And While We're At It, How About A Hurling Championship Preview?
Cork and Kilkenny, Kilkenny and Cork. The Cats and the Rebels. "Welcome to Croke Park for this All-Ireland Hurling Final where Kilkenny will take on Cork"..."Cork go for three in a row against Kilkenny today in the Guinness All-Ireland Hurling Final against Kilkenny...". It's not that inevitable is it? Sure didn't Galway put Kilkenny out last year? Didn't Cork only just about get past Clare in the other semi?
The statistics, however, are foreboding. Six of the last seven All-Irelands have gone either Noreside or Leeside since 1999, when Cork ended the madness of the mid-90s when the Liam McCarthy cup was passed around like a dog-eared paperback. The sides met in three of those finals and this year Cork, like Kilkenny in 2004, are aiming for a third title on the bounce.
So can the hegemony be broken?
A YEAR OF OUTSIDERS?
As cases for the defence go, the prospects of hurlings hitherto also-rans would, these days, try the skills of Rumpole of the Bailey in his pomp. Not only have the Terrible Two dominated All-Irelands in recent years, but Kilkenny have also won four of the last five National Leagues, and Cork are expected to pursue the immortal treble with the steeliest intensity.
The depth of the potential challenge has been damaged already with Waterford's injury and suspension troubles. The Decies' most powerful artillery has been almost entirely decimated, with John Mullane and Ken McGrath suffering serious injuries which will rules them out for most of the summer, and Paul Flynn and Eoin Kelly receiving four and twelve week suspensions respectively for misdemeanours in the league. However while Waterford are a write-off for the Munster Championship, there is a suggestion that they could benefit in the All-Ireland series if most or all of those players return and they emerge into the quarter-final stage sharp and fresh from the qualifiers.
Galway may have endured a disappointing League, with defeats against Antrim and heavily to Kilkenny being particularly galling, however there is no reason to suggest that last year's achievement in reaching an All-Ireland final was a fluke. A young side, the general consensus was that last year's run would do wonders for Galway and, given the potential in their ranks, there is no reason to doubt Conor Hayes' feeling that there was an All-Ireland in them at some stage. Also, with the trajectory of Galway's championship meaning a late start in the qualifier groups, they cannot have been approaching any sort of peak during the league, and will continue to benefit, as they did last year, from the extra games the new system provides. The best chance of an upset.
Limerick were the big good news story of the league and their clash with Tipperary in Sunday's Munster championship opener should provide a revealing insight into their progress. The perennial question about Limerick is as to whether they can fulfil the demonstrable potential evident in their three All-Ireland u-21 successes in the early part of this decade. Although they performed admirably in last year's quarter final loss to Kilkenny, the latter's sieve-like performance against Galway showed that they were not the team of yore. Reshuffled under Joe McKenna, they seem competitive this year and have some fine hurlers in Andrew O'Shaughnessy, Mark Keane and Stephen Lucey as well as the timeless TJ Ryan. A semi-final place should be their aim.
Tipp put their poor league start right to a degree by reaching the semi-final, where they were comfortably beaten by Kilkenny. The loss of Paul Kelly and Benny Dunne for Sunday's opener suggests they will exit Munster early, and the Premier county look a long way off regaining their former elite status.
Clare and Wexford have provided some of the best memories of recent championship seasons; in Wexford's case the thrilling draw with Cork in 2003 and similarly last-gasp triumph over Kilkenny in the 2004 Leinster final, and Clare with the murderous double-header against Kilkenny in 2004 and last year's valiant semi-final defeat to Cork. But whereas Wexford inevitably follow good performances with humiliatingly bad ones, and appear now in serious regression, Clare seem to die on the field every time they play and are almost always good value if you like your championship hurling fierce and feisty. They could make another semi this year.
For Offaly it's all about respect this year, following last term's disastrous showing which included that 31 point defeat to Kilkenny in Leinster. A good season would be a return to the quarter-finals and maybe taking down Wexford in Leinster.
SAME OLE, SAME OLE
The only way the above ramshackle bunch can prevent the seemingly inevitable is if there is unexpected decay in the leading pair. If Kilkenny have wiped out the memory of the loss of five goals against Galway - and the league suggests they have - their forensically rejuvenated and massively deep squad will be stronger than all the rest, and the conveyor belt of talent has never been more plentiful.
Cork's major worry will be about injuries. They do not have Kilkenny's numbers, but their quality overrides any deficiency in quantity. However, injuries to the likes of Diarmuid O'Sullivan, Sean Og O hAilpin, the O'Connors or Ronan Curran would be debilitating, especially if they occured amongst their inspirational defensive division.
Barring such troubles, none of the challengers look capable of getting near these two, drilled as they are in the ways of big championship hurling days. Both will be focused for different reasons, and, in some ways by each other: Kilkenny to prevent their rivals from achieving the magical three-in-a-row, and Cork to grasp the very holy grail that was beyond the Cats' reach in 2004.
Little separates them, but a freshened Kilkenny will not let another year without an All-Ireland go by.