At last, the long wait is over. As soon as last year’s championship ended, the pining for the electricity and excitement which super-charged all hurling people, and genuine sports lovers everywhere, had almost begun again. This season seemed like a lifetime away last August but now that the winter and spring and the tedious wait has passed, the championship has almost arrived in a blink.
We spent so long hankering for these days that, now that they’re here, we almost want to press pause at various stages so that we can savour every second of the summer.
We all want to go to every game but we can’t. We all want to experience those constant rushes of adrenaline in the amphitheatres across Munster and Leinster and in Pearse Stadium but we have to make do with just one hit a day. Maybe it’s just the fact that hurling people cherish these days so much that we’re afraid of wasting the tiniest drop of the sweetest wine imaginable.
Managers and players separate all that emotion and feeling from the process but there still has to be traces of those attitudes in their thinking. Every match is an event. Every point is as valuable as gold.
And if you don’t get the formula right, this championship, and a potential glorious summer, could end in a flash.
Nobody knew what to expect last year but everyone is fully aware of what’s coming this time around.
This championship will be defined by the tiniest of margins and, while it is a marathon, not a sprint, I’d still describe the Round Robin in Munster and Leinster as an Olympic standard 10,000 metres race.
Every team may take a while to hit their stride but setting the pace at the start is absolutely vital. The opening match for every team almost has to be approached like the opening round knockout games in the old days.
I know it’s not that drastic, in that your season isn’t over after one strike, but you’re certainly up against the 8-ball if you lose that first game.
Clare defied that logic last year after losing their opening match to Cork but Clare still got a huge break when beating Tipperary in Thurles, which was the only away win in Munster. I’d be more inclined anyway to look at the weight behind the overall numbers; Tipperary, Waterford, Dublin and Offaly all lost their first match last May and all four were gone out of the championship by the first week in June.
Winning is even more of a priority for Cork, Waterford and Kilkenny this weekend with their games being at home. Most teams will be looking at securing four points from their two home games, which would then require just one more point from two away fixtures to ensure a safe passage through.
Four points may still be enough this summer if positions are decided on a head-to-head or scoring difference. But if you lose one of your home games, can you realistically reach that target, especially in Munster?
With Cork having to go to the Gaelic Grounds and Ennis, they have to win tomorrow.
And yet, I still think this game is even bigger for Tipperary. Liam Sheedy’s return placed a huge focus on Tipp from the word go but Liam still has to try and steer this group through such choppy waters with a group of veterans that aren’t getting any younger.
The panel is loaded with guys from last year’s All-Ireland U21 winning squad. Jake Morris, Mark Kehoe and Ger Browne will play a part this summer but it’s still the old faces which are driving this team, and which Tipp will need to power the machine home.
Tipp will be buzzing for this but there are still question marks over the legs of some of their players. Do they have the pace for this Cork attack on what should be a pristine pitch?
Guys like Darragh Fitzgibbon and Mark Coleman were carrying injuries during the league but if those fellas are back to their best, they could set a tone Tipp might find hard to match.
From what I’m hearing on the grapevine, some of Tipp’s marquee forwards weren’t brilliant in the club championship. I watched Glen Rovers and Midleton on TG4 and Patrick Horgan and Conor Lehane were both on fire. You can’t compare club with inter-county but it just reaffirmed that difference in speed between the teams.
The lifting of Seamie Harnedy’s suspension has given Cork a massive boost. On the otherhand, you’re still never sure about the Cork defence, especially now with Colm Spillane injured.
Despite his experience, Damien Cahalane still has to convince the Cork public that he is a reliable number 3 but I’d say Cahalane has arrived at a stage now where he is happy to mark Seamus Callanan.
The Drom-Inch man may have skinned Cahalane three years ago but I’m not sure he would now. I’m also reliably informed that Eoin Cadogan is in good form and that Seán O’Donoghue is back to his flying best of last season.
Despite the perennial question marks, there is still serious pace in the Cork defence. When I watched back the video of last year’s game, there were a number of occasions when Cork defenders sprinted away from ‘Bonnar’ Maher, who was always Tipp’s speed man up front. And I just feel that Cork’s overall zip and pace will carry them through.
The Páirc will be electric tomorrow but the championship will really start in a blaze in Nowlan Park this evening.
Dublin were the unluckiest team last season but they have a super opportunity here to ignite their summer.
They have no excuses now either, especially with Kilkenny’s injury-list. Along with the massive losses of Eoin Murphy, Cillian Buckley and James Maher, it seems Joey Holden is a doubt now too. Nobody seems to know what’s the story with Richie Hogan, and whether he’s fit or not, or out of favour.
You could be looking at match-ups down the middle of Paddy Deegan on Liam Rushe, and Huw Lawlor on Danny Sutcliffe. Straight away, you’d be saying advantage Dublin.
Fair enough Kilkenny have TJ Reid, Walter Walsh and Adrian Mullen up the other end of the field but they’ll be faced with Chris Crummy, Sean Moran and Shane Barrett in the half-back line. Do Kilkenny have that kind of a defensive shield with this team? I don’t think so. If Shane Barrett wasn’t fazed by Gearoid Hegarty, he won’t have any hang-ups about young Mullen.
The Dubs built a huge base last year under Pat Gilroy and Mattie Kenny has certainly strengthened the platform this season. Dublin beat Tipp in a league quarter-final. The hardest match Limerick got in the league was against Dublin. They are going into the lion’s den now but I fancy Dublin to come out with a result.
When you look at last year’s Clare-Waterford game in Cusack Park, the terms, and personnel, have radically changed this time around. During that match, Waterford lost Tadgh de Burca, Noelie Connors, Barry Coughlan and Darragh Fives to injury. Kieran and Shane Bennett weren’t around either but now they’re back.
On the otherhand, Jamie Shanahan – who was outstanding that afternoon – is gone with a back injury. Conor McGrath is also injured.
David Reidy, who did a power of work in that match, isn’t on the squad, while Conor Cleary is suspended. Ian Galvin didn’t feature that afternoon but he went on to become a key impact sub for Clare last summer. And he is out too.
Clare have had to shake things up big time. Jack Browne looks set to start at centre-back, with Seadna Morey going into the corner, but Clare’s subs bench looks far less threatening now than it did at the end of last summer.
Even a couple of Clare’s main strike forwards – John Conlon and Shane O’Donnell – have had minimal game-time coming into this match.
John, who was out with an ankle injury, has played a couple of challenge games and 20 minutes in a league game for Clonlara. Since returning from Harvard, Shane O’Donnell has played a league game for Éire Óg against Doora-Barefield and not a whole lot else. So how sharp can those two be?
Waterford’s greater depth, especially in Walsh Park, makes them favourites but I still think Clare are good enough to get something out of this match.
The team are not as consistent as they need to be but they’re always good for a backlash. And they’ll be primed for this after Waterford hit them for 31 points in March.
A win would be absolutely fantastic but a draw would be just as precious. My heart is saying Clare but the back of brain is leaning towards Walsh park beginning a period of being a new fortress.
Finally, Carlow won’t beat Galway in Pearse Stadium tomorrow but Carlow will give it a real rattle. What they have achieved has been incredible but I also think the GAA need to acknowledge as much.
That is not being patronising but a county which has only a tiny handful of clubs needs every assistance it can get. Carlow have a good team now but it will always be a numbers game for them.
And the GAA need to try and ensure that the numbers keep coming when this team goes.