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Thursday 8 December 2016

Prepare to be shocked ... by yet another epic race for 'Liam'

Brian Cody
Brian Cody

HURLING, so its disciples never tire of telling us, is the greatest field game in the world. Three years running, they've been on the money.

Even the recently departed Terry Pratchett, creator of all things fantasy, would have struggled to dream up a world that embraced a trilogy of remarkable All-Ireland finals all ending in deadlock, with replays to follow that were only mildly less dramatic.

Hurling snobs and the rest of us have been spoiled rotten by the end-games of 2012, '13 and '14. Moreover, it's not as if the matches leading to those finals were particularly mundane either. Remember last June and the two-game scorefest involving Kilkenny and Galway? Or another epic two-day battle between Wexford and Clare in July?

Our optimism in hoping for a fourth consecutive All-Ireland extravaganza is bolstered by the array of viable contenders. Kilkenny may have won seven out of nine but Liam MacCarthy still cannot be called a closed shop. Brian Cody's men remain the team to beat - but plenty of other teams will fancy their chances of doing just that.

As you peruse the list of contenders, pretenders and rank outsiders on these pages, you may well conclude that all of them have issues to address, be it individual form, team structure, positional headaches, injuries, etc.

Will the Cats have sufficient panel depth to survive the retirement of their full-back talisman, JJ Delaney - not to mention Henry Shefflin, Tommy Walsh et al?

Can Tipp break the habit of a recent lifetime - losing finals that count to Kilkenny? Can Cork recover from their league final malaise?

Can Waterford, their conquerors that day, overcome the loss of their freetaking maestro, Pauric Mahony?

Can Dublin build on the progressive 'Dalo' era and take the ultimate step under Ger Cunningham - or will fourth-quarter fadeouts come back to haunt them?

So many questions, yet to be answered. Last June, Tipperary were pipped by Limerick and Kilkenny's defence leaked five goals to Galway ... who could have foreseen that they'd end up in an All-Ireland for the ages, or that Tipp would come within one Hawk-Eye decision of the title?

This Sunday, the Leinster qualifying group concludes while Clare and Limerick lock hurls in Thurles. Prepare to be shocked - in a good way.

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