By James McMahon
The hurling summer of 2013 produced many memorable moments.
A compilation would surely include Dublin winning the Leinster title for the first time since 1961; that success came after the Dubs got the better of Kilkenny in a replay, a sure sign that change was in the air.
Since Galway’s victory in 2012, the quest for the Bob O’Keeffe Cup has become a more engrossing affair than ever. The bookies have Kilkenny as favourites to regain their crown, but the margin is less than it would have been in previous years.
This year’s competition began on the last weekend in April. A round-robin format featuring Antrim, Carlow, Laois, London and Westmeath was played off over consecutive weeks. The end of it all saw Antrim and Laois head the standings and with it secure progression to this weekend’s quarter-finals
O’Moore Park in Portlaoise is the venue on Sunday as Antrim square up to Wexford, while in a repeat of last year’s pairing at the same stage, Laois host Galway.
The remaining quarter-final also sees a consecutive championship meeting with Kilkenny and Offaly renewing their rivalry before the Sky Sports cameras in Nowlan Park on 7 June.
As the reigning champions, Dublin enter the fray at the semi-final stage. Antrim or Wexford will provide the opposition on 14 June. The other last-four clash sees either Laois or Galway take on the winners from the Kilkenny v Offaly clash on 22 June.
The Leinster final is scheduled for 6 July. An All-Ireland semi-final date awaits the winner on 10 August. The loser plays in the All-Ireland quarter-final on 27 July.
2011 saw Anthony Daly’s troops win the Division 1 league title. Later that year, they ran Tipperary close in the All-Ireland semi-final. 2012 began with much hope. However, relegation from the league’s top flight and championship defeats to Kilkenny and Clare made for a bleak year.
Daly opted to remain at the helm and the first sign that the revival mission was gathering momentum came about after Dublin won promotion from Division 1B on 6 April 2013.
Aside from the 70 minutes of “constipated hurling” against Wexford, the summer that followed brought about a rich dividend that could easily have seen Daly’s charges contest an All-Ireland final.
They are capable of going that extra step. The word from the experts is that they may need to find another marquee forward, but all told the determination will be there to build on the great deeds of last year.
They should have enough to ensure that they’ll be one of the pairings in the provincial final on the first Sunday in July.
It’s three years now since the Cats last reigned supreme in Leinster. And while their championship odyssey ended in the month of July last season, they nevertheless contributed handsomely to a glorious campaign.
Brian Cody gave some new faces a chance to lay claim to the black and amber jersey during the league in his desire to freshen things up. Of the newcomers Padraig Walsh, a brother of Tommy, took his chance.
Cillian Buckley has shown in versatility with some commanding displays at wing-back, while up front Colin Fennelly has been the thorn in the side of most defences.
A potential semi-final against Galway will be a worthwhile test. Unlike last year, the Cats need to show real intent early on. Failure to grace Croke Park for a consecutive year is almost unthinkable.
2013 was a write-off for Galway. Their struggle in seeing past Laois in the Leinster semi was a foretaste of what was to come as they let Dublin call the tune for nearly all of the subsequent decider.
Next Sunday they square off again against ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett’s outfit. If they are serious about making a real impression in the months ahead, then Galway have to comfortably see past the challenge of the midlanders. The expected last-four clash with the Cats could be a cracker.
Joe Canning is still the star attraction, though the performances of Ronan and Daithi Burke in defence during the league were duly noted by many observers.
On the debit side is the injury to Niall Healy. Damage to his cruciate ligament rules him out for the rest of the season.
On their day, Anthony Cunningham’s side are capable of beating anybody. If they capture the form that saw them blitz the Cats in the 2012 final, then they will be hard to beat.
What of the rest?
Wexford are making progress under Liam Dunne. A potential semi-final clash with Dublin on their own patch is where they could cause a surprise, according to some commentators.
They won't, however, want to put the cart before the horse and will tread warily when facing Antrim this weekend. The Saffrons have matches under their belt and that momentum should ensure that the contest is competitive.
Laois hurling has found its voice again under Seamus Plunkett and will look to make life difficult for Galway again.
Brian Whelehan has endured a tough start to life as Offaly manager. In his days as a player the Faithful legend played on teams that were known for their fighting spirit and their collective ethos. Similar traits will be required ahead of a daunting trip to Nowlan Park.
The likelihood is it will come down to a three-horse race. As mentioned above, I expect Dublin to reach the decider. Galway will improve on last year, but It may not be enough to edge past Kilkenny in the last four.
The Cats may then have enough to see past the Dubs in the decider.