Hope, optimism and the yearning that good things can eventually happen is something every inter-county GAA player has to carry a good dollop of entering into the championship season. Of course in the hurling world that was before the current Kilkenny side came together and set about systematically extinguishing hope, or any semblance of it, in just about any place that represented a legitimate threat.

However, on the back of Tipperary's success last season and, more pertinently, Dublin's three weeks ago, the empire finally appears to be crumbling and the aura of invincibility that surrounded this great Kilkenny side for so long appears to be waning.

With Galway's presence and the emergence of Dublin this year as a potential power, it means that for the first time I can remember, the Leinster championship carries more intrigue than its Munster counterpart. The evidence appears incontrovertible at this point in time that the top three in Leinster are stronger than the top three in Munster.

Kicking off the Leinster championship with a win on the road over Laois last weekend, Antrim's prize is another away trip, this time to Wexford Park, a journey they'll make with a reasonable degree of confidence. This is a side that should have beaten Offaly 12 months ago and shocked Dublin in the qualifiers. At a neutral venue, you'd be tempted to put a few quid on them, but Wexford at home is a big ask and that advantage should tilt the balance towards the Slaneysiders.

Colm Bonnar's men have to feel good about the way they ended their league campaign and no one could have foreseen them securing the three points they needed against Cork and Tipp in those last two matches. That has to bring confidence and the same dread and fear playing Kilkenny might have engendered a year ago shouldn't exist now. Nevertheless, toppling them will be a bridge too far. Kilkenny will have a shot at creating another piece of history by becoming the first side to win seven Leinster titles in a row on the first Sunday in July.

With Offaly decimated by injury, and the morale-sapping reality of Division 2 hurling waiting for them next year, Dublin in Croke Park next weekend is a different proposition to what it would have been in the past. The Dubs have taken a quantum leap forward and seem to possess a lot of the tools required to merit consideration as genuine contenders. They're a physically imposing side with pace, athleticism and ball-winning ability. Whether they have sufficient depth and enough finesse to be around in September remains to be seen, but I expect them to be Galway's opponents in the Leinster semi-final, and that in itself is a mouth-watering prospect.

Galway will feel they have the better hurlers, provided they perform. That caveat however sums up the Tribesmen: provided they perform! In that regard, Joe Canning's form is absolutely central to determining Galway's fate this season. At least he has had a good break and physically has to be in better shape than a year ago. The jury however remains out on whether the supporting cast has the mental toughness or the ability to go all the way.

In Munster, Tipperary start as favourites. Were they to play anywhere near the extraordinarily high standards they reached in last year's All-Ireland final, it's hard to see anyone dethroning them. While the abiding memories of that game may be the flair, class and movement of Lar Corbett, Noel McGrath and the rest of the Tipperary attack, it was their sheer intensity and hunger that made it the spectacle and occasion it was, and laid the foundations for the win.

Throw in last year's successful under 21 side and the emphatic nature of their victory and it's no wonder they appear well placed to be even stronger in 2011. Yet, under new management, even with a duo as cool, respected, and with the playing experience and pedigree of Declan Ryan and Tommy Dunne at the helm, there is no guarantee they will reach those same levels.

With so much talent and such a young panel, the danger also exists that a growing cockiness may emerge, with the ensuing danger that they will forget about the things that got them to where they were last September. There was evidence of that in their approach to the Cork game last May. That's why when the championship really begins in Thurles next Sunday, Tipperary are unlikely to make the same mistake.

With their league campaign spluttering to an undignified end with defeats to Wexford and at home to Dublin, those Cork supporters who travel to Semple Stadium are likely to do so more in hope than expectation. The apparent failure to unearth any new real talent, especially up front, leads one to believe that Cork are going to struggle against the better sides and once again depend on the old guard who remain from the Donal O'Grady era.

There's certainly no evidence to suggest that they have the firepower to go to Thurles and turn Tipp over. Maybe a run in the qualifiers may allow Cork to find their optimum side, but this team looks a pale shadow of the force it was.

However little optimism may exist in Cork, there's likely to be even less in Clare who await the winners. Losing the Division 2 final to Limerick was a crushing blow as it leaves a young and largely inexperienced side mired for another year in the second tier. That hangover is likely to linger and deep down the Clare players and management probably know they are simply not good enough to take Tipperary down. At least Ger O'Loughlin has an opportunity to address the fundamental flaws in the team that the loss to Limerick exposed. The problem is that most of those issues relate to key positions right throughout the spine of the team. Consequently, not many in Clare expect to see this side go beyond the second qualifier phase.

Limerick, however, will be quietly confident of pulling off an upset over Waterford in the other side of the draw. Credit to Donal O'Grady, he had the courage to give youth its head and it was a bold selection to include so many relatively inexperienced players in the side that beat Clare -- given the stakes at play. With some experienced players to come back, one of the shrewdest and canniest managers around and a clear plan that the players have bought into, Limerick have as many reasons to be optimistic about the season as anybody. None of this will have been lost on Davy Fitzgerald. He will know this is a game fraught with danger for his Waterford side. Having practically built a new team from the one he inherited, Waterford have evolved into a more defensively sound but far less flamboyant and free-scoring side than the team that thrilled us for much of the last decade.

Waterford's underage structures are bearing fruit and they also appeared to have found plenty of new players. They were competitive in every league match, but I'm not convinced they have enough real quality up front to retain their Munster title. Still, they are likely to be in the shake-up come August even if the ultimate prize is likely to elude them.

Kilkenny's apparent demise, coupled with the change of management in Tipperary, offers more hope than in quite some time to the three or four others that have the potential to be there or thereabouts. Galway, Dublin, and Waterford will all have aspirations of making the All-Ireland semi-finals. On a good day, Cork would believe themselves capable of beating any of that trio and I expect Limerick to cause at least one upset.

None would fear Tipp the same way they would Kilkenny in seasons past. Therein lies the conundrum. Write them off at your peril, but if Kilkenny fail to summon the reserves to mount one last push, then this championship is wide open.

Tipp will have to win five games via the direct route to win the All-Ireland. Historically, Munster teams have struggled to do that and I can't remember the last time it happened. Can this team buck the trend? All the evidence says yes.

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