The stakes have risen yet again in this year's Guinness
All-Ireland hurling championship. After three years of memorable
hurling, this season's championship is more open than ever and the
permutations are even more numerous when the experimental format -
now in its second year - is taken into account.
Most obviously, competition burns intensely in Munster. Clare's
defence constitutes one of the most solid bets for the campaign. If
the sluggish charade of the NHL semi-final is ignored, they are
serious contenders even if on probably the last lap of their
remarkable career as a team.
Against them are the old failings of inconsistent performance and
a predilection for wides, but their will-to-win is likely to be
strong and the motivation of Ger Loughnane in his final year will be
as high-voltage as ever.
They are the brand-leaders in Munster with competition likely to
come from Cork in the semifinal. Whoever wins, there'll hardly be
any need for the stewards' inquiry which the NHL semi-final between
the teams merited.
On that side of the draw Limerick appear to have shot their bolt
but the return of Eamonn Cregan to his own county as manager is a
significant factor. His devotion to Limerick hurling is partly
dynastic (both he and his late father won All-Irelands). It is also
fired by the twist of fate that saw him responsible for dashing the
best chance the county had in recent times of adding to the county's
All-Ireland haul when he managed Offaly to the sensational late win
Nonetheless, Clare have to be favoured to emerge from this side.
In a week's time, Waterford's credentials will be fully examined by
Tipperary who have recorded two wins in three years over this year's
Tipp seem a slightly troubled camp between injuries and
positional uncertainties, but Len Gaynor has a flow of young talent
that will in time mould into a formidable unit. This year, however,
it's the experience that's likely to be decisive in pipping
Waterford for the Munster final place.
Leinster is again up for grabs but injuries may fatally inhibit
Wexford's attempts to do justice to the '98 bicentenary. If they
survive the tilt with Offaly both Liam Dunne and Gary Laffan may be
back for the provincial final but the feeling here is that Babs
Keating will get enough out of Offaly to reach the final, quite
possibly against Dublin whose once-in-a-lifetime shot at Kilkenny in
Parnell Park may bridge a gap of all of 56 years since they last
lowered the black and amber colours.
The quarter-finals this year will be more impressive events than
last summer. Galway will be optimistic because of their more settled
selection policy and should be too good for the Leinster finalists
but maybe not their Munster counterparts.
In Ulster it's tempting to believe that Down's forwards and good
League campaign will equip them to retain the title but Antrim
manager Sean McGuinness's experience of both his team and Down may
As the quarter-final pairings aren't known until July, everything
is rather vague in the long term but the hunch bet here is that,
fortified by some new acquisitions, the success of Birr and a
renewed hunger, Offaly can pick their way through to a repeat of the
1995 final meeting with Clare.
There, with the hierarchies of three years ago swapped, Offaly
can win a fourth All-Ireland.