EVERY county has massive ambitions heading into the 2015 National Hurling League, according to Galway boss, Anthony Cunningham.
He pointed out that Kilkenny are league and All-Ireland champions; Clare will want to come back and repeat what they did in 2013; Tipperary want to pick up from where they left off in September; Cork are the Munster champions; Limerick were very unfortunate not to beat Kilkenny last year, while Galway were very close to Tipperary and Kilkenny.
“There will be no easy games in what will be a very competitive league,” he pointed out as he looked ahead to this Sunday’s opening league tie when the Tribesmen will entertain Clare at Pearse Stadium.
“We will probably be stronger in the second half of the league. At present, we have a good few injuries and we are unlikely to see players such as Davy and Niall Burke, Conor Cooney and Joe Canning before March. Five or six of our players have a very heavy schedule at the minute, due to their involvement in the Fitzgibbon Cup.
“Last week, they had Round 2 games in this competition on Thursday; then we had the Walsh Cup final on Saturday and Round 3 in the Fitzgibbon Cup followed on Tuesday last, with the league starting five days later. For all sides, this is not an ideal situation but it’s the same for every county,” Cunningham said.
Stating that the championship is what teams are judged on, Cunningham said, “We want to be there at the finish of the league. It’s a highly competitive competition and Galway people would like to see the team going well in the league.
“Playing senior inter-county hurling is a big step up and there are no guarantees that minors and U-21s will transfer to the higher grade,” he said when acknowledging that his county has had a lot of impressive performances from their underage sides.
“Galway have been extremely close, particularly in the last few years but those gaps have yet to be filled.”
He doesn’t believe that home advantage will be a factor in the league.
“There’s no difference whether we play Clare in Ennis or Galway. There was no difference last year. Players at this level know venues well and from an attendance point of view, there will be just as many from Clare and Galway present on Sunday, whether the game is in Galway or Ennis.”
Looking specifically to Sunday’s clash with Clare, he said, “We have huge respect for the Clare players but there is always a keen rivalry and determination to beat Clare. That has always been the case and we know this will be another huge battle.
“Last year’s game was extremely tight and it’s likely to be the same this time around.”
In Cunningham’s view, the hammering dished out by Galway to Clare in the qualifier a few years back will have no bearing on Sunday.
“There has been a huge change in personnel in both camps in the meantime,” he said.
He agreed that Galway’s progress to the Walsh Cup final provided a huge chance for new players to get game time and to play in Croke Park, where last Saturday’s final took place.
“We are limited in what we can do at this time of the year with players having so many commitments to college games and with some out due to injury,” he said.
With regard to the structure of the league, Cunningham believes, “An eight or nine-team league would be far better. It would allow a bit more latitude as, in the current set-up with five games in six weeks, it’s very hard to experiment as the campaign is so tight.”
By Seamus Hayes, sports editor