The league returns this weekend.
1. Fascinating league awaits
The crowds at last weekend’s football league ties showed a massive appetite is there for inter-county games after Covid restrictions were lifted. There are plenty of enticing contests coming up over the next few weeks on the hurling front with the round 2 showdown between Limerick and Galway and the round 4 clash of Waterford v Tipperary among the stand-out ties. And keep an eye out for the form of Dublin, who enjoyed some eye-catching results in the pre-season and could take a leap forward in 2022.
2. Henry Shefflin era begins in Galway
All eyes will be on Galway as Shefflin takes his first steps as an inter-county boss. Like most managers, he’ll be looking to come out of the league with a good idea of his best 20 players ahead of the Leinster campaign. He cast the net wide during the pre-season, using 47 players, and will be hoping a couple of young guns put up their hands in the five games ahead.
It’s easy to forget that at the end of last year’s league Galway were widely considered the biggest challengers to Limerick’s throne. They’ve lost Joe Canning and Aidan Harte, yet their spine remains formidable: Daithi Burke, Fintan Burke, Padraig Mannion, Cathal Mannion, Joseph Cooney, David Burke, Conor Whelan, Brian Concannon and Evan Niland.
3. Will Limerick keep rolling on?
Their form in the Munster Hurling Cup suggests they will. An experimental Limerick outfit featuring a handful of regulars had nine points to spare over Clare in the final of the pre-season competition last month. They lost S&C coach Mikey Kiely but poached Cairbre O’Caireallain from rivals Tipperary in the off-season. Mike Casey returns from a cruciate injury, with youngsters like Colin Coughlan and Cathal O’Neill vying for first-team opportunities. There’s also interest in how the abolishment of water breaks will affect them, given the adjustments Paul Kinnerk could make after each quarter in the past two seasons.
Brian McGrath could have a big year for Tipperary.
Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
4. Transition in Tipperary
The retirements of Padraic Maher and Brendan Maher, plus the knee injury that could keep John Bubbles O’Dwyer out for the league means Tipperary head into the league down a lot of experience and knowhow. Colm Bonnar will need to find a couple of replacements in his defence, with Brian McGrath an obvious candidate to nail down a starting place.
The return of Patrick Bonner Maher is a boost and John McGrath’s scintillating form in the club championship was also most welcome. The stars of Tipperary’s two All-Ireland U20 winning teams are getting older. Now is the time to find out if they can produce the goods at senior level. The league will tell a lot in that regard.
5. Cork’s response to All-Ireland final
A chastening defeat to Limerick last August and the subsequent All-Stars snub left a bitter taste in Cork’s mouth after a progressive 2021 season. They lost Eoin Cadogan, Billy Cooper and Colm Spillane to retirement, but Mark Keane joined the squad and Conor Lehane returned after a return to form with Midleton.
Kieran Kingston’s priority in the league will centre around finding athletes in the middle third to match Limerick, with the half-forward line of particular concern. They could do with a couple morale-boosting wins in the league give them momentum.
Clubmates Michael Fennelly and Henry Shefflin meet on the sideline in round 1.
Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO
6. Battle to survive in Division 1
The task facing Offaly in Group A is a difficult one. They open the campaign against Galway on Sunday, before ties against Cork, Clare, Wexford and Limerick. Having come from Division 2 and the Christy Ring in 2021, it’s a big challenge for Michael Fennelly’s young team. If they can stay competitive and avoid heavy beatings it will leave them in good stead for the Joe Mcdonagh Cup.
The same is true for Laois and Antrim in Group B, although with only one team going into the relegation play-off they have plenty to fight for. Antrim surprised many with a fine league campaign last year and Cheddar Plunkett spoke recently about his desire to prove the O’Moore County belong in the top tier.
7. Wexford start life after Davy Fitzgerald
Plenty of counties enjoy a first-year bounce when a new manager arrives at the helm and Darragh Egan will be aiming to hit the ground running in the league. He put together an interesting management team with the recent additions of Gordon D’Arcy and Billy Walsh to his set-up. Wexford are coming off the back of two poor seasons, yet the task of replacing Davy Fitzgerald cannot be underestimated.
It’s likely they’ll play without seven defenders for the first time in five years and that will take some adjusting for the players. The 2019 Leinster champions looked flat and open at the back in their one-sided Walsh Cup final loss to Dublin last weekend. Egan will be expecting a response against Limerick on Sunday.
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How will Wexford fare under Darragh Egan?
Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
8. Kerry and Kildare rise
The promotion race in Division 2A will be worth watching given the recent successes in Kerry and Kildare. The Kingdom’s pre-season win over Tipperary coupled with Kilmoyley’s run to the All-Ireland intermediate final are major positives for Stephen Molumphy as he prepares for his rookie league campaign.
Similarly, Kildare hurling has been steadily improving in recent years after relentless work at underage level. Their U20s beat Wexford last year while Naas lifted the Leinster intermediate title and will play Kilmoyley in Saturday’s All-Ireland decider. Promotion to the top tier in hurling would be another major sign of progress for the Lilywhites.
9. Fresh tactics and talent
Hurling’s evolution has been led by Limerick in recent years. To take down the Treaty, their rivals may need to bring something new rather than attempting to mirror their style. What fresh ideas might Shefflin bring to Galway or Bonnar to Tipperary? What did Cork’s management learn from the All-Ireland defeat to Limerick? What has Liam Cahill up his sleeve as he attempts to get Waterford over the line? Then there’s the young talent that will emerge in the weeks ahead and announce themselves on the national stage.
10. Managers’ approach
It will be interesting to see how managers approach the league given championship starts in mid-April. There may be less experimentation, although the last time a round-robin format took place the league wasn’t taken as seriously by many leading counties.
There’s also a sense that teams won’t want to make the Division 1 final given it takes place two weeks out from the beginning of the provincial openers. Plenty to watch out for.
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