Liam Fennelly: Hurling title is wide open as Cats face a difficult year

Other counties seek to seize initiative as Kilkenny face a difficult year
Other counties seek to seize initiative as Kilkenny face a difficult year

A really exciting All-Ireland Hurling Championship lies ahead of us and it looks like the most open contest for years.

I did say the same last year, mind you, and what we ended up with was Limerick joining the traditional ‘Big Three’ of Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary in the semi-finals.

However, it WILL be different this year. Firstly, though they will still be there or thereabouts, Kilkenny cannot be the same since the inspirational Henry Shefflin has hung up his hurl and they have lost the irreplaceable JJ Delaney.

Tipperary might just have given it their best shot in 2014 and failed. And their great Munster rivals Cork are inconsistent to the point of being maddening — they simply cannot put a run of good games together. On the other hand, Limerick have to improve and the experience of last summer should stand to them.

Galway were in the 2012 All-Ireland Final and cannot have regressed that much, while Dublin have bounced back with new vigour, new enthusiasm and, crucially, a few new players.

Waterford are league champions and have brought great effort and expectation to the county, and we are not forgetting Liam Dunne’s Wexford who moved in the right direction last summer.

Getting beaten on the first day out can be disheartening — and not so long ago it was a death sentence. But teams are now embracing the qualifiers and momentum can be gained heading to the quarter-finals.

This year those qualifiers will have three Leinster sides and the losers of Limerick v Clare in one hat and they will be drawn against the four losing provincial semi-finalists from Leinster and Munster.

Then those four winners face off for the right to get to the All-Ireland quarter-finals. Yes, there is plenty of top-class hurling coming on July Saturday evenings.

Naturally enough the direct route is the one every manager will want his team to take and we’ll start in Munster where all counties will believe they can win their own title and the All-Ireland as well.

Limerick and Clare get it all going next Sunday. A few years ago some new forwards broke through on the Limerick scene but we are still waiting for the likes of Declan Hannon, Shane Dowling and Kevin Downes to take the hurling world by the scruff of the neck.

If I thought everything was right in Clare I would be installing them as favourites to win the All-Ireland this year.

Think of Tony Kelly, Shane O’Donnell and Conor McGrath in full swing alongside the football 
exile Podge Collins and the USA exile Colm Galvin and there is no defence in the country that could withstand all that skill.

Banner boss Davy Fitzgerald has it all to do to keep his team focused and singing from the same hymn sheet, but I do believe they will win this opener.

Tipperary have yet to rediscover their All-Ireland form and they still have not found a full-back who can dominate his patch, that was what cost them the 2014 title. Eamon O’Shea has some fine young talent coming through to add to his experienced team and I expect Tipp to beat Clare and ultimately go all the way, if they can patch up that defence. 

Cork and Waterford face off in the second semi-final on June 7. Waterford were superb in winning the league, playing in a certain way, but they have produced moments of individual brilliance as well.

Cork are not playing the game to a skill level that goes with the famed Red jersey. Too many of them, especially in defence, are struggling with the basics and there is an over-dependence up front on Pat Horgan’s free-taking.

Teams are fast copping on to this, that if you don’t foul Cork players the team finds scores hard to come by. So for me it is Waterford to face Tipp in the Munster Final and Waterford to come out second best.

Leinster really gets going with Dublin and Galway in a fortnight. Galway have made no proper progress since losing the All-Ireland Final three years ago. But if they were to win this match, they might have plenty to offer.

Dublin had a good league and  good performances, with some younger players showing up well. But they are going to need to decide quickly whether Liam Rushe is their centre-back or their full-forward and settle on a player for the position he is not filling.

Still, I expect the Dubs to win this and Galway to get a bit of momentum through the qualifiers.

Offaly had some decent days out in the league and should get through to face Dublin in the semi-final — but won’t be able to beat them.

In the other semi-final I expect Wexford to be travelling to Nowlan Park to play Kilkenny.

Whereas other managers come up with a system to suit the players they have, or vice versa, Brian Cody will never stray from his belief that every player in a black-and-amber shirt has to have the ability to contest any ball that comes his way. This plan has stood the test of time and won him repeated All-Irelands.

However, success or failure in finding a replacement for JJ Delaney could decide how far Kilkenny will go this summer. Indeed, it might decide the destination of the All-Ireland title itself.