County by county guide to the 2018 hurling season
By John Harrington
Galway's 2017 All-Ireland SHC Final victory over Waterford remains a vivid memory, but it already very much belongs in the past.
We might still be just in the first week of 2018, but most of the competitors for the Liam MacCarthy Cup this year have already played a provincial cup or challenge match.
Managers are working with extended panels with the hope of finding a diamond or two in the rough, and tactical and positional tweaks are already being road-tested.
Here's our guide to how all the runners and riders are shaping up for what promises to be an intriguing year for hurling.
Manager: Micheál Donoghue (3rd season in charge).
2017 form: The Tribesmen were utterly dominant in 2017, winning the Allianz Hurling League, Leinster Championship, and All-Ireland Championship.
*Player to watch: *Thomas Monaghan.
The Craughwell club-man starred for the Galway U-21s last year and also impressed when given the chance to feature in the Galway senior team. Breaking into the Galway attack on a regular basis won’t be easy, but the speedy, skilful, and accurate Monaghan is certainly capable of making a big contribution to the cause in 2018.
*2018 prospects: *Galway will have a big target on their backs in 2018 and it’ll be interesting to see how well they cope with the challenge of defending the Liam MacCarthy Cup. Considering the youthful age profile of the team though and their capacity to improve further, they’ll go into the season as favourites for every piece of silverware they contest.
First League match: v Antrim, January 28 (Division 1B).
First championship match: v Offaly, May 12.
Manager: Brian Cody (20th season in charge).
2017 form: Kilkenny failed to reach the All-Ireland Quarter-Final or Semi-Final for the first time under Brian Cody. They were beaten in Leinster by Wexford and were then knocked out of the championship in Round 2 of the Qualifiers by Waterford. Their League campaign was ended at the quarter-final stage by Wexford.
Player to watch: Richie Leahy.
The Rower-Inistioge club-man looked like a serious prospect when he hit three points against Cork in last year’s league but then injury slowed his progress. He showed his class again in the U-21 Championship, most notably the Leinster Final when he hit six points from play. He can bring some magic to the Kilkenny attack in 2018.
2018 prospects: The retirement of Michael Fennelly is a big blow for Kilkenny who will also have to do without Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly for the entirety of the League because they’re on army duty in the Lebanon. Brian Cody will look to blood a number of young players this year, and it looks like a transitionary period for Kilkenny hurling may continue.
*First League match: *v Cork, January 27 (Div 1A).
First championship match: v Dublin, May 13.
Manager: Davy Fitzgerald (2nd season in charge).
2017 form: Wexford won promotion from Division 1B of the Allianz Hurling League and were beaten in the Leinster Final by Galway and the All-Ireland SHC Quarter-Final by Waterford.
Player to watch: Rory O’Connor
O’Connor was handed his Wexford senior debut by Davy Fitzgerald in last year’s All-Ireland Quarter-Final defeat to Waterford and rose to the occasion. Comfortable in midfield or attack, expect the free-scoring St. Martin’s club-man to go from strength to strength in 2018 if he can stay injury-free.
2018 prospects: Wexford made serious progress in 2018 and there’s no reason to believe they cannot continue to improve under Davy Fitzgerald. The age-profile of the team is ideal, and they should be even more comfortable with Fitzgerald’s tactical plan in year two of his management. They’ll challenge hard for a Leinster title this year.
*First League match: *v Waterford, January 28 (Div 1A).
First championship match: v Dublin, May 20.
*Manager: *Pat Gilroy (1st season in charge).
*2017 form: *Dublin were relegated from Division 1A of the Allianz Hurling League and knocked out of the championship after heavy defeats to Galway in the Leinster Quarter-Final and Tipperary in the first round of the All-Ireland SHC Qualifiers.
Player to watch: Danny Sutcliffe
An All-Star winner in 2013, Sutcliffe opted out of the Dublin panel for the past two seasons. He has been persuaded by new manager Pat Gilroy to commit to the cause again, and it’ll be interesting to see if the 25-year-old can be as effective for the sky-blues as he was before his two-year hiatus.
2018 prospects: The appointment of Pat Gilroy as team-manager who led the Dublin footballers to the 2011 All-Ireland title is an intriguing one. Gilroy is a born winner and should definitely oversee an improvement in Dublin’s form. They’re a very young team though, and it might be a year or two yet before they’re in a position to challenge for silverware again.
First League match: v Offaly, January 27 (Div 1B).
First championship match: v Kilkenny, May 13.
*Manager: *Kevin Martin (1st year in charge).
2017 form: The Faithful County won just a single match in Division 1B of the Allianz Hurling League and exited the championship after heavy defeats to Galway and Waterford.
*Player to watch: *Nigel Dunne
Better known for his exploits with the Offaly footballers, the 27-year-old Dunne has also joined up with the County hurlers this year. It’ll be interesting to see if he can combine both in the long-term, and whether he has what it takes to make a similar impact in hurling as he has in football.
2018 prospects: Newly appointed manager Kevin Martin is a shrewd operator and should improve this Offaly team, but the harsh truth is that the Faithful County is not currently producing top-quality hurlers like it did in the 1980s and 1990s. Even winning one match in the Leinster Championship would be a good achievement.
*First League match: *v Dublin, January 27 (Division 1B).
*First championship match: *v Galway, May 12.
*Manager: *John Meyler (1st year in charge).
2017 form: Beaten by Limerick in the Allianz Division 1 League Final, Cork then caused a shock by beating Tipperary, Waterford, and Clare on the way to winning the Munster Championship. They were then beaten by Waterford in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Player to watch: Michael Cahalane
Michael Cahalane’s return to action with the Cork hurlers was one of the feel-good stories of 2017. Back in 2014 he’d been told he’d never play again after an ultrasound revealed he had an enlarged heart caused by a viral infection. Not only did he compete again at the highest level last year, he really impressed in a super-sub role for the Rebels and can be even more central to their cause in 2018.
*2018 prospects: *Kieran Kingston’s decision to step down as manager is a blow, but his replacement John Meyler was previously a team selector so knows this group well. The age-profile of the team is quite young, and the players who made their debuts in 2017 should be even stronger this year.
First League match: v Kilkenny, January 27 (Division 1A).
First Championship match: v Clare, May 20.
Manager: Michael Ryan (3rd year in charge).
2017 form: Hammered by Galway in the League Final, Tipp were then knocked out of the Munster SHC at the first hurdle by Cork. They regrouped from there, and were beaten by eventual champions Galway by a single point in the All-Ireland SHC semi-final.
*Player to watch: *Cathal Barrett
Having been dropped from the panel in 2017 for a breach of discipline, Barrett will be keen to make amends in 2018. He was selected at midfield in a recent challenge match against All-Ireland Club SHC semi-finalists Slaughtneil and it’ll be interesting to see if a player better known for his performances at corner-back is given an extended run in the Tipp engine-room.
2018 prospects: Tipp came closer than anyone else to eventual champions Galway in 2017 and they’ll be there or thereabouts again this year. Retired goalkeeper Darren Gleeson will be a difficult man to replace and there will be a degree of pressure on whoever takes over the number one jersey. While manager Michael Ryan will hope that up and coming players like Ger Browne, Mark Kehoe, and Cian Darcy can force their way into this plans and add some real options to his panel.
First League match: v Clare, January 28 (Div 1A).
*First Championship match: *v Limerick, May 20.
*Manager: *Derek McGrath (5th year in charge).
2017 form: Beaten by Waterford in the Allianz Hurling League Quarter-Final and then by Cork in the Munster SHC semi-final. From there Waterford mounted an impressive charge through the knock-out stages of the championship, beating Offaly, Kilkenny, Wexford, and Cork before losing to Galway in the All-Ireland SHC Final.
*Player to watch: *Tom Devine
Devine looked sharp for Waterford in last year’s League but then decided to go travelling for the summer rather than be a part of the panel for the Championship. He was a loss, and could be a key player for the Deise when he returns to the panel this year.
2018 prospects: Waterford have improved steadily under Derek McGrath over the course of the past three years culminating in this year’s All-Ireland Final appearance. If they can raise their game again in 2018, they’ll be serious contenders for League, Munster, and All-Ireland titles.
*First League match: *v Wexford, January 28 (Div 1A).
*First Championship match: *v Clare, May 27.
*Manager: *Gerry O’Connor & Donal Moloney (2nd year in charge)
2017 form: Failed to make the knock-out stages of the League. Defeated Limerick in the Munster Semi-Final but then lost to Cork in the Final. Defeated by Tipperary in the All-Ireland SHC Quarter-Final.
*Player to watch: *Peter Duggan was the star of the show for Clare in the Fenway Hurling Classic last November, scoring five goals against Tipperary and then seven against Galway in the Final. On the strength of that showing Clare may well decide to give him an extended run as a full-forward in 2018.
2018 prospects: Clare only hurled in fits and starts last year but joint-managers Gerry O’Connor and Donal Moloney should have learned a lot from the season and be better equipped to really put their stamp on the team this year. A lack of natural ball-winners in attack may continue to hamper them, though.
*First League match: *v Tipperary, January 28 (Div 1A).
First Championship match: v Cork, May 20.
*Manager: *John Kiely (2nd year in charge)
*2017 form: *Beaten in the Allianz Hurling League semi-final by Galway. Beaten in the Munster SHC semi-final by Clare and the first round of the All-Ireland SHC Qualifiers by Kilkenny.
Player to watch: Aaron Gillane
Gillane was named the Bord Gáis Energy U-21 Hurler of the Year in 2017 after helping the Shannonsiders win the All-Ireland in that grade and looks well equipped to make a big impact with the seniors this year. He started the season well last weekend, scoring 1-9 for Limerick in their Munster Senior League win over Cork.
*2018 prospects: *Limerick have won two of the last three All-Ireland U-21 titles and have no shortage of talented, young players. Bringing so many through together was always going to be a big challenge for manager John Kiely, and the relative lack of experienced leaders in the team is an issue. If they can build confidence with some good wins in the League though, then Limerick might surprise some people before the year is out.
First League match: v Laois, January 28 (Div 1B).
*First Championship match: *v Tipperary, May 20.
JOE MCDONAGH CUP
(The two Joe McDonagh Cup finalists will play the teams who finish third in Leinster and Munster in the two All-Ireland SHC preliminary quarter-finals.)
*Manager: *Terence McNaughton & Dominic McKinley (3rd season in charge).
2017 form: Antrim won promotion up to Division 1B of the Allianz Hurling League. They were beaten by Carlow in the Christy Ring Cup Final.
Player to watch: John Dillon
Something of a late bloomer, Dillon never played minor or U-21 hurling for Antrim. Despite that lack of underage pedigree, the 30-year-old excelled when positioned at full-back last year for the Saffrons and will be the rock they’ll build their defence on this year.
2018 prospects: Antrim have made steady progress under McNaughton and McKinley but retaining their Division 1B status this year will be a really difficult challenge. Like every other team in the McDonagh Cup, they’ll believe they’re good enough to be in the shake-up for the Final.
First League match: v Galway, January 28 (Div 1B).
First Championship match: v Meath, May 5/6.
*Manager: *Colm Bonnar (2nd season)
2017 form: Carlow were defeated by Antrim in the Allianz Hurling League Division 2A Final but then turned the tables by beating the Saffrons in the Christy Ring Cup Final.
Player to watch: James Doyle underlined his enduring class by scoring four goals in last year’s Christy Ring Cup Final.
2018 prospects: Carlow are a good bet to secure qualification from Division 2A of the Allianz Hurling League and will be in the reckoning for Joe McDonagh Cup and progression to the knock-out rounds of the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
*First League match: *v Westmeath, January 28 (Div 2A).
First Championship match: v Kerry, May 5/6.
Manager: Fintan O’Connor (2nd season).
2017 form: Kerry were relegated from Division 1B of the Allianz Hurling League and failed to progress from the Round Robin stage of the Leinster Championship.
*Player to watch: *Shane Nolan
Nolan is a talented enough attacker to make the grade with any inter-county team and is now coming into his prime. He’ll be crucial to Kerry’s hopes in 2018.
2018 prospects: Kerry will be keen to bounce back from their relegation from Division 1B of the Allianz League last year and are certainly good enough to win promotion from Division 2A. They’ll be leading contenders for the McDonagh Cup too.
*First League match: *v London, January 28 (Div 2A).
*First Championship match: *v Carlow, May 5/6
Manager: Eamonn Kelly (2nd season in charge).
2017 form: Laois beat Kerry in the Allianz Hurling League Division 1B relegation play-off. They qualified from the round-robin section of the Leinster Championship but were then well-beaten in the provincial quarter-final by Wexford.
*Player to watch: *Patrick Purcell
Purcell’s scoring exploits from midfield last year were hugely impressive. He has great knack for ghosting into dangerous positions and then finishing clinically.
2018 prospects: Eamonn Kelly steadied the Laois ship last year and they’ll believe they can build on more solid foundations in 2018. They should survive in Division 1B of the League and will be most people’s favourites to win the McDonagh Cup and qualify for the knock-out stages of the Liam MacCarthy.
First League match: v Limerick, January 28 (Div 1B).
First Championship match: v Westmeath, May 5/6
Manager: Nick Fitzgerald (1st season in charge).
2017 form: Meath won Division 2B of the Allianz Hurling League but failed to progress from the Round Robin phase of the Leinster SHC.
Player to watch: Sean Quigley
Quigley has been a free-scoring forward with Meath for the past couple of years and he’ll be even more important to the cause this year after the retirement of Stephen Clynch.
2018 prospects: Survival in a very competitive Division 2A will be a tough task, but the Royals have had a happy habit of exceeding expectations. The appointment of Kilkenny legends Martin Comerford and Mick Kavanagh as selectors by new manager Nick Fitzgerald looks like a shrewd one. They’ll be underdogs in the McDonagh Cup, but they won’t fear anyone.
First League match: v Kildare, January 28 (Div 2A).
First Championship match: v Antrim, May 5/6.
*Manager: *Michael Ryan (4th season in charge).
2017 form: Treaded water in Division 2A of the Allianz Hurling League. Qualified from the Leinster Round Robin series and then came agonisingly close to beating Offaly in the Leinster quarter-final before givingTipperary a good run for their money in the Qualifiers.
Player to watch: Tommy Doyle
Doyle is a colossus of a full-back, one of the best in the game. He proved that by eclipsing Tipperary full-forward Seamus Callanan in last year’s All-Ireland SHC Qualifier Round 1 clash.
2018 prospects: Westmeath’s brave performance against Tipperary in last year’s Round 1 All-Ireland Qualifier underlined the quality that Michael Ryan has in his young panel. If they hurl to their potential they should win promotion from Division 2A of the Allianz Hurling League and challenge hard too in the McDonagh Cup.
First League match: v Carlow, Jan 28 (Div 2A)
First Championship match: v Kerry, May 5/6.