Who will win the 2018 hurling Championship?

Enda McEvoy is the first to ask ... Who’ll win the 2018 All-Ireland? 

Galway's Joe Canning celebrates at the final whistle.

SURELY it’s not too early to ask the question. If anything it’s a bit late.

Nicky English once observed that the race for the MacCarthy Cup begins at teatime on the first Sunday of September. Nicky was right.

We’re hurling folk, remember. As such, we never stop dreaming about matches as yet unplayed. Oh, we have the decency to give the new champions half an hour to lift the trophy and do their lap of honour alright, but that’s about the height of it. 

By teatime the new champions are the old champions. Look to the future now, it’s only just begun.

It may have only just begun for Galway. The average age of their 14 outfielders last Sunday was 24.7. As a unit they are about to enter their prime.

They can grow together. They can win more together. True, similar remarks were uttered about Clare four years ago, but most of that Clare team were a mile off their prime. More importantly, they had not yet done their living or tasted the ups and downs of intercounty life.

Look at the living these Galway players have done. Lost an All-Ireland final after failing to show up in the second half, unquestionably the kind of experience that puts iron in one’s soul. Unseated a manager. Got hammered for it. Got relegated. Lost an All-Ireland semi-final by a point. Blown a golden promotion ticket.

They’ve lived. They’ve learned. Their age profile shouts of more and better to come. They score points like Taylor Swift goes through boyfriends. They could afford their leading Hurler of the Year contender to be held scoreless on Sunday.

Even allowing for the reflex which leads some people to hail every new MacCarthy Cup winners as a potential treble-winning team, Galway have positioned themselves to capture at least one of the next three All-Irelands. There will not be another 29-year gap.

It was a highly satisfying, above-average All Ireland final and it yielded smooth, above-average winners. Had it been the Gold Cup the Timeform report would have read something like, “Winner made all. Quick and clean at his fences without resorting to spectacular leaps. Jockey never had to reach for the whip. Three lengths, comfortable.” 

A team that doesn’t so much live by points alone as turns up its nose at the very notion of green flags is a particularly dangerous animal. Even for teams who specialise in goals there’s always a day when the goals don’t come. Given a sufficiency of possession there is never a day when the points, or at any rate the pointscoring opportunities, don’t come. 

Now try visualising the Galway of 2018 if they decide to up the ante by eschewing two simple points per game and attempting to work the opposition goalie instead. Gulp.

New champions bring about a new agenda. Eliminating Tipperary’s attacking curlicues was the objective for the pack this year: that was a task that came with a large degree of the cerebral attached. Stopping Galway’s up-and-at-em approach will be the objective for the pack next year; that will be a purely physical task and one alluded to by Derek McGrath when he acknowledged that Waterford had been worn down in the closing quarter.

Quite. Each of the winners’ five concluding points was a byproduct of their size and abrasiveness. Jason Flynn’s from a dropping ball; the free given against Shane Fives after he was confronted by a gang of muggers in maroon; Conor Cooney from a ruck; Flynn from another aerial ball; and Niall Burke drawing a free from Tadhg de Búrca under a puckout. If in doubt keep banging on the door.

Clearly Galway’s improvement could have been predicted and in many places was. Micheál Donoghue came late to the job in 2016 after the Anthony Cunningham saga and was playing catch-up all through.

With a longer runway available this time around the plane took to the skies quickly, piloted by a crew suffused with a sense of missionary zeal.

But teams cannot possess a sense of missionary zeal indefinitely and, like any All-Ireland-winning outfit, a number of individuals almost certainly performed as well as this summer as they’ll ever perform. Besides, Tipperary hit 2-29 last September with an ease and style that was positively frightening; they failed nonetheless to make it back to Croke Park 12 months later. Galway’s 0-26 on Sunday, while impressive, will daunt nobody.

Waterford? If we could be guaranteed they’ll return within the next three years then this could be classed a satisfactory first draft of a script with a happy ending. If.

Amid the chatter about Kevin Moran’s wide early in the second half the loss of Shane Bennett – or, rather, the introduction of Maurice Shanahan far earlier than both he and his manager would have wished for – has been overlooked.

In the closing ten minutes, moreover, the losers hit three wides – Austin Gleeson’s lineball, a Pauric Mahony free and a slightly rushed Moran attempt from 65 metres – that on another day would have found the range. 

All-Ireland day is not any other day, however.

Waterford have reached an inflexion point. The sweeper system, which has brought them miles, was – and too many of the naysayers missed this, whether deliberately or otherwise – never intended as anything more than a means to an end.

It was not a statement of ideological absolutism; it was intended to make them difficult to break down and it did. But if any moment highlighted its limitations last Sunday it was Gleeson’s lineball on the Cusack Stand side after 20 minutes.

When it dropped on the 20-metre line Waterford had one forward inside and two outside; Galway had five defenders on the scene. Weight of numbers allowed them to sweep up and two passes later David Burke split the posts at the other end of the field.

In their six outings Waterford broke the 20-point barrier only twice in normal time, against Offaly and Wexford. Potential champions must be able to break it every day without fail. The task for next year, and a desperately tricky one it is, will be to broaden their palette without compromising their security system.

That will entail employing a more conventional full-forward line, making increased use of Patrick Curran and Shane Bennett, upgrading Tom Devine – he of the two goals at Salthill in April - from impact sub to full-time target man and elsewhere giving Conor Prunty his head.

Liam Griffin was sitting behind the press box last Sunday. Enjoying the occasion, as Griffin, being Griffin, always does, and enthralled by the novelty of the pairing, albeit lamenting the fact it had taken hurling 133 years to arrive at a Galway/Waterford showdown.

But better late than never. The pairing was a blast of fresh air in a summer that’s been a blast of fresh air. All those crowds, all that colour, all the big occasions in Wexford Park and Semple Stadium and Páirc Uí Chaoimh, and all of this before two record All Ireland semi-final attendances. And then the People’s Final to conclude the People’s Championship.

The 2013 championship proved to be a false dawn. Democracy would be delayed. It finally arrived in 2017 and if the championship brought more big occasions than it did good matches, what of it?

Cork rediscovered their Corkness and went as far as they were entitled to go. Davy Fitz lit a flame on Vinegar Hill and the pikemen flocked to the flag in their droves.

It wouldn’t have taken a lot for Tipperary to win the All-Ireland semi-final and by extension the final; the real damage was sustained during the spring, when the kitchen began to overheat and Michael Ryan, though he prevented a blaze, couldn’t quite extinguish the fire.

Clare were left with their share of might-have-beens after the Munster final and the All Ireland quarter-final, yet may have more realisable room for improvement than any other county.

The losers? Offaly, getting even worse. Dublin, dismal at Semple Stadium. Limerick, not quite as poor as Dublin. And Kilkenny, who fell off a cliff and went from the second-best team in the country to the seventh-best. At least either they or Limerick will glean some comfort from events at Thurles this afternoon.

Before we conclude, two observations. A crackdown on handpassing is called for in 2018; throwing the ball has become epidemic. As for the upcoming Special Congress: while the proposals have much to recommend them, they must be discussed on their own merit without reference to football’s Super 8.

If this summer demonstrated anything it was that hurling has nothing to fear from the big ball. More bad football matches – it’s an inevitability - will only make the small-ball code glow even brighter.

A new animal is at large in the countryside. If Tipperary were a rattlesnake, striking quickly and the venom was death, and Kilkenny at their best were some petrifying hydra-headed monster - lop off one head and you were now confronted by Eoin Larkin or Eddie Brennan - Micheál Donoghue’s Galway are a boa constrictor.

Get the victim in their coils and squeeze into insensibility.

Snake charmers required in 2018. 

Bring it on.


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