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Canning's injury leaves Dublin, Wexford and Kilkenny eyeing Leinster hurling glory
Galway haven’t lost a game in the province since 2016 but are seriously weakened by Joe Canning’s absence.

BRIAN CARROLL’S COMMENTS on RTÉ Radio back in March drew the ire of Davy Fitzgerald. 

Davy Fitzgerald Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Wexford boss Davy Fitzgerald. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Carroll, the former Offaly forward, said he believed Fitzgerald was keen to win the league in his third season in charge of Wexford.

Carroll’s reasonable assertion was that, in this ultra-competitive hurling landscape, Fitzgerald had sensed an opportunity to deliver some silverware during a league campaign where most of the bigger guns were more focused on building squad depth rather than winning games. 

“I heard this rubbish on the fucking radio last night and it saying I’m mad to win the league,” said Fitzgerald after beating Kilkenny to reach the league quarter-final.

“I couldn’t give a fuck, right. I just want to win every game I can win. If we happen to win stuff, fine. If you ask me personally, I’d prefer to win the All-Ireland, that’s what I’d love to win and if the Leinster championship comes, great. And if the league comes, great.”

It said a lot about Fitzgerald’s mindset that he declared the Liam MacCarthy Cup as their top priority, even ahead of establishing themselves as Leinster’s top togs.

Wexford haven’t lifted a provincial title in 15 years and ending that particular drought this summer would surely make 2019 a big success. With just three major trophies available to the Model County at the start of the year, a Leinster title would represent tangible progress in year three of Fitzgerald’s reign. 

Even in the modern game, a provincial title is not to be sniffed at.

Whatever counties advance from Munster bearpit will automatically become three of the four most likely teams to win the All-Ireland.

Captain Declan Hannon said last month that making the Munster final would be “a bonus” for Limerick, with their number one objective retaining the big prize.

The two teams parade Tommy Dickson / INPHO Galway and Limerick parade ahead of the All-Ireland final last August. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

It could be argued that last year’s third-place finish in the province suited Limerick’s All-Ireland bid. 

But are any of Dublin, Wexford or Kilkenny genuine All-Ireland contenders?

The injury-ravaged Cats will be without Cillian Buckley, James Maher, Conor Delaney and Rob Lennon for at least the first two games and All-Star goalkeeper Eoin Murphy for longer, while there are doubts surrounding Richie Hogan’s fitness. 

Kilkenny have plenty of defensive issues to address before they can be placed above any Munster county in the All-Ireland pecking order.

Dublin have injury problems of their own but even with a full hand, an All-Ireland title is probably beyond them in Mattie Kenny’s first year in charge.

The All-Ireland quarter-final has proved to be Wexford’s glass ceiling over past two years and there are valid question marks around the effectiveness of Fitzgerald’s sweeper system during the latter stages of the championship. 

The groin surgery which ruled Canning out for the entire provincial campaign has provided Dublin, Wexford and Kilkenny with a glorious chance to end the Tribesmen’s stranglehold on Leinster. 

Mattie Kenny Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Dublin manager Mattie Kenny. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

The consensus over the past number of years has been that Galway are less reliant on Canning than they were earlier in his career – but we’ll find out over the next five weeks just how true that is. 

The return of Johnny Glynn and Joseph Cooney have strengthened Micheal Donoghue’s attacking options, but Cooney, in particular, is likely to be well behind his team-mates fitness-wise at this stage.

Galway will need the likes of Conor Whelan, Niall Burke and Conor Cooney to shoulder a heavier scoring burden, but none of that trio hit top form during the league.

Canning scored 0-57 for Galway in the spring, 35% of their total tally. That’s a lot of scores they’ll have to make-up in his absence.

Plus Donohoe has the headache of appointing a full-time free-taker – with Conor Cooney the main contender to assume the responsibility. 

Galway haven’t lost a game in Leinster since the defeat to Kilkenny three years ago, but away trips to Brian Cody’s side and the Dubs on the final two weekends will seriously test their metal.

If you offered Donohoe a third-place finish and a safe passage to the All-Ireland series with a fit-again Canning, would he take it?

Maybe not, but the Portumna ace’s injury has made them extremely vulnerable. A provincial title has become a very attainable goal for Dublin, Wexford and Kilkenny.

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Joe Canning lays injured Tommy Dickson / INPHO Joe Canning lays injured during the game against Waterford. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

The Cats, who cast a shadow across the rest of Leinster for so long, last lifted the crown in 2016. Of that crop, Kieran Joyce, Michael Fennelly, Lester Ryan, JJ Farrell, Eoin Larkin and John Power have since moved on.

A host of youngsters have emerged under Cody and tasting provincial success would do wonders for the confidence of young guns like Adrian Mullen, Billy Ryan, Richie Leahy Martin Keoghan.

Dublin looked on the cusp of taking a major leap forward with Pat Gilroy at the helm last year, but they let costly leads slip late on against Kilkenny, Wexford and Galway. Under the stewardship of two-time All-Ireland winning boss Kenny, the Sky Blue enjoyed a bright league campaign and finished top of Division 1B.

In the league quarter-final, they lost to the All-Ireland champions by three points a game where Kenny showed his tactical acumen by flooding the midfield and playing with a sweeper.

Dublin look well-primed to win their first Leinster crown since 2013. They’ve got the best back six in Leinster, with Eoghan O’Donnell and Sean Moran providing a brilliant spine to Kenny’s defence.

If key forwards like Oisín O’Rorke, Eamonn Dillon, Danny Sutcliffe and David Treacy can provide enough scores up front, it will take a very good side to beat them this year. 

Danny Sutcliffe with Dan Morrissey Tommy Dickson / INPHO Danny Sutcliffe takes on Limerick's Dan Morrissey. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Whether they have the attacking weapons for an assault on the All-Ireland is another matter, but certainly, the Bob O’Keeffe Cup is within reach. 

Wexford, meanwhile, unearthed a few extra options this spring and head for the championship with 23 or 24 players capable of making an impact. They’re quite reliant on Rory O’Connor for scores up front and it’s about time Conor McDonald started delivering on his immense potential.

While each of the five Munster counties would be satisfied with a top three finish to keep their All-Ireland dreams alive, the Leinster trio of Wexford, Kilkenny and Dublin will be gunning for a top-two spot and a chance to deliver some welcome silverware.

Even if Fitzgerald maintains he’s only thinking about All-Ireland glory.

Gavan Casey, Murray Kinsella and Bernard Jackman tee up Saturday’s Champions Cup final and look at the backroom problems in Munster.:

The42 Rugby Weekly / SoundCloud

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