The preliminaries over, the hurling season now kicks off in earnest this weekend with the start of the league. For Tipperary it's a case of back to the future. Kilkenny visit under lights on Saturday in what is the showpiece tie of round one. Bragging rights and league points are on offer in this heavyweight clash, which should bring a large following to the Stadium.
From Croke Park's perspective an opening clash between Tipperary and Kilkenny offers an ideal launch to the new season. The pair has produced the hurling highlights of the past two years and on known merit should again be central in 2011. How better then to announce the start of a new hurling season than a clash of the titans to whet appetites for what's ahead.
A year ago we got two false starts because of snow before this fixture eventually went ahead on March 7. We didn't know then but it was to provide a healthy omen for the season ahead. An Eoin Kelly goal just before half time gave us the interval lead and we held firm in the second half of an edgy game. Clinching points by Jody Brennan and Noel McGrath closed out a four-point win at the end, 1-14 to 0-13. Given the events of '09 it was psychologically important to put one over on Kilkenny.
Could you name our starting fifteen that March Sunday? Full marks if you can. In view of subsequent events it's interesting to note how last year began. In front of Cummins we had Brendan Maher, Padraig Maher and Paul Curran, with Declan Fanning, Conor O'Mahony and Shane Maher on the half line. Shane McGrath partnered Thomas Stapleton at midfield. The forwards then featured Noel McGrath, Benny Dunne and John O'Brien on the 'forty' with Eoin Kelly, Micheal Webster and Lar Corbett inside. Only six of the fifteen would start in the same numbers on September 5. Such is the flux that a season brings.
Interesting also is the fact that two from that team, Webster and Stapleton, failed to survive the season. Two more have since retired: Declan Fanning and Shane Maher. Fanning's announcement came well before Christmas but Shane Maher's decision is more recent. He's been unlucky with his inter-county career. '08 was probably his high point getting an Allstar nomination at wing back. Injury then intervened and he was probably unlucky not to get a chance last year; Padraig Maher's move to the half line after the Cork match helped to keep him out. At his best he was especially strong in the air. He'll be thirty this April so I suppose he felt the chances of regaining a regular spot were fading. Warming the bench for a season is unappealing, especially at the back end of a career.
It's been a difficult enough January for the new management. An opening defeat in the Crystal Tournament and then weather disruption has denied them a platform from which to build for the league. Challenge games against Clarinbridge and Wexford were of little value either. Another planned game last weekend against UCC was also rained off. It's hardly an ideal lead-in to a crucial league fixture against Kilkenny.
Paring back this extended panel of players can't be easy and the public has been getting just a drip feed of who's in and who's out. Hopefully this week will bring some clarity about the shape of things for the league. It's generally known that Darragh Egan and Jody Brennan have been dropped from last year's panel but there are few other certainties as I write. Darragh Hickey and Timmy Dalton are thought to be gone from the extended group but the fate of others is less certain. One of the latest suggestions I've heard is that none of the winter training group is likely to be retained, which would leave the panel at around thirty-five.
It's hard luck on players who get the chop but this is a tough environment where sentiment plays little part. Darragh Egan has been on the senior panel for six years, making his debut in the league in '05. It's a long time to be hanging-in without pinning down a place on the first fifteen. Now in his mid-twenties time seems to have run out on his career. He was an impressive underage player winning a Munster minor medal as goalie in '03. Three years later he won a Munster U21 playing full forward. As a footballer he toured Australia in 2004 with the Irish Compromise Rules U18 team. There was no doubting the talent, the hands in particular were superb, but somehow as a senior he lacked that extra edge to his game that would have made all the difference. He tended to struggle with the fitness requirements too.
In the case of Jody Brennan he came to the notice of Liam Sheedy and colleagues after his club displays in '09. He didn't have an underage background with Tipperary teams but he was a key element in Upperchurch's journey to a county semi-final in '09 and that earned him promotion. He made his debut in last year's league game against Dublin but 2010 was not the greatest of years for him. His form slipped from the heights of '09 and it's no surprise that he departs the panel now.
Whatever the panel shape, the team selection for Saturday is likely to be without several of the All Ireland side. Brendan Cummins is nursing an injury so this may be an opportunity for Darren Gleeson to step into the breach. Fanning is retired so David Young will probably be handed a chance to pin down that spot; he's been doing well in recent weeks. Up front Lar Corbett is out with that foot problem and Eoin Kelly gets married on Friday. John O'Brien is out for several weeks following wrist surgery and Pat Kerwick is a long-term absentee with that groin problem. Then last week Seamus Callanan broke his collar bone in a Fitzgibbon Cup game with LIT. It resulted I'm told from an all-Tipperary clash between Callanan and Ray Moloughney. Seamus Hennessy was red carded in another Fitzgibbon game, though I'm unsure if that keeps him out of inter-county games.
It's quite a problematic scene as we prepare for the visit of Kilkenny. In the circumstances we might have only about half of the All Ireland side on duty though I imagine the management will opt for the strongest fifteen available given the nature of the game.
Kilkenny too will be understrength with Shefflin and Tennyson apparently out until nearer summer and Richie Power also recuperating from injury. Last year we had the greater incentive to win but this time the desire is perhaps stronger in Kilkenny.
The counties have met on sixty previous occasions in the league with Tipperary holding an edge on twenty-nine wins followed by twenty-five for Kilkenny and six draws. We've shared the last four meetings, two wins apiece. In '09 we lost twice to Kilkenny in the league but those defeats were sandwiched between last year's success and a semi-final win at Nowlan Park in '08. We also won at Nowlan Park in '07 but prior to that there was a sequence of four defeats on the trot. '01 was our last draw, again at Nowlan Park, in a season where we went unbeaten in both league and championship.
So much for the historical background. More important is the fact that our rivalry with Kilkenny in recent years has reawakened the hurling world. Tipperary alone found the knack to cope with Kilkenny in recent times; the past two All Irelands will forever be listed among the finest. Of course last September is the one we'll relish the most.
So bragging rights as much as league points at stake then when the ancient rivalry resumes this Saturday under the Stadium's floodlighting. It may not be the only meeting of the counties this season so expect markers to be laid down. I suspect Kilkenny may have had the better preparation for this opener and that could just tilt the tie their way.
In fact I anticipate quite a difficult league run for the All Ireland champions this spring. After Kilkenny on Saturday we head to Croke Park the following week for more floodlit action. The Dubs appear to have wintered well and have shown strong form in the season's preliminaries. They thrashed Limerick in a friendly and beat Galway in the Walsh Cup. That's smarter form than we've shown at this early stage of the season. The addition of recruits like Conal Keaney and Ryan O'Dwyer is helping their cause too.
Following the Dublin match we entertain Waterford at home for another difficult bout. We could only draw with the Deise last year in the corresponding fixture and already they've retained the Waterford Crystal by beating Clare with quite an experimental side. That won't be an easy outing either.
Round 4 has Tipperary facing Offaly at Nenagh on March 13. It's one we'd expect to win and may well need a result by then. For round five we're away to Cork. Remember last year's defeat at Pairc Ui Chaoimh, a precursor to our May championship shock. Any year you do very well to get a result out of the rebel capital.
For round six we're away to Galway. Mind you we've a strong recent record in Salthill, though by early April points may be precious and I wouldn't bank on bringing the spoils home from the west. Our final game brings Wexford to the Stadium where we'd expect to win on April 17.
Putting it all together we have a difficult schedule with perhaps Offaly and Wexford offering best prospects of points but plenty of tricky assignments otherwise. I know league results can be erratic but this looks like a tough schedule to me.
And so a new season dawns. Our preparations haven't been the best but we'll watch with interest what emerges, starting this Saturday. Spring expectations need to be modest as the panel builds towards the more critical summer action. There's a long season ahead.
Finally Croke Park has bowed to the obvious by reducing prices for league games this spring. Admission fees drop from fifteen to thirteen euro. Wow! How generous. All this will achieve is headaches for the stile men with those bags of coins for change. It doesn't make much sense to me.