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10 most intriguing storylines on the first Sunday of the Allianz Leagues

The GAA season is back in full swing.

TJ Reid takes to the field Source: James Crombie/INPHO

WITH 27 INTER-COUNTY games on the agenda today and four in the books from last night, the GAA season is well and truly underway.

Here’s a look at the 10 topics in hurling and football we’re most interested in over the next couple of months. 

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1. The most unpredictable of leagues

How do you approach the league? That’s the question that’ll have been rattling around the heads of most inter-county managers for the past few weeks.

The introduction of the round robin format in the hurling provinces means inter-county sides effectively have another league to worry about come the middle of May, with most counties playing four championship games in five weeks.

Much of the focus during the league for hurling sides will be on building squad depth, and keeping an eye on playing time for key players. The shadow of the Super 8s hangs over the football league too, but only the big guns of Dublin, Kerry, Mayo and Tyrone will be supremely confident of making it that far.

For the other 28 football sides, the league is still of vital importance.

David Clifford Source: James Crombie/INPHO

2. Kerry’s influx of young talent

Eamonn Fitzmaurice has a lengthy list of absentees for the league, but that’s only opened the door into the team for various members of the four in-a-row minor winning teams.

A good deal of intrigue surrounds minor sensation David Clifford, but noises from the Kingdom would suggest Seán Ó Sé has a bright future on his hands too. Both youngsters, along with Dr Crokes speedster Micheál Burns start in attack against Donegal in Fitzgerald Stadium today.

Last summer’s exit to Mayo proved that Kerry need reinforcements defensively, and the duo of Jason Foley and Ronan Shanahan will be hoping to impress.

3.  Pat Gilroy’s influence in Dublin

Pat Gilroy’s first competitive game in charge of the Dublin hurlers got off to shaky start with a 13 point defeat to Offaly in the Division 1B opener at Croke Park last night.

There’s a great deal of fascination over Gilroy’s appointment since he hasn’t managed a hurling team before, but they were way off the pace with only a handful of players who will be expected to be part of the starting 15 come championship.

Diarmuid Connolly’s younger brother Tomás was an interesting addition at midfield, while the squad has been boosted by the returns of Peter Kelly, Alan Nolan, Johnny McCaffrey, Danny Sutcliffe and Conal Keaney.

4. Tipperary unburdened by pressure of being champions

Only a Joe Canning wonder point separated Tipperary and Galway in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, but for long spells in 2017 the Premier looked like a team under pressure to perform.

Liberated from the burden of being All-Ireland champions this season, it’s reasonable to assume Michael Ryan’s charges will play with more freedom and flair.

The loss of Seamus Callanan for the league will put more of a scoring burden on John McGrath and John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer, but they’ve the squad to cope with his absence.

Cathal Barrett’s return is a major boost to the Premier, and he lines out at midfield today against Clare.

Cathal Barrett Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

5. Is football shifting back towards attacking play?

Dublin’s 12-point pummelling of Tyrone last August was seen by many as the death knell for defensive football.

In recent weeks, both Michael Murphy and Conor McManus have publicly stated they believe their respective counties need to play a more expansive game to compete at the top.

The introduction of Stephen O’Neill as Tyrone’s attacking coach has brought optimism that the Red Hand will employ a more attacking game plan.

6. Brian Cody faces transition in Kilkenny

The retirements of Kieran Joyce and Michael Fennelly have hit Kilkenny hard, the latter in particular.

Factor in the absences of Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly for the entire league due to an army tour of duty, plus a back injury to Richie Hogan, and the Kilkenny squad looks stretched.

Jonjo Farrell, Ger Aylward and Mark Bergin were all promising forwards in the past, but none of the trio are still part of Cody’s plans.

Instead he’s trawled the county, working with a squad of 50-odd players in the pre-season. Cody will be looking to youngsters Richie Leahy, Liam Blanchfield and Alan Murphy to make an impact up front.

Brian Cody Source: James Crombie/INPHO

7. Kildare and Galway look to prove they belong among football’s elite

Both Kildare and Galway will be aiming to survive in the top flight in the league, before making the Super 8s later this summer.

The Lilywhites made a disappointing championship exit to Armagh last year, but will be hoping forwards like Neil Flynn and Chris Healy can add some firepower to Cian O’Neill’s attack.

Worryingly for O’Neill, Flynn left the field early on with a hamstring injury in their opening round loss to Dublin last night.

In Galway, the Connacht title is a realistic aim while Kevin Walsh will look to bed several of the talented U21 side into his team – with Sean Andy O Ceallaigh an exciting prospect in defence.

8. Galway’s league and All-Ireland defence begins

Micheal Donoghue said in a recent interview that Galway’s team holiday has left them six or seven weeks behind their rivals at the start of the new season.

Fortunately, they’ll start life in Division 1B with games against Antrim, Laois and Offaly. Win those three and they’ll be into the Division 1 quarter-finals.

With eight youngsters added to the Tribe squad for 2018, Donoghue is looking to keep things fresh as they bid to put together back-to-back All-Irelands for the first time since 1988.

9. Veterans and youngsters push for places in Dublin 

With one eye on the Super 8s and keeping his squad fresh, Jim Gavin’s side may be slightly vulnerable early in the league campaign.

In the past, Gavin has shown loyalty to players who perform early on in the league so veterans like Bernard Brogan, Paul Flynn, Kevin McManamon and Diarmuid Connolly will be determined to make their mark during the spring.

Dublin opened their account with a brilliant second-half showing against the Lilywhites last night, with fine displays youngsters Brian Howard and Colm Basquel.

Kieran McGeeney Source: Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

10. Armagh’s bid to replace experience

Armagh looked on an upward curve in 2017 when they made the All-Ireland quarter-finals, but Kieran McGeeney’s side face a tough task to make it out of Division 3 without some of their most experienced names.

Ciaran McKeever has retired, while Jamie Clarke, James Morgan, Shea Heffron, Stefan Campbell, Oisin O’Neill and Ciaron O’Hanlon have all opted out, leaving Armagh severely depleted.

The Orchard will be targeting a place in the Super 8s, but that appears unlikely unless they can find suitable replacements for the outgoing contingent.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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Kevin O'Brien

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