Walking the line: In the hunt for the McCarthy Cup
Brian Cody (Kilkenny)
Kilkenny's championship-league record in the last decade reads as follows: Played 117, Won 96, Drew 4, Lost 17.
Over the last four seasons it reads: Played 45, Won 39, Drew 1, Lost 5 (the defeats were in the league).
All quite remarkable, yet scary in its own way for Cody and Co since every empire -- sporting or otherwise -- eventually falls. Could it happen to Kilkenny at the start of a new decade?
There appears to be a growing belief that Cody will ease through the National League in an attempt to keep the team fresh for the All-Ireland five-in-a-row attempt. Personally, I don't believe it.
His style is to work the National League as hard as is practical, allowing it to select the team for the championship. It's a policy which keeps all players -- experienced and greenhorn -- on their toes from the start of the year. It will be the same this time. And just because a player was aboard the team last September, doesn't mean he'll make it for this year's championship.
After all, Martin Comerford won the man-of-the-match award in the Leinster final, yet was omitted from the starting line-up for the All-Ireland final; although he did come on to score the clinching goal. But Cody's approach to most facets of preparation won't change, even if the historic five-in-a-row is within touching distance.
Liam Sheedy (Tipperary)
What else could he have done against Kilkenny in last year's All-Ireland final? Very little. He had the team primed to perfection and, despite missing some excellent goal chances (Kilkenny goalkeeper PJ Ryan was brilliant, but he shouldn't have been given a chance of saving on a few occasions), Tipperary still put themselves in a winning position.
Tipp's performance would have won most All-Ireland finals of modern times but against the most successful (not to mention stubborn) team in hurling history, they had the momentum ripped from them in the closing minutes. They are again regarded as Kilkenny's biggest threat this year but Sheedy (below) knows there are other fierce ambushes awaiting Tipp, not least against Cork at Pairc Ui Chaoimh on May 30. Lose there and the whole dynamic changes for the reigning Munster champions.
The view that the experience gained last year will, on its own, be the catalyst to take Tipp to the No 1 spot is fanciful. Sheedy knows that too, which is why he will be seeking to increase power in all sectors.
John McIntyre (Galway)
Galway had seven managers in 17 seasons between 1992 and 2008 but only two (Jarlath Cloonan and Conor Hayes) survived more than two years. That's a cruel attrition rate which mirrors the desperation in a county that can't quite figure out why it hasn't been more successful since the late 1980s.
Actually, it's quite simple: they haven't been good enough, and no amount of underage success can disguise that. McIntyre is now in his second year and, on past experience, has to reach the All-Ireland semi-final, at least, to secure an extension. Mind you, a place in the last four hasn't always saved managers previously.
Galway's high self-regard, allied to the outside view that they are always just on the verge of making the breakthrough, keeps them well up the betting lists every year. But McIntyre heads into 2010 knowing that unless he assembles a meaner defence and more leaders all over the field, Joe Canning's genius won't be enough to start the new decade with a significant advance.
Davy Fitzgerald (Waterford)
Fitzgerald is a better manager now than when he presided over Waterford's advance to the 2008 All-Ireland final. Why? Because he has gained valuable experience. The '08 season took on a life of its own after the mid-summer madness in Waterford, so last year -- his first full term in charge -- was always going to present Fitzgerald with a different type of test.
In fairness, he passed it. Waterford lost to Kilkenny and Tipperary, the two best teams in the championship, but beat Galway, who were regarded as the pick of the rest. Forecasts of Waterford's demise have surfaced at the start of every season for quite a few years now but they haven't materialised and there's no reason to believe that Fitzgerald won't have them mightily competitive again this season.
Denis Walsh (Cork)
It's his first full season in charge so this is where we will see his real imprint. There was little he could have done last year except improvise within parameters which were set by the winter/spring strike. It was always going to militate against Cork in the championship.
This year, Walsh goes into the campaign on a similar basis to all his rivals. He has the backing of the players, but now faces the big decision as to whether it's opportune to look beyond some of the long-established names who have been around for a long time. The chances are that he will make quite a few changes, both in personnel and in terms of how Cork play.
Every coach has his own ideas and while Cork played in a certain way under different managers throughout the last decade, Walsh has to decide if that system suits in an evolving situation. A hunch says he'll make significant adjustments on all fronts.
Ger 'Sparrow' O'Loughlin (Clare)
He wouldn't have seen himself in this job some months ago, but times change very quickly in modern-day management. O'Loughlin takes over at a good time for two reasons.
Firstly, the mutinous players can no longer hide behind allegations of faulty management techniques and secondly, the success of the Banner's U-21s last year has lifted the county's morale.
More than anything, O'Loughlin needs stability and an acceptance by everybody in the county that whatever chance they have of making progress in peace time, rows will totally undermine them.
Hopefully, for Clare and for hurling's sake, he will be allowed some time to settle into the job without being subjected to the destructive back-biting that has poisoned Clare in recent years.
Justin McCarthy (Limerick)
New Limerick selector John Tuohy is an early candidate for an 'Optimist of the Year' award.
He said he was hopeful that the players who are currently making themselves unavailable to play under Justin McCarthy would change their minds. This, despite the statement issued by 24 players earlier in the week which concluded: "We reiterate that we will not play any active part in the 2010 Limerick senior hurling panel while the present management is in place".
Sounds pretty clear. This row was allowed to fester to the point of serious infection for months and now it looks as if Limerick will field a second-string team in the league. Cork tried that last year, only to face a public backlash as the heavy defeats piled up. Everybody, including McCarthy, knows what happened after that.
Anthony Daly (Dublin)
The cheeriest manager on the circuit, Anthony Daly (below) always manages a smile in good and bad weather. He experienced both in a first season which, in hindsight, should have yielded more.
Limerick's awful performance against Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final made their win over Dublin in the quarter-final hard to take for Daly and Co. It really was a glorious opportunity for Dublin to land a place in the last four after having earlier put in decent performance against Kilkenny in the Leinster final.
Dublin are now regarded as a serious hurling force, leaving Daly with the challenge of not only convincing them that they can move on from here but also coping with the demands that rising to the next level involve.
Joe Dooley (Offaly)
Well beaten by Wexford in the Leinster quarter-final and later by Cork in the All-Ireland qualifiers, Offaly rescued something out the 2009 season that could prove invaluable. Winning promotion to Division 1 brings them back among the big boys this spring, an advance which Dooley identified as a key target last season.
Surviving in the top flight will be a tough challenge, although they are helped by having four home games. Dooley has been building patiently over the past two seasons, during which time there have been highs and lows, so this really is examination year when Offaly face up to the key question: are they on their way back or are they to continue in the bottom half of tier one?
Colm Bonnar (Wexford)
Missing out on promotion to Division 1 last year was more damaging than championship defeats by Dublin and Limerick, as it has impacted seriously on how Wexford go about improving themselves in this season's league and, in turn, how they set themselves up for the championship.
Wexford were ahead of Dublin in Leinster up to last year but slipped back after losing the Leinster semi-final, which was a big disappointment for Bonnar. Promotion has to be a priority for Bonnar this year because if Wexford fail to escape Division 2 for a second successive year, it certainly won't help his chances of being retained in a county which, as John Meyler will testify, can be pretty ruthless with managers.
Niall Rigney (Laois)
There are dozens of All-Ireland medals in the possession of players who were a lot less effective than Rigney, but then that's the norm for counties like Laois. He is now trying to manage them into a position where, if they're not exactly challenging for All-Ireland honours, they will at least be operating at optimum performance. Ultimately, that's all any manager can achieve. Rigney has restored stability to the Laois scene and will be targeting a challenge for promotion as a top priority, even if Division 2 is more competitive than is generally thought. Laois are heading in the right direction under Rigney.
Dinny Cahill (Antrim)
Cahill and O'Loughlin are the only new managers in the 13 counties challenging for the Liam McCarthy Cup. Even then, Cahill has plenty experience of Antrim, having served there before. Playing in Leinster was supposed to give Antrim a huge boost last year but it didn't materialise, while the nonsense which applied afterwards, where some players missed a qualifier tie because they were on holidays, underlines the extent of the task facing Cahill.
Still, if he's prepared to make the long journey from Tipperary, he must believe he will get the required commitment. If he doesn't, then Antrim hurling is going nowhere.
Kevin Ryan (Carlow)
A fourth-place finish in Division 2 with four wins from seven games, followed by victory in the Christy Ring Cup final which carried promotion to Liam McCarthy level, marked a progressive '09 and Carlow are looking forward to the new season. Ryan has done an excellent job and with the Leinster draw pairing them with Laois, they won't be without hope of prolonging the campaign.