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20 May 1999 Edition

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Sportsview: Clare poised to regain Liam McCarthy Cup

By Dan O'Neill

Newly crowned league champions Tipperary open the All-Ireland Hurling Championship this weekend with a game against Kerry at Thurles.

Only 17 counties will contest this year's championship, the lowest number for many years, but interest in hurling is at an all-time high. Recent championships have been the most hotly contested for many years. Like football, there has been a levelling out of standards in hurling this decade, as shown by the emergence of Clare in 1995, Wexford in 1996, and to a lesser extent, Waterford in last year's title chase. Indeed, the 1990s has been a memorable period for the game, with six different sides winning the Liam McCarthy Cup, the best ratio for 80 years. This year, there are nine genuine contenders for All-Ireland glory, and here I assess their prospects:

CLARE


For me they are the team to beat. Were the best side in last years championship but were unlucky to fall to Offaly at the semi-final stage. Some commentators have doubted the hunger of the Banner County to regain their title and their capability to remain at the top for so long. With the good form of James O'Connor and Ollie Baker, however, they will prove their critics wrong and taste All-Ireland glory again come September.

Odds: 4/1

Verdict: Munster and All-Ireland champions.

KILKENNY


They have a good draw into the Leinster final, which sets them up well for a good run in the championship. After that they will be very hard to stop. With Carey, Shefflin and Carter in attack, they will trouble any opposition in the country. They are good enough to reach another All-Ireland final but will fall again at the final hurdle.

Odds: 9/2

Verdict: Leinster champions and beaten All-Ireland finalists.

CORK


After four years in charge, it is time for Jimmy Barry Murphy to deliver the goods. Cork have not reached a Munster final since 1992, the worst run in the county's history. This dismal run should come to an end this year as the championship draw has been kind to the Leesiders. They will face the winners of the Waterford/Limerick game in the semis. They are good enough to progress here but maybe not ready to conquer Clare in the decider. Will stay in the race for the title though through the back door. After that, who knows?

Odds: 5/1

Verdict: Beaten Munster finalists and All-Ireland semi-finalists

GALWAY


Have had an impressive League campaign, reaching last Sunday's decider. But the weekend's defeat at the hands of Tipperary showed there is still a lot of work to be done for Mattie Murphy's side. They have no championship action until July, which will be a handicap, but will be desperate to avenge last year's hammering at the hands of underdogs Waterford. Watch out for the talents of Athenry forward Eugene Cloonan, who has been inspirational in recent outings for the westerners, but Murphy's side are still at the development stage and will not yet be good enough to win an All-Ireland.

Odds: 6/1

Connacht Champions and beaten All-Ireland semi-finalists.

TIPPERARY


It's only a matter of months since Nicky English took over the hot seat at Tipperary, but already there is evidence that the county's fortunes have taken a turn for the better. This culminated in Sunday's League Final victory over Galway. But as Cork found out last year, this is no guarantee of success in the championship. There is no doubting the potential of this side, with the likes of Eamonn Corcoran, Tommy Dunne and David Kennedy, but they need a couple more years before they are All-Ireland material. Good enough to defeat Kerry in this Sunday's opener but will fall to Clare at the semi-final stage in Munster.

Odds: 13/2

Verdict: Beaten Munster semi-finalists

WEXFORD


Wexford manager Rory Kinsella has been cursed since taking over from Liam Griffin two years ago. His exit at the hands of Tipperary in the 1997 All-Ireland semi-final featured prematch injuries to Rod Guiney and Gary Laffan and a bad challenge which ended Rory McCarthy's participation. Laffan and Guiney were also missing from last year's defeat at the hands of eventual All-Ireland champions Offaly by a killer goal in the final minute in the Leinster semi-final. Kinsella has also suffered from injuries in the lead up to this year's championship, combined with a loss of form by the team. Will beat the Dubs in their opening game but will find the might of Offaly too much for them and are unlikely to reach the highs of 1996.

Odds: 8/1

Verdict: Beaten Leinster semi-finalists

OFFALY


Despite being the defending champions, are only fifth favourites to reclaim their title, which is exactly what manager Michael Bond wants. I think they will struggle to recreate last year's form with Brian Whelehan's absence through injury a big blow to them. But this Offaly side can never be ruled out. Weren't expected to pip Clare or Kilkenny last year after bad performances in the Leinster final and the All-Ireland Quarter-Final but peaked at the right time when it was needed.

Odds: 8/1

Verdict: Beaten Leinster finalists and All-Ireland Quarter-Finalists.

WATERFORD


Expectations are high in the county after a great championship run last year in which they defeated Tipperary and Galway. Face a very difficult fixture list as they need to defeat Limerick and Cork before they can reach the Munster final again. But their surprise aspect is gone after last year's performances and they will fall at the first hurdle to a Limerick side with a lot to prove.

Odds: 12/1

Verdict: First round exit in Munster

LIMERICK


Limerick's decline continued with a mediocre League campaign, winning only two games out of six. Two years ago, Limerick would have been favourites against Waterford, but such has been their fall from grace that they will enter this tie as underdogs. Determination to prove they are not a spent force will carry them through this game but will be brought down to earth again against Cork in the provincial semi-final.

Odds: 20/1

Verdict: Beaten Munster semi-finalists.

An Phoblacht
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