Saturday Night Lights at Semple

The National Hurling League lift off this weekend with Waterford and Tipperary getting top billing and a Saturday night slot for the opening game.

Live TV coverage on Setanta 1 dictates a 7

pm throw-in this Saturday night under lights at the famed Tipperary venue.

Kevin Moran unleashes a memorable winning point in Waterford's NHL win over Tipperary last March. More of the same would do nicely in Semple Stadium on Saturday night!  									| Photos: Noel Browne

Kevin Moran unleashes a memorable winning point in Waterford's NHL win over Tipperary last March. More of the same would do nicely in Semple Stadium on Saturday night! | Photos: Noel Browne

Once again Waterford goes into this year’s campaign as favourites to be relegated as bookmakers and pundits alike continue to undervalue the League consistency displayed by our hurlers in recent years.

Indeed it was Michael Ryan’s single greatest achievement to help Waterford retain Division 1A status in an ultra-competitive League with all the top teams in the country.

There isn’t a single league, in any sport, in any part of the world where the margin for error is so small for its competitors as the Hurling League in its current guise.

Twelve months ago, Tipperary finished top with three wins out of five while Cork finished bottom with just one victory less. Tight margins indeed.

A lot has changed since. Michael Ryan has exited stage left after a bloodless player’s coup and Derek McGrath begins his tenure in earnest as Waterford manager.

A quick glance at the 2013 final league table will tell you that Waterford conceded the least number of scores but also scored the least. The team with the better defence usually wins though, just ask Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos!

The big question for Waterford and McGrath is whether he can unearth a couple of new scoring forwards to augment a teak tough defence.

Waterford scored a meagre three goals in last year’s campaign and a similar return this year could see the national pundits actually being right for a change.

Having a greater threat in front of goal is a must if the trap door is to be avoided. Ballysaggart’s All-Ireland Junior Hurling  Final replay has postponed Stephen Bennett’s senior debut for at least another week.

Derek McGrath, who named his team last weekend, a break from the practice of recent years, has opted for a half-forward line of Jamie Barron, Paraic Mahony and Jake Dillon, with Maurice Shanahan, Shane Walsh and Brian O’Sullivan named on the inside line.

Waterford’s strength from one to nine is difficult to quibble with, but Barry Coughlan appears to have usurped Liam Lawlor’s position in the full-back line, even though he’s been named in the corner with Shane Fives listed at number three.

Stephen O’Keeffe is once again named between the sticks, and that appears to settle the argument over the Deise’s first choice goalkeeper for now.

But what of Liam Lawlor? With so little meaningful action since last year’s Championship exit to Kilkenny, it’s difficult to know why Lawlor has gone from number 3 to 33?

It’s a bit of a gamble to leave such an experienced player off the panel altogether and while many have been tried at full-back, few have succeeded.

And what of our hosts Tipperary? The Premier have been no more than threading water since their All-Ireland win back in 2010.

Eamon O’Shea has been very loyal to the Celtic cross winners but surely it’s time for change and new faces.

Players like Tómas Hamill, John ‘Bubbles’ Dwyer, Jason Forde and Denis Maher are overdue a proper opportunity to establish themselves and in the process reinvigorate a fading team.

It will be interesting to see if O’Shea plans to continue starting players like Lar Corbett, Eoin Kelly and Shane McGrath or will he decide to give youth a go.

A Waterford Crystal cup win over All-Ireland champions Clare last Friday may give Tipperary a timely boost going into this game but the pressure is now on these players to deliver.

Tipp suffered a heavy defeat in their opening game last year at the hands of Cork and will be keen to avoid the same here, so visitors beware.

Kilkenny too are fresh from success in the Walsh Cup and seem intent on laying down a marker early in the year.

Like a lot of managers Brian Cody needs to discover a couple of new players that are capable of stepping into the starting 15 and to make a difference. Is there another title in Shefflin and co? I doubt it, not without an injection of some new talent anyway.

For me Galway may be vulnerable particularly without Joe Canning and the Portumna contingent until after Saint Patrick’s Day, though I note they overcame a strong team Munster in the Railway Cup last weekend.

Waterford’s League success is likely to be heavily dependent on home wins against Dublin and Galway.

You must win your home games and hope to topple Tipp, Kilkenny or Clare on your travels to guarantee a quarter-final berth.

It took so much energy for Dublin to get promoted last that I’m sure the Leinster champions will fight tooth and nail to stay in the higher division.

All-Ireland holders Clare may start slowly but I expect them to get stronger as the league progresses.

Looking at the team sheets from recent Fitzgibbon Cup games you get the feeling Clare have strength in depth with plenty of young Clare players filling teams like UL and LIT, chomping at the bit to get a chance to play for Davy Fitzgerald.

For Derek McGrath, Saturday night will signify a proud night for him and his family as he and Waterford set out on a new journey, the dawning of a new era, a new and hopefully successful era. Best of luck to all involved. Here we go again.

Waterford: Stephen O’Keeffe; Barry Coughlan, Shane Fives, Noel Connors; Jamie Nagle,  Michael Walsh, Philip Mahony; Kevin Moran, Shane O’Sullivan; Jamie Barron, Paraic Mahony, Jake Dillon; Maurice Shanahan, Shane Walsh, Brian O’Sullivan.

Brian Flannery.

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