Hurling Power Rankings
10:45, 25 May 2012
It’s open season for hurling so, in that spirit, let’s see who’s positioning the crosshairs and who is under fire…
*Positions in table are relative to last season, eg Cork +3
1. Kilkenny (-)
Michael Jackson once sang about not stopping ’til you get enough. Kilkenny have carried the message and the issue of enough seems to be unquantifiable for them. They have lost just a single championship match - to Tipperary in 2010 - since August 2005 and have been beaten in Leinster just once - in 2004 by Wexford’s last-minute goal - since 1997.
Brian Cody has a couple of injury concerns right now with Henry Shefflin still mollycoddling his way back to full health while Richie Power and Michael Fennelly are currently sidelined. But it’s a long summer and, if history has taught us anything, it’s that The Cats rarely show up without fronting up. Over the course of the league, they beat every challenger and put Tipp, Cork and Galway in body bags.
Young players such as Richie Doyle and hamstrung Cillian Buckley have knitted seamlessly into the Kilkenny fabric while TJ Reid and Richie Hogan look set to colour the tapestry in 2012. Ally that to the strongest backbone in hurling and the Cats again look to be chasing off the dogs.
There were signs of fallibility in the Dublin and Cork games during the regulation-round games but let’s be clear here: Kilkenny will be tough to stop. Don’t dare allow them sneak into the long grass under the shroud of short-term injuries or the smokescreen of Lar’s return, Kilkenny reside on the pedestal.
2. Tipperary (-)
Tipp are number two until someone tells them otherwise in the championship, or until they tell a certain someone themselves. The league table may say Tipperary were third behind Kilkenny and Cork but what it does not disclose is that, on average (and forgive the decimal point), just 6.5 of the 15 that started the 2011 All-Ireland final began each game in NHL1A this year.
There were poor defeats to Kilkenny at Nowlan Park and Cork in the league semi-final so that will be a concern. As is their continued penchant for starting games somewhat slowly and Declan Ryan’s proneness to taking players off hastily: John O’Keeffe and Adrian Ryan being just two.
Indeed the wing-back spot that O’Keeffe earned last season is the main issue for Ryan who has hummed and hawed over who should succeed the Clonoulty-Rossmore man. In our opinion, O’Keeffe has been given something of a raw deal because if every player who took a roasting from Henry Shefflin was put on the scrap heap, the Leinster and All-Ireland championships would have been made defunct a long time ago. Tom Stapleton has the jersey for now.
Should Ryan decide to put his best 15 hurlers on the pitch by season’s end, he might put Brendan Maher at five and pair James Woodlock with Shane McGrath at midfield. It’s not a bad option - even if deprives the team of Maher’s midfield play-making - while up front the league showings of Brian ‘Buggy’ O’Meara and Pa Bourke have provided a pleasant headache. As has the return of Lar Corbett. And with Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher, Eoin Kelly and Seamus Callanan also yet to start a meaningful game yet this year, there is plenty of artillery.
But the flat performances must become a thing of the past, along with the route-one-only hurling of 2011.
3. Cork (+3)
The case with each team chasing Kilkenny is that no one can say with any real certainty what the true order of power is. What we know is that Cork are on an upward curve. The future looks good for the Rebels with Conor Lehane and Darren Sweetnam supplementing the likes of William Egan, Steven McDonnell, Luke O’Farrell and Lorcan McLoughlin who debuted in the Denis Walsh era.
However, this is not a fledgling side. Far from it. Niall McCarthy, John Gardiner, Brian Murphy, Eoin Cadogan, Patrick Horgan, Pa Cronin and Paudie O’Sullivan are but a few who have been around the block.
The loss to an Achilles injury of Donal Óg Cusack does present an issue for Jimmy Barry-Murphy. Anthony Nash excelled when he came on for the captain in the league semi-final against Tipp, while Martin Coleman had a day to forget against Kilkenny in the decider. It’s a position over which no team ever enjoys having a question mark.
It seems the scars of the Gerald McCarthy era are gone and the pain of last year’s heavy defeat to Galway have faded. The league final pummelling to Kilkenny has readjusted expectations and, while that was delivered in an uncomfortable fashion, it might just be that an All-Ireland semi-final would be a good year’s work for 2012. Improving all the while.
We put them ahead of Dublin but only just. In fact we would dearly love to see the sides lock horns this year to put the matter beyond doubt.
4. Dublin (-1)
Yes they got relegated but as much as beauty is skin deep, so too is ugliness. Of the four games Dublin lost in the 2012 league, the defeats at either end by Galway will only cause real concern. The loss in Waterford was poor but then Dublin didn’t field their strongest team in what was a dead-rubber for them. Steadier free-takers would have seen them across the line in one-point defeats to Kilkenny and Cork, while profligacy in the first half from placed balls against Tipp put the Dubs in a position where they needed a late goal just to draw.
Still this is a team that reached the All-Ireland semi-final last year and first reminded us that the Premier County were mortal after all. Conal Keaney, Stephen Hiney and Tomás Brady will all be back in blue this summer while Danny Sutcliffe looks, at 16/1 for Young Hurler of the Year, the best-value bet around.
Therein lies a little warning sign though, as Anthony Daly’s selections could be key. On the evidence of the league, Sutcliffe must be let roam the wings where he put 2-3 past Tommy Walsh and may have ended John Gardiner’s days as an inter-county wing-back. In the league final, he was wasted at corner-forward. Daly needs to find his best 15 and not be so hasty in ripping the likes of Paul Ryan off the pitch if he hits a wide or two.
Another word of caution: Dublin must get to the root of their cruciate problem. Martin Quilty was the latest victim in a challenge match last week while Paul Schutte was lucky to keep his 80% intact after playing for Dublin in a nothing friendly less than 24 hours after a club championship match.
Speaking of the club championship, five-in-a-row champions Ballyboden St Enda’s players comprise a good portion of the panel and to see them eliminated at the group stages after three uncharacteristically flat performances does not bode well for Dublin.
5. Galway (-)
The Tribesmen have shown us how fickle the world of sport is. On April 1, Kilkenny made them look a fool in a 3-26 to 0-10 skelping; and Anthony Cunningham had removed his entire full-forward line - including Damien Hayes - inside a half hour.
Fast-forward two weeks to Joe Canning’s return and suddenly they’re a team again - albeit with the caveat of throwing away a two-point lead against 13 men in extra time. Jump on another week and they annihilated Dublin with Hayes back on form. All of a sudden, Galway are supposedly back.
That’s exactly the point though: we’re not fully convinced yet but it’s fair to say they can produce big performances, as they did when they cleft Cork in twain during last season’s championship.
It’s predictable to call them an enigma… I guess we’re just predictable but too often they have let themselves down when it has mattered.
6. Waterford (-2)
It’s been one bad-news story after another since Michael Ryan took over. Firstly, Eoin Kelly was off the panel, then the manager said his side were unfit, after that selectors Dr Philly Ryan and Nicky Cashin jacked it in as the defeats piled up.
John Mullane and Kelly were parachuted right back into action for the final two games as the Decies desperately scrambled free of relegation but there is a sense that this team has lost too much experience.
Yes, Ken McGrath and Sean Cullinane bring that to the table as selectors now but, on the field, there are worries. Kelly, Noel Connors and Maurice Shanahan have all struggled with injuries while Shane O’Sullivan has favoured a summer in the US to a championship foray.
Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh, Kevin Moran, Mullane, Tony Browne and Shane Walsh do provide leadership and they showed last year, after being eviscerated by Tipp in the Munster final, that they are capable of bouncing back from hurling’s hinterland to the centre stage of an encouraging All-Ireland semi-final performance against Kilkenny.
They just escaped against Limerick in Munster last year - plenty of people think the Banner, who are next in our list, might catch them.
7. Clare (+3)
Clare are in an ideal situation. Waterford are looking fragile coming into the Munster semi-final while the league semi-final loss to Kilkenny has recalibrated expectations down by the Shannon.
If the Banner lose to Waterford, they’re still a coming team; if they win, they’re a coming team.
Davy Fitzgerald wouldn’t entertain the idea that they have breathing room this year because he is thinking of the now. So what has he? Conor McGrath is one of the most exciting forwards in the game while John Conlon and Darach Honan - back after a hip injury - can put themselves into that bracket too.
Clare seem a team high on workrate but with a few coats of polish still required.
8. Limerick (-1)
John Allen had a job on his hands. The league didn’t go to plan meaning the Treaty will spend another season in Division 1B, while selector Ciaran Carey has walked. Seamus Hickey will miss the clash with Tipperary after being absent for the league while studying in the US.
The downside? Being beaten so comprehensively by Clare early in the league and letting the 1B final slide from their grasp against the Banner. The upside? New star Shane Dowling will complement fellow youngsters Declan Hannon, Kevin Downes and Tom Condon in an improving squad.
They should have beaten Waterford last season and had enough chances to put Dublin out at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage. The quality of player is there - whether Allen can pull that together in enough cohesive team performances in this year’s championship is the question.
It’s hard to imagine they will beat Tipperary and, with so many sharks set for the qualifier tank this year, we’ll quickly see what stage they’re at.
9. Offaly (+1)
There is a temptation to write off Offaly at times and their recent challenge match mauling at the hands of Kilkenny at Clara has added to the pessimism. But as we see time and again in sport, it can sometimes take as little as one win to turn night into day.
Wexford have had the edge in championship clashes over the past few years and this year turned a seven-point deficit into victory when the sides met in the league. Yet Ollie Baker’s side are 4/9 favourites to win their Leinster clash in Tullamore so victory there would set them up for Galway, a team they will have no fear of. Why? Because they pushed them to a replay two years ago and might have deserved better.
There is good reason to doubt the Faithful but they pushed Dublin for long spells last season after Derek Molloy - who was excellent while on the pitch - was red-carded and lost by the minimum to 14-man Cork. They might be closer than they believe, which could be the issue in itself.
10. Wexford (-1)
Liam Dunne has tried to improve the professionalism in Wexford but there’s no doubt that his team are a distance behind what they were. Not to mention second to football in the county.
It’s not all bad news though, young players such as Jack Guiney and Paul Morris gave the new boss plenty to think about during an inconsistent league, and last year they were competitive with Kilkenny for spells of their Leinster clash.
They finished second last in Division 1B and had to beat Laois in a relegation play-off but they were just a point off third place too, so it would be dangerous to write them off too quickly based on that. Not that we’re writing them up either, because there is little to suggest they can win championship silverware of any kind. This year or in the next few.
Dunne is starting from a low base but it seems as if he is willing to search the county for the best players. At times, Wexford have been accused of too often hanging their hat on Oulart-the-Ballagh’s hook but just three of the 28 men called into a trial game on Friday 18 May were from the three-in-a-row county champions. The net is being spread wider.
Though what they catch this year might be little more than small fry.
11. Westmeath (+1)
Perhaps it’s time to pay the Lake men more than just lip service. They’re in their second championship season following relegation to the Christy Ring Cup in 2006 and have won half their games.
Brian Hanley took over a team that had lost seven from seven in the league last year but he rattled Galway after beating Carlow and though the season ended in Antrim, he has returned and conquered the Saffrons in 2012.
Galway are again the hunters in their next championship outing but Hanley can go into the game with some degree of confidence after how he fared against his native county last season. It should end their involvement in Leinster this year but they have the heart to bounce back, as shown when their 14-man team came from five points down to beat Antrim.
12. Antrim (-1)
There is something rotten with the state of Antrim hurling. One win in their four Leinster campaigns after capitulating to a Westmeath side they were on top of last week, both on the scoreboard and in terms of personnel.
But let’s not get carried away. They showed in 2010 that a favourable draw and performance in the qualifiers can springboard a run in the back door. The league form was patchy but that was without the Loughgiel men who were winning a club All-Ireland.
Liam Watson scored 0-16 and 3-07 in the All-Ireland semi-final and final so they have a man on form, if they can get the ball to him. It’s not a one-man bad but unless the team rows in together, it will be 15 one-man bands playing different tunes. They need to get back on song.
13. Laois (+1)
One year ago, retired and shunned Laois hurler James Young spoke of his frustrations with the county board who gave him a 96-week ban after an incident at the end of a club game in September 2010. “At this stage I just want to put all this to bed. I'll be 33 by the time the ban is over and I'm most likely finished. The worst thing is, if I was back fit and playing under a good manager, with our best team available, I'd have no fear of going out and playing the likes of Dublin in the morning."
Tommy Fitzgerald left the panel midway through 2011 during Brendan Fennelly’s disastrous reign: "It was a brilliant set-up under Niall Rigney (for the three previous seasons). He was brilliant, so professional, so organised and we had full attendance at training. We felt we were making some progress but then your man comes in and it takes 10 steps backwards.”
The temptation was to call Laois’ bluff this season because they are missing a few face cards - as new manager Teddy McCarthy well knows - and it has been a regressive couple of seasons since the nearly-that-never-was of 2009.
An All-Ireland quarter-final place was within grasp back then under Rigney but he left in 2010 after defeats to Dublin and then Carlow. Fennelly had an even worse time of it in 2011 as he struggled to keep his panel together as they lost to Antrim and by 34 points to Cork. McCarthy has had to do without Brian Campion et al because of injury while Zane Keenan and Young are no longer involved. Dual player Cahir Healy, meanwhile, opted for the bigger ball when a choice had to be made last weekend.
This season’s Division 1B brought nothing more than Division 2A for 2013 after a whitewash of defeats. Yet they turned Carlow over in the championship. Willie Hyland scored 0-13 and they have another crack at Dublin - a side they feel they owe from 2010 when Campion was perhaps harshly sent off. There’s rarely much between them.
14. Carlow (-1)
Not quite days numbered but… just four points from play against Laois tells the story. Kevin Ryan has complained about poor attendances at training and though they got to and won a league final against Westmeath, they came up short against the O’Moore County. The county still awaits a first Leinster senior championship victory.
There are just six hurling clubs in the county so Ryan’s task is a huge one and any injuries will always hurt. They may need a decent draw in the qualifiers because, unlike the Laois team who beat them with a little to spare, they don’t quite have a Willie Hyland.
But they have shown enough to suggest they can press plenty of the smaller fries in the championship waters so a good draw could keep them interested for a while yet. While 2013 in Division 1B could help them push on again.
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