Donal O'Grady: The League priorities for hurling's top eight

Kilkenny: Protect TJ

Throughout the NFL season, the coaches and pundits continually refer to the importance of keeping the top players of the various franchises healthy, and Kilkenny’s top priority must be to keep hurler of the year TJ Reid injury-free.

Reid is now 28, and in his prime: his height, strength and amazing skill levels on the ground and in the air pose huge challenges for any defender. He regularly and effortlessly moves back and forth between attack and defence, supporting colleagues or carrying ball and running at defenders.

It’s this ability to play in any forward position, allied to his pace and superb athleticism, that allows him hugely influence Kilkenny’s big games in Croke Park and it’s virtually impossible for a defender to be employed against him in a man-marking role.

With recent retirements and injuries, the health of marquee players like Richie Hogan and Michael Fennelly is vital but Reid in particular is of paramount importance.

Galway: Smooth relations

A new management team led by Micheal Donoghue has just taken over in Galway. Tensions between the majority of the players and the management team led by Anthony Cunningham obviously couldn’t be solved to the satisfaction of both sides.

Some aspects of management caused dissatisfaction among the playing panel and Galway’s main need is to ensure that these particular problems are solved, never to occur again.

This first requires team manager Donoghue and coach Francis Forde to sit down and fully explore the problems and proposed solutions with representatives of the players. If the problems related to game plans last year, then input from the players is not only required but invaluable, as they were the group directly involved.

Detailed game plans must be developed and practised continually — and tweaked — over the coming months so that their implementation is seamless. Otherwise…

Tipperary: Correct little details

Tipp manager Michael Ryan recently stated that they were public enemy number one: he may be attempting to cultivate a siege mentality within the camp, something that served Clare well 20 years ago, but that is not his greatest need.

When Tipp are under pressure in big games they can lack composure, with players taking the wrong option: victory or defeat in tight games can usually be traced back to a number of individual plays that go wrong or lack of support for the man in possession.

Their attack spurned chances against Kilkenny in 2014 while their defence gave away possession needlessly against Galway last year, coughing up at least three points in a one-point game, so little things are costing them in big games.

Correcting these flaws before championship time is Tipp’s greatest need, and can only be done with input from players and coaches in the video room and training pitch.

Waterford: Improve scoring power

In 2015, Derek McGrath delivered a league title from Division 1B, and Waterford’s system ensured they were competitive.

But in the Munster final against Tipp and semi-final against Kilkenny, they never looked like mounting a winning challenge, though the scorelines were close and they were never that far adrift.

A returning Paraic Mahony will offer more support up front for Maurice Shanahan. Tweaking their system sufficiently to bag bigger scoring totals while remaining compact in defence is their greatest need.

This change could have a number of components. Firstly Tadg De Burca (injured at present) will still play as a sweeper but may be asked to carry the ball into midfield rather than knocking it to a colleague 30 metres from his own goal.

Different systems of support movement and interval play may have to be developed, and Colin Dunford and his young forward colleagues must improve their option-taking up front.

Cork: Build from the back

Good teams are built on defence, and the most important defensive position is goalkeeper.

The confidence of defenders is often directly linked to the keeper’s performances, and Cork’s greatest need is for Anthony Nash to rediscover the form that made him an All Star a few years ago.

Over the last two seasons, his general performance didn’t reach the high standards he had attained previously and the concession of particular scores will have disappointed him. He developed the habit of retreating to the goal-line (easily done) rather than advancing in certain situations, such as for the goals by Waterford’s Tom Devine and Jonathan Glynn of Galway last year.

Donal O’Mahony of Bishopstown, a former keeper himself, is the new goalkeeping coach, and first port of call will be the video suite. ‘Goalkeeper positioning for opposition goal strikes’ should be the subject, and goals by Seamus Callanan in 2014 and Maurice Shanahan in 2015 are good starting points.

Dublin: Unearth forward gems

Kilworth’s Fred Sheedy passed away before Christmas. He was a great character and a great selector, involved in bringing three All-Irelands to Cork.

I had the privilege of working with him in 2003 and 2004, and when we’d meet after a weekend of looking for talent at club matches, Fred invariably asked: “Did ye see any good forwards?”

I always think of Fred when I think of Dublin, as they need one or two game-breaking forwards.

Ger Cunningham has spent a year in the capital, seeing many club games and noting the potential of attacking players.

Sean Treacy of Cuala, younger brother of David is a prospect, while Eamonn Dillon, usually a half-forward, showed up well at corner-forward when they won the Walsh Cup. Dublin have only two home Allianz League games. Unearthing new talent and finding the right combination in attack is their greatest need.

Limerick: Win promotion

Limerick are favourites for Division 1B of the Allianz League. Although The Treaty have only two games at home and will be without the Na Piarsaigh contingent, their main contenders, Clare, have major injury problems.

Manager TJ Ryan can draw on some of last year’s successful U21 side but experimentation may be kept to the minimum, as their greatest need is to win Division 1B.

A tight defence that will gel together, play as a unit and make life difficult for the opposition is a must. Limerick could take a leaf out of the Waterford playbook and have an extra body protecting either their centre-back or inside line of defence.

A strong defence can carry a team through the regular five-game league. The players’ burning ambition has always lain in the championship, but going all out in the first five games and easing back in the knockout league stage may be the way to go.

Clare: Build around Kelly

Clare were All-Ireland champions in 2013, playing a system that suited their skills and talents.

Central to the 2013 victory were team captain Pat Donnellan, Tony Kelly, and Podge Collins, but their league ambitions are now hampered because Kelly, Collins, and Donnellan are out through injury.

There was much dissatisfaction within Clare over their 2015 displays, but Collins did not play last year and while Kelly played well, he lacked support.

Come championship — in a system that suits them — a fit-again Collins, playing to his 2013 standards and concentrating solely on hurling, is their greatest need.

They need him giving a repeat performance of all-action unpredictability, bringing goalscorers Shane O’Donnell and Conor McGrath into the mix while linking the play from defence to attack.


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