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State of play - how are the eight Liam MacCarthy Cup contenders shaping up?

The Leinster and Munster round-robin series have concluded to offer a clearer picture for the 2022 hurling title race.

Galway boss Henry Shefflin and Limerick manager John Kiely.
Galway boss Henry Shefflin and Limerick manager John Kiely.
Image: INPHO

Updated May 24th 2022, 8:15 PM

AND THEN THERE were eight.

The contenders for the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 2022 have been whittled down to eight after the Leinster and Munster round-robin action was wrapped up at the weekend.

We know the three sides still in the frame from Leinster, the three still in the hunt from Munster and the Joe McDonagh Cup finalists that will join the All-Ireland action on the weekend of 11-12 June.

But how are the eight contenders shaping up?

Galway

The county which made the most eye-catching and fascinating hurling managerial appointment in the off-season. Henry Shefflin’s spell in charge featured in the league a notable win over Limerick and if their Leinster run began with a late fadeout that proved costly as they only drew with Wexford, they haven’t put a foot wrong since. Westmeath and Laois were both demolished, they survived the Kilkenny examination to win by a point and then were controlled in rounding it off against Dublin on Saturday night.

Back-to-back Leinster titles underpinned Galway’s form in 2017 and 2018, seasons that culminated in All-Ireland final appearances. A piece of silverware would be a sizeable step forward in Shefflin’s first year. Their squad has been shaken up by retirements but the strong form of the Coooneys, Conor and Joseph, is a plus, as is the renewal of Thomas Monaghan as a county player.

The injury situation has also improved with Conor Whelan starting again to show his class with 0-5 against Dublin, while Ronan Glennon and Jason Flynn bolster their options off the bench.

Kilkenny

A fifth straight Leinster final appearance for Kilkenny and the third time they have contested the decider after the bruising test for a round-robin championship. That is all pleasing for Brian Cody’s team. They have TJ Reid back powering their fortunes after missing the league, Eoin Cody’s attacking class is apparent, while Martin Keoghan, Cian Kenny and Adrian Mullen have all hit high points at various stages. Firing 14 goals to date is illustrative of the weapons in their arsenal.

But there is a concern over the fact they lost their two games against the other teams that qualified from Leinster – Galway and Wexford. Their concentration on a direct approach didn’t pave the way for a comeback last Saturday night and Huw Lawlor has been a loss through injury. Still, completing three-in-a-row in Leinster finals would be a fine springboard to the national series.

eoin-cody-and-damien-reck Kilkenny's Eoin Cody and Wexford's Damien Reck. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Limerick

The kings of the game for the past two seasons, the reigning champions have kept a firm hold of their number one spot in the rankings. Any misgivings over Limerick’s spring displays were wiped away by what they unleashed against Cork first day out, before surviving at home with what Waterford and Tipperary could throw at them. A draw in a ferocious contest with Clare was noteworthy but injury setbacks to the likes of Cian Lynch and selection alterations to rest the likes of Aaron Gillane, have yet to prompt a defeat.

Lifting a fourth consecutive Munster crown would be historic, a feat the county has not achieved since 1936. Diarmaid Byrnes is currently in Hurler of the Year territory, Mike Casey has thundered back into a defensive role and Darragh O’Donovan’s midfield prominence has grown. The pace-setters and still the team to beat.

Clare

One of the biggest success stories of the summer to date. Failed to qualify from Munster in 2019, All-Ireland quarter-finalists in 2020 and lost a qualifier last July to Cork. But this time around Clare finished the round-robin unbeaten, shaded Limerick for top spot in the table and set up a final meeting with the champions, a fixture to evoke the magical Banner memories of 1995 when the counties last met in this decider.

tony-kelly-and-manager-brian-lohan Brian Lohan and Tony Kelly after Clare's win over Cork. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

After off-field storms have raged over the past couple of years, Brian Lohan has switched the Clare hurling focus back to their flagship team. The return of Peter Duggan and Shane O’Donnell has been instrumental, Tony Kelly and John Conlon continue to be in towering form, while the influence of Rory Hayes, Ryan Taylor and David Fitzgerald has really grown.

The county haven’t lifted a Munster senior title since 1998. They’ll have strong momentum behind them as they enter Sunday week’s final.

Cork

A remarkable reversal in their fortunes. On the first of May, Cork were embroiled in a crisis after two Munster losses left them teetering on the brink of a championship exit, while the memories of an All-Ireland final hammering and their league decider loss also hung over them. There was quite the contrast in the post-match scene in Thurles last Sunday and the mood at the same venue three weeks previous.

conor-lehane Cork's Conor Lehane. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

The performance in Walsh Park has transformed Cork’s season and they backed up with the hammering of Tipperary. The form and quality of their opponents must be factored in but there are a bunch of positive signs for Cork – Sean O’Donoghue’s corner-back brilliance, the comfort of Ciaran Joyce at six and Mark Coleman at seven, the revival of Conor Lehane, the consistency of Robbie O’Flynn and the emergence of Alan Connolly.

They’ll need to be tuned in for a trip to Belfast or Tralee but as the challenges grow greater, they’ll be pleased to have dug in to get that third Munster spot and still be in contention.

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Wexford 

Similar to Cork, Wexford stood up when the stakes were high and there was an element of desperation at play. They had failed to win either of their two home games in the space of a week at the start of Leinster and couldn’t close out the match in Mullingar as Westmeath pegged them back for a draw. That provided the backdrop on Saturday night in Nowlan Park when they had to win to preserve their interest in the rest of the year.

darragh-egan-celebrates Darragh Egan celebrates after Wexford's win over Kilkenny. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Darragh Egan saw him team deliver when the need was greatest. The free-taking and attacking efficiency issues did show signs of improvement against Kilkenny, while they have a strong defensive core in Liam Ryan, Matthew O’Hanlon, Paudie Foley and Damien Reck. It all combines to shift the outlook in a striking fashion after Wexford have claimed one of the coveted top three provincial spots. Negotiate the preliminary quarter-final and a shot at the beaten Munster finalists beckons.

Antrim

The 2020 Joe McDonagh Cup champions, at the expense of Kerry in that occasion, are back in that decider. They have achieved that in some style, winning their first four games to book a place before they hosted Kerry last Saturday. It’s a strong rebound from Darren Gleeson’s team after last year’s relegation from the All-Ireland and a consolidation after March’s relegation play-off win over Offaly.

Their superiority was clear in their goal tally as they struck 20 in five games with 13 smashed home in their meetings with Down and Meath. Free-taker Conal Cunning has pointed the way with Conor McCann and Sean Elliott also to the fore. Will be favourites for Saturday week’s Croke Park final and they will relish an All-Ireland tie against a traditional heavyweight.

conal-cunning Antrim's Conal Cunning. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

Kerry

A stunning reversal in their fortunes last Saturday. The loss at home to Offaly in a thriller looked to have wiped out their Joe McDonagh Cup chances but they got the job done away to Antrim, despite a nervy finish with the concession of two goals, and were aided by a favour from Carlow to hold off the challenge of Offaly.

It will be the third successive Joe McDonagh Cup final Kerry have contested but this qualification carries the bonus of a glamour All-Ireland game at home to Cork or Wexford, in contrast to the Covid-era competitions.

Stephen Molumphy has overhauled the team with anchors like Fionan Mackessy, Padraig Boyle and Shane Conway still in place, while Eoin Ross and Jordan Conway are in good form. A big couple of weeks ahead.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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