Tipperary heading for the top in race for Liam McCarthy
Youthful Limerick the pick of the outsiders
All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship
Defending champions Galway open the 2018 All-Ireland SHC on Saturday evening with a trip to O’Connor Park to face Offaly, and while this may be a one-sided affair, the rest of the championship looks set to be anything but.
Galway ended a 29-year wait last September in claiming Liam McCarthy and their young squad will be hopeful of doing something that only Kilkenny have managed in the last decade – securing back-to-back All Ireland titles.
Micheal Donoghue’s side have taken their time in 2018, with many of their stars returning only for the later stages of the league campaign, but they will still be disappointed with a final-round loss to Limerick.
They led by eight points at half-time in that encounter in Pearse Stadium, but struggled to contain the Limerick fightback in the second half.
Although Donoghue would have liked to get back to Division 1A hurling, there’s no doubt that game would have meant a lot more to Limerick than Galway, and that should have little effect on
Galway’s chances come championship time.
An opening-round trip to Offaly should provide the perfect preparation before they welcome Kilkenny to Pearse Stadium on May 27, when Donoghue’s squad will be fully tested.
Joint-favorites with Galway are Michael Ryan’s Tipperary side who breezed through the league before disappointing in their league final trip to Nowlan Park.
Although their record in Nowlan Park was ominous, signs were that Tipperary should be far ahead of a Kilkenny side in transition.
Far too many of Tipperary’s players failed to fire however and they were outfought and outplayed when it mattered. Jason Forde has been the star man in 2018, finishing the league as top-scorer with 7-72, while also leading University Of Limerick to a Fitzgibbon Cup.
Seamus Callanan, who missed the entire league campaign, has returned to club action in recent weeks and a Tipperary forward line that could potentially feature Forde, Callanan, John McGrath and John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer will strike fear into defences around the country.
Tipperary open their campaign with a trip to Limerick on May 20, an encounter that will undoubtedly turn into a testing battle for Michael Ryan’s men.
If we learned one thing from the league campaign, it’s that a Kilkenny team with Brian Cody at the helm can never be written off. After they opened their campaign with losses to Cork and Clare many felt this was a Kilkenny team in transition and they almost looked in threat of relegation. Since then, however, they have turned their year around, and it’s no coincidence that their revival coincided with the return of TJ Reid.
Reid once again proved that he is unstoppable on his day with his performance in the league final, finishing with 0-15, and leading the Kilkenny charge.
Along with Reid, Walter Walsh has brought increased physicality to the Kilkenny attack, and newer faces John Donnelly, Martin Keoghan and Richie Leahy are now putting their mark on Kilkenny. They open their campaign against Dublin and Offaly respectively, before that trip to Pearse Stadium in round three.
Cork and Waterford lead the charge of the chasing bunch based on their 2017 championship form, but they have been slow starters in 2018, and they met in the relegation playoff in Division 1A. Cork came out the right side of that tie, sending Waterford down to 1B, but Derek McGrath won’t be worried by that result.
McGrath chose to use the league as preparation for the championship and although relegation will have been a step back, bigger challenges lie ahead. Cork and Waterford made massive strides in 2017, Cork winning Munster and reaching the All Ireland Semi-Final, while Waterford lost out to Galway at the final hurdle.
Of the remainder, Limerick, Clare and Wexford will be happy with their league form with Limerick finally gaining promotion from 1B, Clare narrowly losing out to Limerick in the league quarter-final, and Wexford falling to winners Kilkenny at ther semi-final stage.
The new round-robin format of the provincial championships places huge emphasis on panel strength and so the performances of sides during the league will be quite indicative of their chances early on in the campaign.
Of the bigger prices, Limerick look to be the best value based on their league run and the fact that they welcome back their Na Piarsaigh contingent who lost to Cuala in the club final replay.
Limerick have won two Under-21 All-Irelands in the last three years and with one of the youngest panels in the championship, they will be suited to the round-robin format.
Their blend of youth and experience with captain Declan Hannon leading at centre-back, should see Limerick go far in 2018.
Tipperary, however, look the most solid of selections and although they failed to perform in the league final, their form throughout the league was back to their best.
With Seamus Callanan among those to return come championship, Tipperary have built a team with a top-class forward line and, although some may question their mettle when under pressure, this should come with time.
They seemed to lack a real fight when their backs were to the wall in the league final against Kilkenny but Nowlan Park has long been a bogey ground for Tipperary sides. The return to their bigger grounds of Semple Stadium and Croke Park will suit them as they look to reclaim the All-Ireland title. The advice is to get on now.
Tipperary to win All-Ireland SHC
2pts 11-4 general
Limerick to win All-Ireland SHC
1pt each-way 14-1 BoyleSports
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