WITH the league finals over, attention now turns to the championships which will commence in six weeks.
All-Ireland hurling champions Limerick continued their great form with a comfortable win over Waterford to consolidate their position as favourites for back-to-back All-Ireland titles.
The revamping of the championships delivered some epic hurling games last summer and fans will be readying themselves for more of the same.
The football league final finally saw Mayo get their hands on some silverware after punishing a poor defensive effort from Kerry. The unbridled joy of their supporters was heart-warming and understandable considering the county had lost 10 finals since their last national title in 2001.
They will be big players in the race for Sam Maguire with Dublin, Kerry and Tyrone. Sadly, Cork football supporters face another tough summer with the rebels meeting the winner of Tipperary-Limerick in a semi-final on June 1 at Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
But for the vast majority of Rebel fans the fortunes of the hurling team will dominate the summer after narrowly losing out to Limerick in last year’s semi-final.
The Cork management knew that strengthening the bench would be essential for the championship so they used plenty of players during the league campaign. However, major question marks still remain about the defence with a number of players vying for places.
Tim O’Mahony played a number of games at centre-back while Eoin Cadogan is a real utility defender who has vast experience in this vital position. Our league victory over Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds was our best performance this season with Cadogan starting at full-back on that occasion.
Inniscarra’s Sean O’Donoghue had a very good debut season at corner-back while Damien Cahalane is likely to start in that line too.
Colm Spillane is still on the injured list but Christopher Joyce and Mark Coleman look nailed down for half-back positions. The returning Stephen McDonnell brings massive experience while Billy Hennessy from St Finbarr’s is another very talented defender.
Placing the very tough Bill Cooper at centre-back is another option as he lined out there for his division Imokilly in the championship recently. The pace of the modern game means players glide through the middle putting defences under enormous pressure.
Having a forceful centre-back is massive with Limerick and Galway proving that in their winning campaigns with Declan Hannon and Gearóid McInerney respectively. The likelihood is that Newtownshandrum’s Tim O’Mahony will be given the green light with Cooper joining Darragh Fitzgibbon at midfield.
Daniel Kearney was magnificent last season from wing-forward with Seamus Harnedy likely to start at centre forward. Robbie O’Flynn has been motoring really well recently and is another possibility on the wing.
A full-forward line of Alan Cadogan, Patrick Horgan and Conor Lehane would certainly give plenty of defences serious problems on a dry summer sod. Luke Meade, Shane Kingston and Aidan Walsh will also slot into the starting line-up seamlessly too.
Home advantage proved crucial in the group games last summer with Clare the only team to win an away game when they defeated Tipperary at Semple Stadium.
Admittedly there were three draws while Waterford were forced to play their home games at neutral venues. But this season they will be hoping to make Walsh Park a fortress.
Cork begin their campaign with a home game against Tipperary on May 12. Winning is essential as they head to Limerick a week later.
This Limerick team have certainly found talent this winter while Arron Gillane is in dazzling form right now. Sean Finn could easily have been Hurler of the Year last season. He took care of all the marque forwards including Walter Walsh, Patrick Horgan and Conor Whelan.
Limerick open their campaign by welcoming Cork to the Gaelic Grounds so expect some atmosphere on May 19 at Limerick.
After a break the Rebels will then welcome Waterford to Páirc Uí Chaoimh for our third game which will be another massive test. The Déise look a lot more attack-minded this season under Páraic Fanning and are a match for anyone on their day.
Our final game of the opening series is a trip to play Clare in Ennis. Hopefully, Cork will have enough points in the bag before this tricky assignment.
Remember the only championship defeat Limerick suffered last season was against Clare at Cusack Park. The Banner were desperately unlucky to lose out to Galway in a semi-final.
With the gifted Tony Kelly, Peter Duggan and John Conlon in their ranks this Clare team will be gunning to get back to Croke Park.
After winning back to back Munster titles Cork have been pipped in the last two semi-finals by Waterford and Limerick.
In this group of death there is nothing easy and ensuring qualification will be the first priority.
Winning is a habit and in their prime the great Kilkenny team of recent times always went route one and came through all their semi-final clashes. An opening day victory for Cork against Tipperary can set the rebels up for another glorious summer of hurling.
Admittedly, the competition looks extremely tough but a battle-hardened Rebel outfit are more than capable of going all the way this year.