The hurling SWOT test
It has been a long time since a hurling season was launched with such a high degree of anticipation, but then 2013 turned into such a spectacular whirlwind that the public were already looking forward to this year even as Patrick Donnellan was accepting the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
Most of the top contenders will have their first action of the new season this weekend, so it's an appropriate time to borrow a model used in business to assess where a particular project stands. The SWOT analysis test evaluates strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats -- four core principles that are as relevant in sport as in business. Here's how the top 12 hurling counties measure on the SWOT test as they gear up for the new season:
Strengths: They won the All-Ireland title with a young panel last year so, in theory at least, the basis for a golden period has been laid.
Davy Fitzgerald took Clare from being No 10 in the country to No 1 in two seasons and will be fuelled by an even more intense obsession to remain at the summit. There's huge flexibility in how Clare play, a valuable asset in a season when everybody will be gunning for them.
Weaknesses: How will they react to being All-Ireland champions? They have no way of knowing until the real heat comes on. This is new territory for them and is very difficult to plan for.
Their running/support game, underpinned by massive industry, ultimately won the title last year, but now that all opposition will have studied them in detail, it may not be as effective second time around.
Opportunities: Most of the squad are still young enough to know no fear -- quite a plus to take into a campaign as defending All-Ireland champions.
Davy Fitz has a large squad to choose from so even if a few of last year's high achievers drop back a little, he has replacements who are capable of slotting in comfortably, without upsetting the overall balance to any significant degree.
Threats: Everywhere! Beginning tomorrow against Limerick, all opposition will see the Clare scalp as a valuable acquisition, even when they aren't at full strength.
Strengths: Beaten All-Ireland finalists in 2013; beaten semi-finalists in 2012 -- it's a return that doesn't satisfy a county which regards regular visits by Liam MacCarthy as part of its birthright but, at the same time, it points to solid summer form.
And while the disappointment of losing to Clare last September was deep and intense, Cork also know just how close they came to winning the first game. As ever, Cork's innate self-confidence is a real plus.
Weaknesses: They need strengthening in the half-back and half-forward lines so it remains to be seen if new arrivals Aidan Walsh and Eoin Cadogan can provide the necessary reinforcements. Cork also need more leaders -- there were times last year when too much responsibility was left to too few.
Opportunities: Last year proved that being in Division 1B (Dublin and Limerick won Leinster and Munster respectively from the lower grouping) was no disadvantage in the championship, so Cork need have no worries about their situation this year.
In fact, 1B offers a chance to experiment, which Jimmy Barry-Murphy will welcome. All the more so since four 1B teams will join their 1A counterparts in the race for the league title outright. Seems like an ideal championship build-up route for Cork.
Threats: They have a tough draw in Munster (v Waterford, with the winners to play Clare in the semi-final), so it could be a longer haul than last year.
Also, to what extent will their goal-scoring capabilities be reduced by the likely change to the penalty/20-metre free rule? Ace sniper Anthony Nash was responsible for prompting the proposal for change which could now hit Cork.
Strengths: For the first time in 52 years, Dublin will go into the Leinster championship as holders, which provides a huge confidence boost. They now know that they are capable of matching the very best, whether in championship or league. That's a precious asset for a panel which is still developing.
Weaknesses: They need to increase their goal rate. They averaged one per game in six championship outings last year and while their points return more than compensated, an improved goal tally would further add to their momentum.
Opportunities: As defending champions, they earned automatic qualification to this year's Leinster semi-final and were then handed an added boost when the draw despatched Kilkenny, Galway and Offaly to the other side. It presents Dublin with an excellent chance of qualifying for the final and, irrespective of how they fare there, avoiding a testing qualifying run.
Threats: The 'season after success' syndrome? Dublin won the Allianz League title and reached the All-Ireland semi-final in 2011, raising hopes among their supporters that the following season would be even better. Instead, Dublin misfired badly in the 2012 league and championship. They will be wary of a repeat pattern.
Strengths: Their record over the past 14 years is a massive plus. It won't win games but it leaves them with a multi-layered confidence streak while also raising doubts among the opposition.
Neither sentiment may be as strong as a few years ago but they still count for quite a lot. Another significant strength is that for the first time in recent years, Henry Shefflin starts the season on a fitness par with everybody else as opposed to rehabilitating after injury.
Weaknesses: The supply lines haven't been as productive in recent years as Brian Cody would have liked.
It meant that regulars who weren't performing to maximum efficiency last year did not come under as much pressure to retain their places as should have been the case.
Opportunities: Kilkenny thrive when question marks are raised against them. It happened in 2002, 2006 and 2011, seasons where they imposed their powerful will on opposition who might have thought they were in decline. That's the mindset Kilkenny will be taking into the new campaign.
Threats: Do they go with a defence where four of six are over the age of 30? How long more must Shefflin remain the main man in attack? Will the young guns blast their way onto the team or continue to fire intermittently?
Strengths: Winning the Munster title for the first time in 17 years provided a welcome confidence injection. And when John Allen, who presided over the breakthrough, departed it was very important to get the right replacement. Enter Donal O'Grady, who launched the initial revival a few seasons ago. There's a general feelgood factor right across Limerick hurling.
Weaknesses: Is the Limerick forward line, as constituted last year, good enough to win an All-Ireland title? Probably not. It's a key area where O'Grady must work on if Limerick are to build on last year's progress.
Opportunities: Like Cork, they are in 1B of the NHL, which gives them some breathing space in their search for new talent. They need it to be successful.
Threats: They must go to Thurles to play Tipperary for the Munster semi-final. It's a tall order since Tipp will be on a revenge mission after last year's setback in the Gaelic Grounds. Losing a Munster semi-final would leave Limerick facing a tough All-Ireland route.
Strengths: If hurling were a 30-a-side game, Tipperary would probably have the strongest team of all. However, they have had difficulties in recent seasons finding a top 15/20 capable of reaching the levels set by some of their main rivals. Addressing that is the big challenge facing Eamon O'Shea this year.
Weaknesses: When they beat Kilkenny in the 2010 All-Ireland final, there was an expectation among the Tipperary public that a prolonged glory period was on the way. That appeared to permeate through to the players, leading to underachievement since then. That mindset has been a corrosive influence.
Opportunities: They have a lot to prove after last year when they won no championship games and after the previous season when they imploded against Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final. 2014 offers a chance to banish those painful memories.
Threats: Which Tipperary will turn up? If it's the Tipp of the last two championships, there's a real prospect of a generation which will be recalled for winning the 2010 All-Ireland before settling for the expectation that a one-off achievement would be enough to build a new empire. It never is.
Strengths: They are better than generally given credit for, which is a plus. It continues to strengthen their resolve, even if it must leave them wondering why they are largely disregarded in pre-season forecasts on who will make most impact.
Weaknesses: Their main men are top-quality performers while they also have some good young talent coming through. Their weakness rests in the middle order which, for all their honesty and endeavour, tend to come up short on the biggest occasions.
Opportunities: Can they progress enough of the young talent into positions of responsibility? If so, Cork will head for Semple Stadium with some trepidation for the first round of the Munster championship on May 25.
Threats: The manner in which Michael Ryan's term as manager ended wasn't exactly the squad's finest hour. Blaming the manager seems to come all too easily to some Waterford players. It's not a good trait.
Strengths: Galway 2-21 Kilkenny 2-11; Galway 0-22 Cork 0-17; Galway 2-13 Kilkenny 0-19. Those results from the 2012 Leinster final, All-Ireland semi-final and final demonstrate the potential of Galway's power output when all the generators are working at full capacity. If they managed it two years ago, why not again this season?
Weaknesses: After last year's wash-out, the spine of the team needs to be re-built. With the exception of Joe Canning at No 14, Galway are unsettled down the centre from No 1 to No 11.
And, for some strange reason, they don't always play Canning in his best position at full-forward, much to the delight of the opposition, who love to see him way out from goal.
Opportunities: Expectations are low among Galway supporters after last year's dismal efforts. That will ease the pressure, certainly in the league, where extensive restructuring is required. If properly executed, it will give them a decent chance in a championship which appears to be wide open. No county needs a better league campaign more than Galway.
Threats: There has to be a fear that last year's inertia will continue. Galway were so ineffective that it may have seriously depleted their confidence reserves. If it has, they are in trouble. However, they still have the positive memories of 2012 to encourage them.
Strengths: They drew with Dublin in last year's Leinster championship and with Clare (in normal time) in the qualifiers and, while they saw neither job through to a successful conclusion, it left them in optimistic mood after watching how their conquerors progressed so spectacularly.
Weaknesses: Liam Dunne is fishing in a smaller talent pool than many of his rivals. He is doing his best to camouflage that shortcoming and while he succeeds on occasions, it's difficult to sustain it throughout an entire campaign.
Opportunities: They are on the same side of the Leinster draw as Dublin, which they will regard as offering a real opening to reach the final, provided of course they survive the quarter-final tie against the round-robin winners (Laois, London, Antrim, Carlow, Westmeath).
Threats: Expectations are rising, so Wexford need to make a bigger impact in 1B than last year. If not, it could undo the progress made in last year's championship.
Strengths: Brian Whelahan's appointment as manager has raised hopes in a county where the memories of the glory days are receding ever further in the rearview mirror. His challenge is to impose his winning personality on a squad which needs a new sense of direction.
Weaknesses: Has Whelahan got the material to make a significant difference? The evidence to support the case is not especially convincing.
Opportunities: All great advances begin somewhere. Whelahan will be preaching the gospel of positive thinking and can display his many medals as a practical expression of its importance. The new league format gives Offaly a great chance of reaching the quarter-finals.
Threats: The 1B campaign is hugely important for Offaly, since they are due in Nowlan Park on June 7 to take on Kilkenny in the Leinster quarter-final. It's a daunting prospect, even if Offaly did trouble Kilkenny for a long time in Tullamore last year.
Strengths: A progressive mood prevails after making well-structured progress last year. Seamus Plunkett got everyone pulling in the same direction and it nearly yielded a shock win over Galway in the Leinster championship. The positivity overhang is a solid strength to take into 2014.
Weaknesses: Their talent pool, while deepening, is still more shallow than those in the top 10, so everything Laois does has to be seen in that context. Also, it's crucial that the sense of unity which applied last year continues.
Opportunities: Surviving in 1B is the first objective, followed by topping the Leinster preliminary-round group (it also includes Antrim, Carlow, London, Westmeath) and qualifying to play Wexford in the quarter-final.
Threats: As with Antrim, there's a danger they could drop into Division 2, which would be disappointing after winning promotion for this campaign.
Strengths: One of their strengths is also a weakness. Loughgiel Shamrocks, who play Mount Leinster Rangers in the All-Ireland semi-final next month, are among the top clubs in the country, but not all of their players have been available to the county team. If Antrim could call on all available talent, they would be much more imposing.
Weaknesses: Loughgiel's involvement in the All-Ireland club championship could leave Antrim without any of their players until late March, effectively ruling them out of the 1B games.
Opportunities: Reaching the All-Ireland U-21 final last year was a real boost at underage level, even if they were well beaten. At senior level, Antrim must embrace the Leinster championship.
Threats: It's likely that Antrim will be in a 1B relegation clash in a group that also features Cork, Limerick, Wexford, Offaly and Laois. Dropping into the second division would be a serious setback for any of them. Antrim's position looks precarious.
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