The 2018 hurling season is already upon us as teams prepare for the upcoming Allianz National League which is only a matter of weeks away.
This year will have plenty to live up to with last season providing one of the most entertaining and open championships of recent memory, Galway taking home the Liam MacCarthy Cup for the first time in 29 years.
And though 2017 provided a summer of truly exhilarating hurling there were some star men who did not live up to their usual standards.
With this in mind, we’ve outlined four players who will be looking to improve upon last year and play to the best of their abilities as they spearhead their counties’ challenges this time around.
1. Tony Kelly – Clare
Winning the Hurler of the Year Award at a young age can essentially be a poisoned chalice of sorts. Kelly burst onto the scene in 2013 – driving Clare to the All-Ireland title while still a teenager.
The Ballyea man is undoubtedly one of the finest hurlers in the country on his day, but 2017 did not quite go to plan for the Banner.
A Munster final defeat to Cork sent Clare into the quarter-finals and they were eventually dumped out of the championship by Tipperary without ever really threatening to mount a challenge of any sorts.
It was a quiet year for Kelly but this Clare side withholds some great potential that can go a long way if fulfilled.
The likes of Seadna Morey and Peter Duggan have been in excellent form as of late and should Kelly be able to regain his form of old, the 24-year old could very well be the man to once again drive Clare up to Croke Park late in the summer.
We doubt Kelly will have two quiet years in a row.
2. Austin Gleeson – Waterford
Whenever anything goes wrong with Waterford, unfortunately, the fingers are normally pointed at Gleeson. The 22-year-old possesses an incredible array of skill and talent, therefore it frustrates fans across the country when he does not always play at his best.
While 2017 was a great year for Waterford in terms of progress, Gleeson could only show glimmers of the form which saw him capture both the Hurler and Young Hurler of the Year Award the year beforehand.
The Mount Sion man lit up the All-Ireland semi-finals with a stunning goal against Cork, but with constant debate coming about his best position and his levels of consistency Gleeson himself has admitted that he has more to offer the Deise in future.
Regarded by many as the best player in Ireland when on song if Waterford are going to launch an assault on Liam MacCarthy this year, expect to see Gleeson at the forefront.
We can’t wait to see the incredible skill to come.
3. Richie Hogan – Kilkenny
There’s no denying that 2017 was a year of incredible disappointment for Kilkenny.
A shock defeat to Wexford in the Leinster SHC followed by an extra-time defeat to Waterford in the qualifiers dumped Kilkenny out in July for the first time in the Brian Cody era.
While it wasn’t a good year for anyone involved with the Cats – by his usual standards, it wasn’t the best year for Richie Hogan.
Kilkenny relied heavily on the scoring ability of TJ Reid for their time in the championship and a player of Hogan’s ability will be incredibly disappointed with how the year went.
The Danesfort man has won seven All-Ireland titles, so he knows full well what it takes to return to form when it matters most.
At the age of 29, there is still plenty left in the tank, and if Kilkenny come roaring back into contention for Liam MacCarthy, Hogan will be instrumental to the cause.
Should he recover from his problems with back injury, Hogan will be one of the most feared competitors in the championship this summer.
A joy to watch – expect to see him splitting the posts with regularity as Kilkenny remind the rest that they are still the ones to beat when it comes to hurling.
4. John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer – Tipperary
Tipperary had quite an interesting season in 2017.
The Premier failed to retain their All-Ireland title, defeated in the last puck of the semi-final by Galway, while also being shocked in the Munster Championship by a new-look Cork.
However, in the qualifiers, Michael Ryan’s side possessed a real scoring ruthlessness, putting 6-26 past Dublin as one example.
A man normally at the forefront of the Tipperary attack is John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer, however last year, the Killenaule man only hit 1-05 in the championship, a stark contrast to his tally the year before when he hit the same score in the final alone as Tipp took home Liam MacCarthy.
O’Dwyer is one of the most clinical forwards in the game when in the right positions, and should he regain his form in 2018 – himself, Seamus Callanan and John McGrath will be undoubtedly the most lethal full-forward line in the country.
We can hardly wait for the year to kick-start to see whether or not these stars find their form and old – and who will emerge from the shadows to be regarded among the same calibre.
Jordan Norris, Pundit Arena