The GAA Wrap crew put their money where their mouth is ahead of the championship throw-ins this week. Across all of the football and hurling campaigns, we pick the best and worst across what are bound to be ultra competitive, and utterly impossible to predict. Champions League eat your heart out.
Let’s start with Munster, who’s going to come out on top?
KC: A bit of a cop out, but it’s hard to see past Limerick as things stand. If they can navigate the round robin as well as they did the league, and keep close to an injury-free slate, they’ll be there or thereabouts.
ET: How long is a piece of string? You could rattle off a dozen clichés, but it’s undoubtedly the most competitive provincial championship left between the two codes. Anyone can genuinely beat anyone, but if we have learned anything from last year’s trial, it’s that the home games mean everything. The schedules haven’t been overly kind to Limerick & Clare, and that will be a distinct disadvantage. However, this is a trophy-focused Limerick side, and if they overcome Cork at home in the first round, it will set them off on a path that they may be difficult to throw off.
MM: All the evidence points to Limerick but it is a measure of how competitive Munster is that its not outside the realms of possibility that they may not qualify at all! I would agree that a good start in the Gaelic Grounds against Cork will set them up nicely for a successful provincial campaign.
Which team will exceed expectations?
KC: I’m all in on the Waterford train. They’ve shown serious signs of progression in the league and Pairic Fanning has given the side a breath of fresh air. The talent there significantly underperformed in 2018 but things had become stagnant under Derek McGrath. They’re definitely capable of taking a scalp off anyone else in the province and fixtures in Walsh Park is a major advantage.
ET: Cork. People seem to dismiss them too easily, they’ve acquired some excellent fresh talent that wasn’t there last year – Alan Cadogan is back, Aidan Walsh & Steve McDonnell bring serious experience and Declan Dalton looks a solid prospect. Not sure if winning Munster will be there be all and end all this year, they were so close to making an AI Final last year. Wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them make it to Croke Park on August 18th this summer.
MM: It’s hard to say as all of the Munster teams will expect to still be hurling when the All-Ireland series rattles round. Based on last year’s performances in the province, Waterford have the most scope for improvement and the combination of a fresh managerial approach, a reasonable run without injuries and home games I think will be enough to see them through the province. They might need to take out Cork in Pairc Úi Chaoimh to do it though and I’d fancy that they will.
And who’ll disappoint the most?
KC: I don’t think Clare will have as good a campaign as the talent suggests. They visit Waterford and Limerick which will be extremely tricky away ties, and I don’t think the manager duo can get much more from this side.
ET: Like Kilkenny, you write off Tipp at your peril. But they just haven’t been impressive so far. The Sheedy factor will inevitably kick in and they will be next to impossible to beat in Thurles in the summer sun, but I can see them struggling away from home.
MM: I think it might be a short year for both Cork and Tipp. All of the qualifiers from Munster last year got something on the road and I don’t see Tipp or Cork managing that this year. Tipp have been magnificent for the last ten years and their battles with Kilkenny and Galway have in many ways been the highlight of this era in hurling but during the league, they didn’t seem to have the same energy levels we have seen in the past from them and while they have many of the most intricate and skilful hurlers in the country, pace throughout the team has looked a real issue. For Cork, I think Waterford will pick them off in Pairc Ui Chaoimh too leaving them needing something from their trips to Clare and Limerick and I don’t see them getting it.
Who’ll win Leinster?
KC: If ever there was a year for a Dublin or Wexford to spring a surprise in Leinster, it’s this year. I think Galway are due some regression and the absence of Joe Canning and a few others is a massive blow. In that case, Brian Cody will return Kilkenny to it’s throne.
ET: A Leinster title would mean a lot more to Dublin or Wexford than it would to Kilkenny or Galway in 2019, in my view. I’ve had a positive feeling about Dublin from pre-season, they’re attitude is concrete, their tactical awareness astute and they’ve got a manager who can grind them over the line. The draw has set up reasonably well for them, the first outing away to the Cats is obviously massive. They will be underdogs going into it, but I have a sneaking suspicion they may snatch a victory and set themselves up for a fruitful campaign.
MM: Notwithstanding the injury to Joe Canning, I still think Galway will have enough in Leinster. Wexford will be coming to them in game two for both counties and if they have had a poor result the week before in Parnell Park, it will be very difficult for them to regroup for Salthill. Galway then have a two week break before heading to Nowlan Park in a game I really feel they will be targeting as another opportunity to keep their recent superiority over the Cats going. Three wins should see Galway through before their final fixture against Dublin and it might just leave the door open then for Dublin to also join them in the provincial decider.
Who’ll be the best of the rest?
KC: Dublin host both Wexford and Galway, if they can build upon their decent league campaign then I wouldn’t be shocked to see them in a Leinster final.
ET: Wexford limped out disappointingly at the quarter final stage last season. I would expect to see a resurgence down there also.
MM: Dublin for me. They are coming in with a fresh setup on the back of a hugely positive league campaign. Remember under the old league system, Dublin would have been the team promoted from a 1B that included Galway and Waterford this year. They have a settled defensive spine that would match any counties and as the league progressed, Danny Sutcliffe seemed to be gradually rediscovering his form from before his hiatus. A positive performance on Saturday night regardless of the result will set them up nicely for home ties with Wexford and Galway and a trip to Carlow.
Which hurler will be top of the Player of the Year conversation?
KC: Aaron Gillane’s scoring tally will keep him top of the bookies odds, with side bets on Jamie Barron and Noel McGrath.
ET: With everything going according to plan, if injury can be avoided, it’ll be hard to look beyond Gillane, with the likes of Lehane, Harnedy and Conor Whelan in the mix.
MM: I actually think Gillane and Cian Lynch have been almost more impressive so far this year than they were for a lot of last season which is quite frightening. To build on the positivity of last year, Clare will need huge campaigns from Shane O’ Donnell and Colm Galvin. Based on his form with his club in recent weeks, football Daithi Burke has smoothly transitioned himself back to hurling Daithi Burke and another big campaign should be in store for him.
And Young Player of the Year?
KC: There’s a few interesting ones, namely Diarmuid Ryan of Clare who had an excellent league campaign and Jake Morris of Tipp. Morris’ teammate Mark Kehoe, if he gets a chance, could spark things up too. If he exceeds 2018 standards, it’ll be hard to overlook Kyle Hayes.
ET: Incredibly tricky to try and narrow down at this stage.
MM: Kyle Hayes is the obvious candidate but I expect Kilkenny to take the third qualification place out of Leinster and if that is the case, we could see a lot of Adrian Mullen this summer and on the back being award AIB Club Hurler of the Year, he could be an outside bet.
Over to football, can anyone beat Dublin?
KC: As much as I’d love Mayo or Kerry, or anyone, really, to topple Dublin, they are just far too good. Jim Gavin has them primed for the summer.
ET: After their shock exit last year, the Mayo fairytale has already begun once again in earnest. Themselves, Kerry and Tyrone are the only ones capable, but ultimately, will come up short against a machine hell-bent on creating history.
MM: The Mayo for Sam brigade are already in full flow and they have over the years shown that a high press is the best tactic to take on Dublin with but Dublin’s overall quality has always gotten them over the line. With immortality in sight, that quality throughout their squad is likely to be enough again for the Dubs. Who knows though, maybe Andy Moran could become this decades Seamus Darby and if that was to play out, it’ll be every man for himself for the Croke Park stewards when the final whistle blows on All-Ireland final day.
Any shocks in Munster?
KC: Kerry are on a different level. Tipperary’s recent era of competitiveness seems to be slipping away, while Clare may lack the quality to danger the Kingdom.
ET: Unlikely. The way the form-books are, Clare may give Kerry a bit of a fright, but to expect anything more than that would be optimistic at best. It’s a tired format, attendances are likely to continue to drop across the provinces, bar the latter stages of Connacht & Ulster. There’s a place for the provincial championships, but in reality, it’s all about the Super 8s for football fans.
MM: Not a chance. Clare will overcome Waterford and will be game opposition in Ennis but Kerry will have too much and Cork or Tipp won’t bother them on final day. Where this Kerry team is on their journey will be defined by performances in the Super 8 and beyond.
Ulster is wide open – but who’s going to win?
KC: It really is the most open and interesting provincial race, up there with the Leinster and Munster hurling campaigns. Tyrone had a dismal start to the league but came back strong, while Fermanagh frustrated the life out of opponents in Division 2, Donegal can beat anyone on their day, and Monaghan are probably best equipped to go toe-to-toe in terms of quality and dirty work. Tyrone should win, but it won’t be easy.
ET: Tyrone will be able to whet their appetites and get into their stride in the first two rounds, where they should have too much for Derry & Antrim. They will then face either Donegal or Fermanagh which will show where they’re at. You’d expect Monaghan to come through on the other side, but it’s still the only real provincial football championship capable of genuine upsets. Tyrone to regain, overcoming Monaghan in the final and making up for last season’s early defeat.
MM: I’d have to go Tyrone too and probably the most impressive aspect of their league campaign was the long awaited evolution in their attacking play. With the shackles loosened, they should have enough to take the direct route to the Super 8’s but it’s not a given and at least Ulster offers a semblance of competiveness.
Put a winner on Connacht?
KC: Mayo have their heads up now, there’ll be no stopping them.
ET: With a more favourable path to the final than last year, Mayo are likely to be keen to end their drought in Connacht, which has been in place since 2015. With Roscommon likely to end the Leitrim rising, that could be the major hurdle. They are in a position to build on their silverware haul and enter the Super 8s revitalised to challenge for the major honour.
MM: Mayo are in a position a bit like the Galway hurlers in 2017 where a league win has given them massive momentum coming into championship and they need to keep it going now. Taking the direct route through Connacht is vital for them and I think it will focus the minds sufficiently for them. Both themselves and Galway will end up in the Super 8’s in any case.
Who’ll be the top Player of the Year contender in football?
KC: It’s likely to be a Dub, you could throw your hat over a few names and won’t be far off. Jack McCaffrey is incredible, as if Brian Fenton and Cormac Costello. If Kerry go far, you’d imagine David Clifford won’t be far off the running.
ET: Could be any number of Dubs representatives if the script goes according to plan. Con O’Callaghan, Ciaran Kilkenny and Jack McCaffrey would be my front runners.
MM: Jack McCaffrey for me. I thought he was incredible last year in the latter stages of the championship. He is just a Rolls Royce of a footballer. How disheartening must it be going out to mark him knowing you are going to spend your day tracking him and yet when he puts on the after burners he is just gone and there’s almost nothing you can do about it.
The elite young footballer?
KC: Seán O’Shea and David Clifford are the leading contenders, but don’t be surprised if Conor Diskin or Brian Reape of Mayo impress also.
ET: Seán O’Shea if the Kingdom make a challenge, which they desperately need to do for the good of the football season. David Clifford could easily retain his award too if his performances last season are emulated. If Dublin pull it off, livewire Eoin Murchan could be a contender, or up and coming attacker Colm Basquel, if he can cement a place on the side.
MM: Hard to look past Clifford again and we could be looking at a situation where both the Young Hurler and the Young Footballer of the Year from last year retain their awards which would be pretty incredible and I’d imagined unprecedented.
Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @gaawrap.