It feels like a long time since Kilkenny reminded the hurling world that they weren’t for the scrap heap just yet. In early September, they put the young upstarts of Tipperary in their place with a commanding display at Croke Park and since then we’ve been looking forward to resumption of the rivalry and seeing if anyone else can muscle in on the duopoly.
Describing it as an eventful off-season is like saying there’s a hint of ginger about Henry Shefflin. The off-the-pitch drama has come at a steady flow and the outcome of the upheaval means the start of the National Hurling League will be greeted with far more raised eyebrows than it normally would. Normally the Cats and Tipp reserve their one-upmanship until they’re out on the green stuff, but during the off-season, they brought competitiveness to the world of the shock retirement.
Even a Rolls Royce eventually builds up too many miles on the clock and although Eddie Brennan (33) was hardly decrepit, he decided to hang up his inter-county caman. That was understandable after more than a decade playing for Kilkenny and enough silverware to fill a GAA obsessed Aladdin’s cave. When the more youthful James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick (27) and John Dalton (26) decided upon their own self-imposed exile, there was more of a shock. Combined with the withdrawals of goalkeeper, PJ Ryan (34) and Micheal Kavanagh (32), the strength in depth of the panel has suddenly come into question. In reality, the Cats will simply dip into vast well of young talent and find a couple of replacements, but clearly they won’t be as experienced or as Championship-ready as they would like.
Not content with their rivals and neighbours hogging all the limelight, Tipp had one bombshell up their sleeve with the news that Lar Corbett was retiring from inter-county hurling. Despite being young enough not to remember when a time Mick O’Dwyer was considered the hot young managerial property of the GAA, he was one of the old hands of the squad and a key figure in providing leadership to the young panel. Then of course there’s all the points he scores. They miss him to some extent and a large part of the league campaign will be finding a formula that minimises the impact of his departure.
So to the first round of games and there must be no sense of leaving the best until last around the league headquarters because they jump right in with some cracking matches. Kilkenny and Tipp do battle in the Marble City on Sunday afternoon and with all the upheaval, making a prediction would be as ill-advised as telling Brian Cody that baseball caps are “soooooo early 90s”. It should be a great game and that’s as far as I’m prepared to go.
Under the Blue Wave strategy for global domination, Dublin need to win an All Ireland title of one description or another approximately every eight minutes. That heaps huge pressure on Anthony Daly, firstly to make a decent fist of defending their league title and secondly, to make further progress in the All Ireland. He has set a target of a Leinster title for his team and the road to making that happen starts against Galway. It’s unfair to label the Tribesmen a ‘one man team’, but without Joe Canning, they look a lot less elite. They have to do without his services for a few weeks and that will add to the sense of disruption as Anthony Cunningham looks to put his stamp on the job.
Before all that however, there’s something of a Munster hurling bonanza as a couple of sets of neighbours take their grievances to the hurling pitch. Davy Fitz brings his brand of high-pitched whining back home to Clare as he begins the county’s latest bid to pretend it’s still the mid-90s. His first game of note sees his team make the short trip to Limerick. Meanwhile, in Waterford they begin life after Fitzy. The one consolation is they don’t have to waste much time polishing silverware and can concentrate on starting afresh under Michael Ryan. They start the process against a Cork team who endured one of their most disappointing campaigns in recent history when they failed to reach last year’s quarter-finals. Jimmy Barry-Murphy has been drafted in to rebuild the Rebels. He has mountains of medals from his exploits as a dual hero for the county, but returning Cork to the top of the pile from this low point might actually be enough for his to be considered a Leeside version of Jesus. The league won’t make or break his plans, but they’ll give us an idea of what level of miracle to expect from him.