Manager: Kevin Ryan (second season for the Waterford native)
Captain: Neil McManus (second season)
2013: Fifth, won just one game, against Carlow, who they again defeated in the relegation playoff.
What they want: Respect. Same as it ever was for this most northerly hurling outpost and stronghold. They don’t do themselves any favours when club infighting breaks out though, as it all too often does.
What they fear: Bad beatings (and they’ve suffered a few). Under Kevin though, provided they all pull together, not alone should they avoid that, they should be competitive in this division.
On the rise: Oh, how they could do with a few more of the Loughgiel boys, particularly the very independent Liam Watson. In the meantime, watch for Niall McKenna, Ciarán Johnson and Daniel McKernon, all still under 20 years of age.
On the mend: Shane McNaughton and Aaron Graffin are out for several months and won’t make the league.
Super stat: In Ulster hurling, Antrim are the powerhouse, a commanding 52 senior titles (despite no championship for 47 seasons), 54 minor crowns (though it only started in 1930 and five years have been missed). Outside the province it’s a different story however, with not a single A grade title in any competition at county level. Glens powerhouse Loughgiel Shamrocks save the day however, with two All-Ireland senior club titles (1983 and 2012).
Prospects: Not good, especially with both Cork and Limerick in this group. Wexford, Offaly and Laois are also on the rise.
Fixtures: Sunday February 16, Wexford (h); Sunday February 23, Limerick (a); Sunday March 9, Laois (a); Sunday March 16, Cork (h); Sunday March 23, Offaly (a).
Goal: To make the league quarter-finals with a top-four finish and give themselves at least one more game against top opposition before the Leinster championship begins.
Manager: Jimmy Barry-Murphy (third season in his second term after a previous stint 1996-2000)
Captain: Pa Cronin (second season)
2013: Fifth in a very competitive Division 1A but lost out in the relegation final to Clare.
What they want: To do what Dublin did in 2013 and bounce straight back up to 1A while at the same time being in a position to blood a few new prospects.
What they fear: With a top-four place almost assured and thus a quarter-final slot, Cork do not want to get into a dog-fight for the only promotion place reserved for the group winners. Offaly, Wexford, Laois and Antrim cannot be taken for granted but the probable winner-take-all game here is against Limerick.
On the rise: Many of the U21 side were given a run last year by Jimmy Barry-Murphy so it could be argued that we already know who’s around. Dual stars Aidan Walsh and Eoin Cadogan should make a difference, while last year’s minors Michael Cahalane and Pa O’Callaghan may see some action.
On the mend: Paudie O’Sullivan, so sorely missed last year, How much of a difference would he have made in the All-Ireland final? Who knows. Pa Cronin, Conor O’Sullivan and Seamy Harnedy ball have short-term injuries, expected to miss the Limerick game.
Super stat: Let no-one ever accuse Cork of taking the league seriously. They won the first ever title, 1925/26 and added an All-Ireland title later that year but since then it’s been far more miss than hit with just 13 more titles added. In the meantime Cork has won 23 All-Ireland SHCs. Just how lightly is it taken? Well, it’s 15 full seasons since the county’s last national league success. Is anyone panicking? Go to the Cork GAA official website and under inter-county honours won, the league isn’t even mentioned…
Prospects: In this division, good, though they could lose out to Limerick. Even if they don’t win promotion it’s not a disaster as they could still win the league.
Fixtures: Saturday February 15, Limerick (h); Saturday February 22, Laois (a); Sunday March 9, Offaly (h); Sunday March 16, Antrim (a); Sunday March 23, Wexford (h).
Goal: Promotion, while bedding in the new guys.
Manager: Seamus Plunkett (second season)
Captain: Matthew Whelan (second season) but it’s not finalised yet
2013: Topped Division 2A and beat Westmeath in the promotion final.
What they want: Progress. That successful league campaign last year was followed by a tremendous championship display against Galway in Leinster, before suffering a beating from eventual All-Ireland champions Clare. Laois must bounce back from that.
What they fear: It’s not the top division but they’re up against some of hurling’s big boys here and if Cork and Limerick are in the mood…
On the rise: Four minors from last year in Joe Campion, Ciarán Collier, Dwane Palmer and Enda Rowland (keeper) which is a huge boost given Cahir Healy is travelling this year while Zane Keenan and Gearoid Burke are out with work commitments.
On the mend: Laois have been hard hit. Jimmy Walsh, Brian Dunne and John Brophy are recovering from various operations and are likely to miss all the league while star forward Willie Hyland broke a finger in training last Wednesday week.
Super stat: 13 counties have won the All-Ireland SHC title, including Laois, London and Kerry, yet only ten have won the national league and Laois are not among those, nor are London or Kerry (Tipperary, Kilkenny, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Wexford, Dublin, Clare, Waterford and Offaly).
Prospects: They could manage a win or two, perhaps even three, but Seamus Plunkett still has a lot of work to do in Laois to bring them back among the real elite.
Fixtures: Sunday February 16, Offaly (a); Saturday February 22, Cork (h); Sunday March 9, Antrim (h); Sunday March 16, Wexford (a); Sunday March 23, Limerick (h).
Goal: To stay in Division 1B.
Manager: TJ Ryan (first season)
Captain: Donal O’Grady (second season)
2013: First in Division 1B but lost the relegation final to Dublin, a bitter experience for the third year in a row.
What they want: After so many close calls in recent years they’ll want to finally get out of this damned division! That’s not the big aim though. Even under a change of management this is now a fairly settled and mature team. The championship will be in their sights from day one.
What they fear: Going backwards from last year. The league final loss to Dublin apart, with an unbeaten run in the regular rounds, a Munster title, a close call against eventual champions Clare in the All-Ireland semi-final, 2013 was good to Limerick. They need now to push on from that.
On the rise: Could we see last year’s ball-winning wing-forward David Breen used in his Na Piarsaigh club position of centre-back where he has been outstanding? Kevin Downes has also enjoyed an impressive return to top form with his club.
On the mend: Seamus Hickey still recovering from cruciate, due back in April but will probably miss all of the league. Declan Hannon is recovering from an ankle operation but is due back mid to late March. Na Piarsaigh lads should all now be back having lost the All-Ireland club semi-final.
Super stat: With Kerry having been denied in the football championship in 1982, Kilkenny in hurling in 2010, the five-in-a-row has become an almost mythical number in the GAA. But Limerick though have achieved just that, albeit in the National Hurling League, the Mick Mackey-inspired team of the ’30s winning in 1934-’38, adding to their All-Ireland titles of 1934 and ’36.
Prospects: Might have too much for Cork in the pivotal game, as they had in the 2013 Munster final, get to division 1A next year.
Fixtures: Saturday February 15, Cork (a); Sunday February 23, Antrim (h); Sunday March 9, Wexford (h); Sunday March 16, Offaly (a); Sunday March 23, Laois (a).
Goal: Promotion, then a good rattle off the league title proper.
Manager: Brian Whelahan (first year)
Captain: Not appointed yet
2013: Third in Division 1B last year, a point ahead of Wexford.
What they want: New manager but steeped in hurling, was always going down this road. A top-four finish is a must, then a test against a 1A side. The big question is can Brian get these guys to the level of fitness now being set by the likes of Clare? If so, they have the hurling to trouble anyone.
What they fear: The unknown. Does Brian have what it takes to do the business at this level? His pedigree would suggest yes, absolutely, but this league is far more demanding than it was even in his own playing days. Not much margin for error.
On the rise: St Rynagh’s Stephen Quirke; Kevin Connolly from Coolderry is also in there ready to blossom; Brian Watkins (Birr), plus the Geraghty twins, Thomas and Peter from Kilcormac-Killoughey.
On the mend: Rory Hanniffy not training yet this year but due back. James Rigney is also back after a year out.
Super stat: As one of the finest wing-backs to have graced hurling, with his club, Birr, Brian Whelahan won four All-Ireland Club titles, seven Leinsters, 12 Offaly county senior titles; with Offaly he won two All-Irelands, three Leinster, one national league, three Leinster U21s, two Leinster and All-Ireland minor titles. He also won two Railway Cup, two Texaco hurler of the year, four All Stars, and was chosen on the Team of the millennium and the Leinster team of the last 25 years. Bate that in two shots!
Prospects: A toss-up. Everyone waiting to see how the new management team progresses.
Fixtures: Sunday February 16, Laois (h); Sunday February 23, Wexford (a); Sunday March 9, Cork (a); Sunday March 16, Limerick (h); Sunday March 23, Antrim (h).
Goal: Speed up Offaly hurlers, rather than Offaly hurling. If they can get up to the pace of the modern game and sustain it for 70 minutes, they’re the real deal.
Manager: Liam Dunne (third season)
Captain: Garrett Sinnott (second season)
2013: Fourth in Division 1B but did have an honourable draw with Limerick, a game they could have won. The loss to Offaly – another heart-breaker – was the decisive game.
What they want: To get the attention of both Cork and Limerick and beat Offaly, Antrim and Laois. May not have enough to finish top but should be in the quarter-finals.
What they fear: Fear isn’t a word or emotion that Liam Dunne will tolerate in that dressing-room and his team played like that last year, tore into everyone they met. If they can do that again but this time with more potency on the scoreboard, Wexford hurling will be on the right road.
On the rise: The truly precocious Conor McDonald we saw last year, though he was then still only a minor. Kevin Foley from the Rapparees club is another 2013 minor to look out for (the Leinster U15 Michael Foley Tournament is named in honour of his late father).
On the mend: Liam Óg McGovern, Diarmuid O’Keefe, Matthew O’Hanlon and hopefully later in the year, Tomás ‘Mossy’ Waters
Super stat: Wexford won its first All-Ireland senior hurling title in 1910 but actually had five All-Ireland senior football titles in the bag, including the first four-in-a-row (1893, 1915, ’16, ’17, ’18) before winning their second in hurling. Since 1910 they’ve added five more hurling crowns (1955, ’56, ’60, ’68, ’96) and four leagues (1956, ’58, ’67, 7’3) but their fortunes have waned again this century.
Prospects: If they can ally finishing to the aggression they can take a step forward this year.
Fixtures: Sunday February 16, Antrim (a); Sunday February 23, Offaly (h); Sunday March 9, Limerick (a); Sunday March 16, Laois (h); Sunday March 23, Cork (a).
Goal: Of course they’ll aim to win the group and gain promotion but a second or third-place finish will also do nicely.
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