We have barely inched into March, but already there is a giddiness in the hurling world because prospects for the season look really inviting.
All-Ireland champions, Clare, look like they should be a force again.
Leinster champions, Dublin, after a faltering start, suggested last time out that they will have something big to offer too.
Likewise Tipperary and Waterford.
And Allianz National League champions and current Walsh Cup holders, Kilkenny, won’t be too bad either after a disappointing 2013 championship that left them without an appearance in Croke Park in donkeys years, and outsiders in the All-Ireland series for the first time in 16 seasons.
On Sunday, another of the annual contenders, Galway hit Nowlan Park in the third series of matches in the National League, so it will be most interesting to see what they have to offer in a match that is far from a run-of-the mill affair.
The 2014 League is developing into a dishy affair after two series of matches that have left all six counties involved level on two points each. Everyone has suffered a defeat. Everyone has tasted a victory.
After this weekend’s action the possible contenders at both ends of the table could become apparent, although no one will be absolutely safe from the worry about relegation.
Over the past four or five years Division 1A of the League has developed into a smashing competition. It is a high class event, worthy of the Division 1 rating, and a new belief has built up around the first big competition of the season.
There was a time when counties were lukewarm about the League in the mistaken belief that it could hurt or blunt their edge come championship time. Kilkenny helped bury that myth by running up five League/Championship doubles between 2002 and 2012.
Other counties saw that doing well in the League didn’t take anything from Kilkenny come championship time, and so they put more into the competition. The winners have been the fans who have been treated to some engrossing matches.
We wouldn’t be silly enough to use the recent Kilkenny/Tipperary thriller at the ’Park as a typical example, because that 44-score dazzler was a one off. The same day Waterford showed fired and determination when beating Galway; Dublin were red hot in the defeat of Clare in another high scoring affair (2-17 to 0-17), so the evidence is there that counties are more finely tuned in these times.
What Galway team - and we don’t mean that in terms of personnel - will show up in Nowlan Park is hard to know. It has been impossible to make them out in recent years. One day no county could beat them. The next they could be as flat as a pancake.
Manager Anthony Cunningham must be perplexed. Their two matches to date were typical. In the first, they roasted Dublin. In the second, they failed to match Waterford serious work rate and they flopped to a 0-22 to 1-13 defeat.
Injuries hurt them, like Johnny Glynn (hand), and the absence of the Portumna crew hasn’t been a help, but the effort has been full on from the likes of Conor Cooney, Jason Flynn, Aidan Harte and others, but they are still striving to consolidate the centre of their defence. Iarla Tannian manned the centre-back position in the last match, but that appeared a patch up job rather than any long term strategy.
All the same, Galway being Galway, we can expect a high octane effort this time after the disappointing effort against Waterford. Their form can only go one way!
Kilkenny are a most interesting case study this season. The winning Walsh Cup effort opened the door for a few new guys to break into the team, and they jumped right through. Right now Joey Holden, Padraig Walsh, Brian Kennedy, Mark Kelly and even Jonjo Farrell have earned the right to a shirt through the strength of their performances.
Manager Brian Cody has always rewarded good efforts with a ‘re-pick’, and there is no reason why those mentioned above should fall off the first team sheet just yet. The more game time the less experienced players can get in the League the better, because the League is the learning ground.
The championship is not really ‘a chance taking’ competition. The consequences of losing in the championship can be severe, but a county can miss a beat in the League and still avoid trouble.
The top four teams qualify for the Division 1 quarter-finals (along with top four teams form Roinn 1B) so all six counties still have a chance of making the cut there. The quarter-finals could be strong too, so this League can be a smashing place for any and all new players to make a serious case for promotion come championship time.
Manager Cody and fellow selectors Michael Dempsey, Derek Lyng and James McGarry have given plenty of players games, with Richie Hogan showing for the first time in the last match. And very well he did too. Michael Rice, Michael Fennelly, Richie Power, who rejoined the squad last week, and J.J. Delaney are among those who have yet to take their season’s bow, so it would appear that the Kilkenny panel is knitting together nicely with the county doing as well as it has to date.
Okay, there was a defeat suffered against Clare in Ennis on the opening day of the League. For me, there were more positives than negatives in that showing, and it hadn’t to do with mere ommitment or effort. There was some really fine hurling produced by a very inexperienced outfit.
As ever, Brian Cody has said Kilkenny would be interested in winning the League, if they can. Winning home matches is a must in that situation. Galway can expect a hot reception in the ’Park, and they will need to be on a good day if they are to win.