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CLARE Joint man­agers: Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Con­nor (2nd sea­son) First game: May 20 v Cork (a)

Five years now since Clare were All-Ire­land cham­pi­ons, and if the book­ies are to be be­lieved, that’s not re­motely close to chang­ing in 2018. Paddy Power rank them fifth and last in the bet­ting for the Mun­ster cham­pi­onship, and some knowl­edge­able hurl­ing peo­ple within the county are gen­uinely con­cerned they mightn’t win a match given how com­pet­i­tive the prov­ince is likely to be. The con­trary view is that if they win in Cork next Sun­day, any­thing is pos­si­ble. De­fen­sively, I’m not con­vinced they’re good enough. Ques­tion marks sur­round the full-back line and the switch dur­ing the league of Conor Cleary to num­ber three with David McIn­er­ney go­ing to cen­tre-back may have to be re­versed. Cian Dil­lon’s re­turn will help, but there doesn’t ap­pear to be a great deal of depth in the panel and up front, both Aron Shanagher and Aaron Cun­ning­ham will be missed. With Podge Collins strug­gling to find the form of 2013, much will rest on Shane O’Don­nell and Conor McGrath, along with Tony Kelly and Colm Galvin in the mid­dle of the field. Ev­ery­one ap­pears to be writ­ing them off, but they could have beaten the Rebels in last year’s Mun­ster fi­nal and, with a core of re­ally good play­ers, they’re not with­out hope. Their sched­ule, games in the first two weeks fol­lowed by a week off, means they should be fresh meet­ing a Tipp side play­ing their fourth game in 22 days, and who at that stage might even have qual­i­fied for the fi­nal. Out­siders, but don’t rule them out com­pletely. Ver­dict: Won’t qual­ify from Mun­ster

CORK Man­ager: John Meyler (1st sea­son) First game: May 20 v Clare (h)

The de­fend­ing Mun­ster cham­pi­ons had a dis­ap­point­ing league, but John Meyler ro­tated his squad, looks to have found a cou­ple of play­ers, and Cork are al­ways likely to be a bet­ter top-of-the-ground team any­way. The younger play­ers who at times lit up last year’s cham­pi­onship — Mark Coleman, Dar­ragh Fitzgib­bon,

Alan Cado­gan et al — are a year older, stronger and wiser. Eoin Cado­gan’s re­turn gives them more op­tions at the back, and both Sean O’Donoghue and

Tim O’Ma­hony looked like they had the tools to be­come cham­pi­onship starters as well. If they re­dis­cover the swag­ger they dis­played while win­ning

Mun­ster in 2017 and kick on from it, they’re def­i­nite All-Ire­land con­tenders. But, but, but . . . nag­ging doubts re­main. They should be good enough to get out of Mun­ster, but do they have the re­quired steel and hard edge needed to go all the way? They’ve yet to demon­strate that they can win ugly and un­til they prove other­wise, Tipp, Water­ford, Kilkenny and Gal­way will be­lieve that Cork can be out­fought in a bat­tle. They need to beat Clare next week­end, and face a cru­cial round-three tie at home to Lim­er­ick, just six days af­ter the Tipp match. That’s not go­ing to be easy, and that week could de­ter­mine their fate. Ver­dict: All-Ire­land quar­ter-fi­nal­ists

LIM­ER­ICK Man­ager: John Kiely (2nd sea­son) First game: May 20 v Tip­per­ary (h)

In a good place af­ter a hugely pos­i­tive league — pro­mo­tion out of 1B, char­ac­ter-build­ing wins over

Gal­way and Clare, where they re­ally dug deep — and a side no-one in Mun­ster will fancy play­ing. Tipp and Water­ford both travel to the Gaelic Grounds, where Water­ford in par­tic­u­lar have a poor record, and they have the ad­van­tage of the week off be­fore fac­ing Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in round three. They have a squad, a lot of good young play­ers, who’ve cut their teeth in the Fitzgib­bon with UL, LIT and Mary I, and in Paul Kin­nerk, a proven top-class coach. Not hav­ing Diar­muid Byrnes hurt them last year, but he’s back and play­ing well. Cian Lynch also looks back to his best af­ter a dis­ap­point­ing 2017, and all three rel­a­tive new­com­ers who started in the full-for­ward line against Clare in the quar­ter-fi­nal — Aaron Gil­lane, Sea­mus Flana­gan and Barry Murphy — had their mo­ments dur­ing the league. The re­turn of the Na Piar­saigh con­tin­gent strength­ens them fur­ther. On the neg­a­tive side, full­back re­mains an is­sue and they can’t af­ford to be as waste­ful in pos­ses­sion as in the past, con­sid­er­ing how small the mar­gins are likely to be. They will have to prove they have enough gen­uine top-class play­ers to win the re­ally big matches, but they’re a com­ing force and dan­ger­ous op­po­nents. Ver­dict: Won’t qual­ify from Mun­ster

TIP­PER­ARY Man­ager: Michael Ryan (3rd sea­son) First game: May 20 v Lim­er­ick (a)

Joint favourites for the All-Ire­land and, at their best with a full panel to pick from, ar­guably the team they all have to beat. But are they bet­ter than they were in 2016 or even last year? I’m not sure they are, and the sched­ule in Mun­ster — four games in 22 days — is a pun­ish­ing one. It’s in­con­ceiv­able, with two wins re­quired, that they won’t be in the top three, so worse-case sce­nario, they make it to a quar­ter-fi­nal. But, af­ter the de­feat in the fi­nal to Kilkenny, any ve­neer of in­vin­ci­bil­ity af­ter some of their ear­lier league per­for­mances has def­i­nitely worn off. In the ab­sence of Sea­mus Cal­lanan, Ja­son Forde was a rev­e­la­tion up front dur­ing the league, and if he can carry that form into the sum­mer, it’ll be a ma­jor fil­lip. As­sum­ing they get Cal­lanan, ‘Bub­bles’ O’Dwyer, ‘Bon­ner’ Ma­her, Noel McGrath and Dan McCor­mack all fit and back on the field, they ob­vi­ously be­come a dif­fer­ent propo­si­tion. De­fen­sively though, there are holes. Have they enough pace at the back? In par­tic­u­lar, can James Barry re­gain his con­fi­dence and do a job for them at full-back? Throw in a new and in­ex­pe­ri­enced goal­keeper, and it’s clear there are le­git­i­mate ques­tion marks head­ing into what could be a tor­rid test in Lim­er­ick next Sun­day. Ver­dict: All-Ire­land fi­nal­ists

WATER­FORD Man­ager: Derek McGrath (5th sea­son) First game: May 27 v Clare (a)

Like Tipp, four matches in 22 days over four con­sec­u­tive week­ends is not ideal. That’s the first dis­ad­van­tage. Cork hav­ing a rest week be­fore what could be their cru­cial fi­nal day clash mag­ni­fies it. Un­like Tipp, none of those four matches will be at home, with Walsh Park not yet ready. That’s the sec­ond, ar­guably big­ger dis­ad­van­tage, and Water­ford sup­port­ers will rack up more miles this sum­mer than any of their con­tem­po­raries, with trips to En­nis and to Lim­er­ick twice. The Gaelic Grounds, where they have a ter­ri­ble record, is their des­ig­nated home venue for the clash with Tipp. On the field, Tom Devine’s re­turn will help off­set the loss of Shane Ben­nett, but es­sen­tially it looks like Derek McGrath will be se­lect­ing from the same panel of play­ers that got to last year’s fi­nal. There were signs this spring that Patrick Cur­ran, af­ter a dis­ap­point­ing 2017, might be closer to the player Water­ford need him to be, which would be a huge pos­i­tive. Whether ‘Brick’ Walsh and Kevin Mo­ran can go to the well one more time and re­peat the heroics of last year has to be a con­cern. They de­serve to be re­spected and only a fool would write them off. The fact that it may be McGrath’s last year is an added fac­tor. I think they’ll make it out of Mun­ster. Ver­dict: All-Ire­land semi-fi­nal­ists

GAL­WAY Man­ager: Micheál Donoghue (3rd sea­son) First game: Last night v Of­faly (a)

Therey are as well placed as any side in re­cent years to re­tain the ti­tle, but his­tory shows how dif­fi­cult that task has been for all bar Kilkenny. The strong and ex­pe­ri­enced spine of the team, from Daithí Burke, through Gearóid McIn­er­ney at the back, David Burke and Johnny Coen at mid­field, to Joe Can­ning and Conor Cooney in the cen­tral at­tack­ing po­si­tions, picks it­self. Ja­son Flynn and Niall Burke only came off the bench in last Septem­ber’s fi­nal, so there are op­tions up front and with Johnny Glynn com­mit­ting to stay home for the en­tire sum­mer, if any­thing they’ll ar­guably be stronger in at­tack. De­fen­sively, they don’t have the same strength in depth, but they’re not the only county with that is­sue. They face a cru­cial six days, with Kilkenny com­ing to Pearse Sta­dium on Sun­day, May 27 fol­lowed by a trip to Wex­ford Park the fol­low­ing Satur­day. I don’t see them go­ing un­de­feated, but I don’t see them not mak­ing the Le­in­ster fi­nal ei­ther. They might need to suf­fer a set­back in the prov­ince to get the im­pe­tus needed to go all the way. If that’s the way it plays out, I think they’ll re­cover to be cham­pi­ons. Ver­dict: All-Ire­land cham­pi­ons

KILKENNY Man­ager: Brian Cody (20th sea­son) First game: To­day v Dublin (a)

League cham­pi­ons, and once more things look very pos­i­tive in Kilkenny. The move of Cil­lian Buck­ley to cen­tre-back, along with TJ Reid’s re­turn to lead the at­tack, is now the axis around which this team will re­volve. Walter Walsh had an ex­cel­lent spring, Ger Ayl­ward looks back to the form he had in 2015 and apart from the young guns such as Martin Keoghan who the league threw up, they have Richie Ho­gan, Colin Fen­nelly and Paul Murphy all to come back as well. With Conor Fog­a­rty now also fully healthy, they have a strong core of ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers who know how to win All-Ire­lands. Ir­re­spec­tive of what hap­pens in Salthill, I don’t see them los­ing to Wex­ford in Nowlan Park and as­sum­ing that they take care of busi- ness against Dublin and Of­faly, they’ll be in the Le­in­ster fi­nal. If there are neg­a­tives, while Pádraig Walsh is a top class player, I’m still not con­vinced about him at full-back, and if teams man-mark Reid, as Wex­ford in par­tic­u­lar are likely to do, is there enough fire­power in at­tack to carry the scor­ing bur­den if he’s cur­tailed? Time will tell. Last four? Yes. Cham­pi­ons? No. Ver­dict: All-Ire­land semi-fi­nal­ists

WEX­FORD Man­ager: Davy Fitzgerald (2nd sea­son) First game: May 20 v Dublin (h)

Beat­ing Kilkenny in both the league and cham­pi­onship, a Le­in­ster fi­nal ap­pear­ance and pro­mo­tion to the top tier con­sti­tuted a very good first year’s work for Davy in 2017. None­the­less, the gap be­tween them­selves and Gal­way in the Le­in­ster fi­nal, and Water­ford in the All-Ire­land quar­ter-fi­nal can’t be ig­nored. The pos­i­tive is that, akin to when he took over in Clare, the young play­ers who are com­ing through may very well be up­grades on the ones they’re be­ing brought in to re­place. So it’s fair to as­sume they’ll be bet­ter in 2018. Rory O’Con­nor showed flashes dur­ing the league of what he’s ca­pa­ble of; David Dunne was a big loss last year — he’s back, as is Damien Reck and while I’m not sure if there’s any chance of Liam Óg Mc­Gov­ern fea­tur­ing this sum­mer, the at­tack should still carry more pace and men­ace than a year ago. On the down­side, they could ob­vi­ously have done with a fit, fo­cused and com­mit­ted Jack Guiney. There’s also the fact that, while Of­faly and Dublin might fear Kilkenny and Gal­way, they don’t fear Wex­ford. Both Pat Gil­roy and Kevin Martin will surely have tar­geted the Wex­ford match and with an ex­pec­tant public and all the pres­sure on Davy’s side, they’re go­ing to have to be ready to go from round one. Ver­dict: All-Ire­land quar­ter-fi­nal­ists

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