Galway a cut above in bid for repeat Leinster success
Clare, Tipperary and Limerick to fill Munster top three spots
History will be made in the 2018 Hurling Championship as reigning Leinster and All-Ireland champions Galway will play a home game in Leinster for the first time as they welcome Kilkenny (round two) and Dublin (round four) to Pearse Stadium in Salthill.
Galway breezed their way through Leinster last season, as Wexford knocked out Kilkenny and then failed to fire in the Leinster final but it looks likely to be a completely different proposition this time. The result might well be the same, though.
Galway took their time returning in 2018 and their league campaign culminated in a final-round loss to Limerick and subsequent defeeat on the road to a Wexford team in fine form. But the make-up of Michael Donoghue’s side will be different for the championship after the return of their star players.
One of those players who will be key for Donoghue this year is Kinvara man Conor Whelan, whose exploits in 2017 earned him an All-Star and the Young Hurler of the Year accolade. Although Whelan made his debut in 2015, the Galway star is still just 21 and coming into his prime. Whelan’s physicality and pace make him extremely difficult to mark, and opposing teams would be foolish to focus their defensive efforts on Joe Canning.
With victory in the league final came the end of Kilkenny’s brief transition period and they’ve brought through some fine young talent. That win over Tipperary in the final further strengthened fortress Nowlan Park and teams will find it difficult to get any result on Kilkenny soil.
After enjoying a massive 2017 and promising early start to 2018, Wexford’s loss to Kilkenny in the league semi-final will leave them hurting, and their clash with the Cats in the final round should decide who meets Galway in the Leinster final.
Galway look a cut above their Leinster rivals, and they will be keen to win on home soil for the first time, so expect them to reach the final and be joined by Kilkenny.
Galway to top the table
3pts 5-6 Ladbrokes, Paddy Power
Galway-Kilkenny straight forecast
2pts 13-8 Paddy Power
Clare to make best of plum draw
Rank outsiders Cork blew the 2017 Munster Championship wide-open with an opening-round win over reigning All-Ireland champions Tipperary and they continued that form by winning the competition outright at odds of 14-1.
With the introduction of a new format in 2018, the already super competitive Munster Championship becomes even more so and that is reflected in the prices with the 6-1 about Clare the biggest price on offer for any team.
Tipperary are deserving short-priced favorites for Munster glory following their run to the league final, and the return of Seamus Callanan will further bolster Michael Ryan’s charges.
However, they face an opening-round trip to Limerick, a side they overcame in extra-time in the league semi-final. Limerick also welcome back their Na Piarsaigh contingent, although the loss of the exciting Peter Casey will be a disappointment for Limerick fans.
Four championship games in five weeks will be a new experience for all the teams involved, but Clare have been dealt the plum draw as they play two blocks of two games, with a week in between – all the others have to play three consecutive weeks at some stage.
Clare also start their campaign against the two lowest-placed teams in Division 1A, with an opening-round trip to Pairc Ui Chaoimh to face Cork followed by Waterford’s visit to Cusack Park.
The joint-management team of Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor have built a strong panel and enter their second championship campaign looking to have revitalised some of the key players that tasted All-Ireland success in 2013.
Tony Kelly disappointed by his high standards in 2017, but a strong league run with Clare, along with an All Ireland medal collected with his college University Of Limerick, will have lifted Kelly’s confidence and he is key to Clare’s success this year.
Their league campaign included wins over Tipperary and Kilkenny, and they went out aftera free-taking competition against Limerick at the quarter-final stage. They also won their only two home games in the league and have developed a fortress in the tight confines of Cusack Park.
Moloney and O’Connor have forged a tight-knit young panel, and with All-Ireland winners such as Kelly, David McInerney and Conor McGrath leading the charge, this Clare side can make best use of the new format.
While league form doesn’t always transfer to the championship, Cork and Waterford struggled in the league and that could again be the case in this round-robin format.
Neither side seems to have built a strong panel during the league, and brothers Kieran and Shane Bennett making themselves unavailable for 2018 has further added to Waterford’s struggles.
Paddy Power are 6-1 that the top three in Munster, in any order, will be Tipperary, Limerick and Clare, which looks like value.
1pt 6-1 Paddy Power
Clare, Tipperary and Limerick to be top three
1pt 6-1 Paddy Power
Follow us on Twitter @racingpostsport
Like us on Facebook RacingPostSport