Lonesharkoy looks at the contenders for the 2015 Liam McCarthy Cup, in his preview of the All Ireland Hurling Championship.
All Ireland SHC
There are not too many instances in the world of sport where a team who are the reigning champions and the winner of three out of the last four titles would start the year at 11/4 to regain their crown. It could happen in a sport such as American Football, where parity is a stated goal of the rule makers and where there are upwards of a dozen teams who start the year with the Super Bowl as a realistic aim. However even in this wonderfully democratic era for the sport of hurling, it might even be a push to say that there are eight teams who could end the year on top of the pile.
Admittedly eight potential winners is a huge step forward from where the sport was just three or four years ago, but a deeper examination quickly highlights a few cracks in that particular argument.
The obvious first port of call is a look at the two sides that have already shown their hand to a certain degree, Limerick and Clare. Coming into this tie, there were huge question marks over both sides and the fact that neither side was able to pull clear and win well would suggest that in an overall context, the two teams are still very much in the middle of the pack with a lot of improvement to find.
In Clare’s case, it’s easy to say where the improvement will come from. Conor McGrath will add plenty to the forward line when he comes back from injury, all the more now that Aaron Cunningham has added his name to the mix, while Brendan Bugler’s return from suspension will be a huge boost further out the field. Certainly it’s fair to say that the team which finished Sunday’s game was stronger than that which started it too, so management will have learned a lot. Their discipline, not to mention their performance at midfield, will need work, but they should advance and won’t be far away.
It’s harder to make that case for Limerick. Their ability to throw the kitchen sink at opponents is undoubted, but they needed Clare's lack of discipline and Clare mistakes to get in front – and yet weren’t able to hold that position.
The injury to Páraic Mahony simply hasn’t been afforded nearly enough importance by the oddsmakers. Let’s ignore for a moment that a run of league games has seen Waterford cut into as short as 7/1 in spots having started the year at 33/1 generally. Their success was built on the back of a tactical approach that will become far less effective as teams get used to hurling against it. Add in the likely absence of their best player and they can be ruled out.
Perhaps it’s because they’re the modern day equivalent of the boy who cried wolf – the county who cried “contender” – but we’re happy to draw a line through Galway as well. They still have several elite hurlers and a plethora of good young players coming up through the ranks, but there is no clear evidence that they’ve addressed the weaknesses in several key positions along the spine of the team, while Anthony Cunningham looked like a dead man walking towards the end of last year.
They’re one poor performance (not even necessarily a bad result) away from implosion at any time, and it would be a huge surprise if they made it to the last four.
Of the counties outside the top three, Dublin looks like the team with the most upside. They’ve no fear of the traditional powerhouse sides, they have a nice ability to alternate between running the ball and going direct, while they are a team that have regrouped well after a disappointing year in 2014. Ger Cunningham will offer a fresh perspective too and while Anthony Daly is a big miss, a lot of Cunningham’s key tactical decisions so far this year – Liam Rushe to full forward, Conal Keaney to half back – have worked out very well.
The bigger questions however surround the big three, and of those, it’s hard to get away from the idea that Kilkenny’s losses to retirement are being overplayed somewhat. JJ Delaney is the only one of the retirees who was a key figure in 2014 and the early signs are that Joey Holden could be a very capable replacement on the edge of the square. Add in a couple of recruits from an under-21 panel that’s expected to be quite capable, and they probably deserve favouritism yet again, even if that’s not what people might want to read in what’s supposed to be a wide open championship.
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