Con Houlihan once wrote that “A terrible snobbery surrounds hurling. It is at its worst in Cork and Kilkenny and Tipperary”. While what the legendary wordsmith was intimating can be easily understood, it scarcely needed to be stated so drastically. The sentiments tie in with Eamonn Sweeney’s ‘Hurling Man’ piece, often referred to here before.
In the case of the great man from Castle Island, he was alluding to how difficult it can be for counties to make a breakthrough in the small ball code. More specifically, to the stir caused by the stickmen of Offaly in 1981 when they managed to do so. They did so again some years after and were probably the inspiration for the likes of Galway and Clare and Wexford which followed.
Clare’s capturing of the 2013 title could be classified a breakthrough of sorts as it signified the maturing of a plethora of good underage sides. Indeed, such has been the success enjoyed by young players in the Banner County, you feel they could at least be lurking on the headlands of the autumnal harvest for quite a while.
Where the next new dawn might arise from would seem decidedly more difficult to decipher. Some months back, it was opined that little was likely to change in the hurling world. It was felt that “Clare have skipped a few furlongs clear of the chasing pack”. So, now that the Spring competition has been concluded, how do things stand?
Well, the midterm report suggests little has changed. If things have altered, it is in the fact that Tipperary now appear to have the momentum with them it was felt others might do. Even though they lost, the fact they contested the NHL Final must be counted as progress given some of what’s gone on.
Cork seem to have stalled – at best – while any momentum Limerick may have generated has surely dissipated thanks to more in-fighting and rancour. Which is a great pity, because their taking of the Munster title last season was a breath of fresh air for the game and one they should have been capable of harnessing into positivity.
Waterford, too, have been besieged by strife. Thus, if Tipp can keep building and Cork manage to rediscover a semblance of form, they could be the major players outside of the current kingpins and the Munster SHC should be the bubbling, enthralling cauldron it always tends to be.
The above analysis to date, of course, leaves one corner of the hurling story to be explored. Gut feeling is that Davy Fitzgerald will be secretly content with where his charges are at with the season at its current standpoint. For defending champions, maintaining performances at altitude for an elongated period over a couple of seasons is often the greatest challenge.
To this end, the Clare boss will have to have been pleased that his charges not only managed to remain competitive throughout the league whilst also demonstrating a level of depth in their reserves that will be critical to their chances of prosperity as the summer action unfolds.
Galway, as is often the case, appear to be something of an enigma. All of which leads back to Kilkenny. They haven’t gone away, you know! Suspicions earlier in the season that they wouldn’t be too fussed about losing their opening couple of league games appear to have been well founded. Having gone the whole of last season without a trophy, the wounded Cats are likely to be at their predatory best going forward.
Dublin, to some extent, fall into the same category as Galway. Though as Leinster holders they will undoubtedly be keen and well fired up to win the Bob O’Keefe Cup again. The grand old competition is much maligned and in some ways the detracting is warranted. However, for several reasons, I would hoe that it will always be retained in some form.
Not least because it offers certain counties the opportunity to achieve some progress and make breakthroughs of sorts of their own. Regarding the forthcoming competition – though their league form might make it seem unlikely – it wouldn’t surprise me if Offaly were to move forward even a bit.
Ultimately, though, it may come down to Clare and Kilkenny to battle it out for outright honours. Seeing Davy Fitz and Cody do battle on the sideline would be worth tuning in for in itself!