So how will Kilkenny lads do this year?

Another year has dawned. I hope it is a good one for all, whether you are a player, an official or supporter. Here’s hoping dreams come true.

Another year has dawned. I hope it is a good one for all, whether you are a player, an official or supporter. Here’s hoping dreams come true.

Every new year brings hope that better times lie ahead for all clubs that found the previous season challenging.

The perennial question being asked around the county and, indeed, further afield is ‘how do you think the lads will do this year’? If one knew the answer to that question a tidy sum could be accumulated by the middle of next September.

Before looking forward, let us look back. The annual review of 2013 team performances placed Kilkenny fifth in the order of merit with Clare, not surprisingly, sitting at the top of the ladder.

The ‘experts’ also had Cork, Limerick and Dublin ahead of Kilkenny. Some might argue that perhaps Kilkenny should have been placed ahead of Limerick, but despite winning the National League title it is difficult to argue with those overall team positions.

The All-Star awards in November were a Kilkenny ‘free zone’ for the first time in years. The winning of the

National Hurling League clearly cut no ice with the selectors.

The difficulty I have with such a decision is if a less successful county won the National Hurling League they would be assured of at least one All-Star award. Consistency in the selection process remains the All-Star

selectors’ biggest challenge.

Kilkenny’s physical preparation for 2014 began a little earlier than usual and in line with the new regulations governing the ‘closed season’. The reality now is that it is up to each panel member to ensure he retains an appropriate level of fitness once his club exits the championship.

So, how will Kilkenny do this year? With no retirements being announced we must assume, at least for now, that the senior panel members will all be on board in 2014. That is good news, but expectations must be real.

Just as Kilkenny defined the hurling style over the past 15 years or so, it now appears that Clare has brought another dimension to the game with a major emphasis on speed and ball carrying.

Clare’s mantra in 2013 appeared to be that whatever the opposition scored, we (Clare) will score more. Somehow I think manager, Davy Fitzgerald will need to be a little more defence-minded in 2014.

A number of key Kilkenny players are now in the veteran category, a word I use in the best possible sense. They owe the county nothing. The reality is that the younger players must now step up to the plate and take on leadership roles throughout the field.

I am pleased to see the team mentors opt for the senior squad to contest this year’s Walsh Cup rather than use an under-21 panel which happened over the past two years. New panellists will get an immediate opportunity to stake a claim for a permanent place.

Ultimately the level of competition that can be created in the full panel over the next four months will determine how well Kilkenny is placed for a serious assault on the championship. The other teams placed ahead of Kilkenny in the end of year pecking order - Dublin, Cork and Limerick - will all be serious contenders in 2014.

The assumption that Clare can continue with its current style of play makes them favourites to retain the McCarthy Cup in the eyes of many. Opposing managers will have plans to stymie Clare’s style. We might get an early indication of what formula emerges from Kilkenny when the sides meet in the opening round of the National Hurling League in February.

Cork will be stronger with a number of footballers committing to Jimmy Barry Murphy’s panel. For Dublin, this is another huge year. Anything less than reaching the All-Ireland final would be deemed a failure.

With Galway it is impossible to know. They are talented, yet they remain a hurling enigma. Hurling needs a team from the remaining counties to break loose and upset one of the top six. They need look no further than Mount Leinster Rangers for inspiration.