After all the talk and speculation, this weekend the ball throws in on one of the most open Hurling Championships in years. Before a sliotar was even struck or a new set of County jerseys in playerfit sent out into the Summer sun, the hurling pundits have already had the competition played, done and dusted in their own minds. A few early league predictions have required revision. Five teams, five rounds, ten matches, two home, two away. A Leinster final for the top two, relegation for the bottom team a possibility. Welcome to Leinster 2018, a brave new world for hurling.
This weekend the action gets underway in the much awaited opening round of the Leinster championship round robin as Offaly greet Galway and Dublin host Kilkenny at Parnell Park. The latter is the first time the Cats have played Dublin there in Championship in twenty odd years. Wexford sit on the sidelines for another week and then are out four consecutive fixtures on the bounce.
At the start of the league it all looked a lot less complicated. Galway were wintering well on the back of their much heralded and even more celebrated Liam McCarthy triumph. They took in the Fenway Classic, ahead of a scare from Antrim in their opening league match, Kilkenny were being casually written off, as if Brian Cody and the lads would just quietly disappear from the scene thank you very much. Well, they haven’t gone away. Anyone who really thought they would is surely kidding themselves.
Galway had to live for years with the huge expectation that came from not winning with a hugely talented group of players that were regularly tipped for greatness and didn’t deliver. Now that they have delivered and done so dramatically the question is can Joe Canning, Daithi Burke, Conor Cooney and Jason Flynn and the rest of the Tribe summon another glorious summer?
The round robin format will surely not go entirely to plan. A number of factors are at play. The staging of games is crucial and the dynamics of playing week in week out will stretch every panel to their sinews. Kilkenny for example have been handed three games on the bounce at the outset. Coming fast off the league victory with a suddenly more set up side and system after trying and testing a batch of players, you would fancy them to have full points on the board going into Matchday three against a Galway side playing only their second match. And Wexford for example? They face Galway in their second last match and finish out the campaign with a tie against the Cats. What if the fates conspire to make the Wexford Kilkenny match on 9 June a likely Leinster final, or in a more dramatic fashion what if Wexford go into the game needing to conform either a third place slot or avoid the drop.
Dublin under Pat Gilroy made us think of Heraclitus saying you can never step in the same river. The river has changed, you have changed, and the game has changed. Dublin hurling has slipped a little, a few years have passed and it’s taking a little more remedial work than many thought necessary. Danny Sutcliffe is back, Liam Rushe too with Conal Keaney in bullish form speaking to RTE:
"If you were picking the draw, you'd want to have Kilkenny in your first game and you'd want them at home. I didn't come back not to win, so we're going to (aim to) win the Leinster and we're going to (aim to) win an All-Ireland, that's the bottom line.”
This week Sean Moran in the Irish Times pinpoint the Dubs match against Offaly on the 3rd of June as a decider on who will drop to the Joe McDonagh Cup in 2019. After Offaly’s eyebrow raising win in Croke Park at the start of the league, when they beat Dublin in Croke Park 2-25 to 1-15, the match on the first weekend of June could loom large in everyone’s sights. At that stage Dublin will have played Kilkenny and Wexford and will face Galway in the next match whilst for the Faithful hurlers it will be their final group match in Leinster. If results have gone against them, it could be a stormy night in Dublin.
Anthony Cunningham may feel a nagging point to prove when the Dubs face Galway and they do not want to be going into the last game needing a win.
Leinster has an open look and feel to it and also the dreaded prospect of relegation for one of the Leinster counties unless Kerry win the Joe McDonagh. The odds of relegation are stacked massively in favour of a Leinster county dropping to the Joe McDonagh because if any of Laois, Westmeath, Carlow, Meath or Antrim win the Tier 2 championship then the bottom team in Leinster face the drop.
Questions: Evolved a new gameplan during the league much everyone’s surprise. Is it tried and tested enough? Chances are it will be after four games of championship fine-tuning.
Positives: Previous unheralded players making a name for themselves whilst TJ Reid continues to assume the mantel of Shefflin. The King is gone, long llve the king.
Opener: Dublin May 12th (a) Closer Wexford June 9th (h)
Questions: Can Davy Fitz overcome the second album syndrome and kick on from a solid start? The Wexford public are baying for success but they face a tough tough schedule of four games in 21 days.
Positives: Another year building the system, tight at the back and some gold dust up front with the mercurial Lee Chin in the middle of it. Could be dark horses.
Opener: Dublin May 20th (h) Closer Kilkenny June 9th (a)
Questions: Can they score goals or will their prodigious points scoring be enough again?
Positives: Home matches in Pearse Stadium, especially Kilkenny on May 27 could make some waves. There’s no doubt Galway have the players and the fire power, if they added a goal scoring threat they could be even harder to live with.
Opener Offaly May 13th (a) Closer Dublin June 9th (h)
Questions: Can the returning old guard mould together with the Cuala contingent to turn back time for Pat Gilroy and get the Dubs into a preliminary quarter final at least?
Positives: The returning Cuala hurlers are a major boost, four of the All Ireland winning team are on board, Cian O'Callaghan, David Treacy, Seán Moran and Jake Malone. Could make the difference between a summer campaign and relegation worries.
Opener Kilkenny May 12th (h) Closer Offaly June 3rd (h)
Questions: can they kick on from their solid league form to make a real impact and target third place at least in the group stage. Is two wins possible?
Positives: early win over Dublin set Offaly up for a good run in the league and they give Kilkenny their fill of it in the league quarters. The form line based on the Cats subsequent league success suggests the Faithful hurlers can be a surprise package under Kevin Martin. They finish a week before the others so could be relying on other results for their final Leinster position.
Opener Galway May 13th (h) Closer Dublin June 3rd (a)
2018 Leinster Senior Hurling Championship
Saturday May 12
Dublin v Kilkenny
Sunday May 13
Offaly v Galway
Sunday May 20
Kilkenny v Offaly
Wexford v Dublin
Saturday May 26
Offaly v Wexford
Sunday May 27
Galway v Kilkenny
Saturday June 2
Wexford v Galway
Week ending June 3
Dublin v Offaly
Saturday June 9
Kilkenny v Wexford
Galway v Dublin
Sunday 1 July
Final - 1st v 2nd placed teams in Leinster Group