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Offaly's turn to step forward

by Sean Moran was published in the Irish Times on Saturday the 30th of May 1998

The stakes have risen yet again in this year's Guinness All-Ireland hurling championship. After three years of memorable hurling, this season's championship is more open than ever and the permutations are even more numerous when the experimental format - now in its second year - is taken into account.

Most obviously, competition burns intensely in Munster. Clare's defence constitutes one of the most solid bets for the campaign. If the sluggish charade of the NHL semi-final is ignored, they are serious contenders even if on probably the last lap of their remarkable career as a team.

Against them are the old failings of inconsistent performance and a predilection for wides, but their will-to-win is likely to be strong and the motivation of Ger Loughnane in his final year will be as high-voltage as ever.

They are the brand-leaders in Munster with competition likely to come from Cork in the semifinal. Whoever wins, there'll hardly be any need for the stewards' inquiry which the NHL semi-final between the teams merited.

On that side of the draw Limerick appear to have shot their bolt but the return of Eamonn Cregan to his own county as manager is a significant factor. His devotion to Limerick hurling is partly dynastic (both he and his late father won All-Irelands). It is also fired by the twist of fate that saw him responsible for dashing the best chance the county had in recent times of adding to the county's All-Ireland haul when he managed Offaly to the sensational late win in 1994.

Nonetheless, Clare have to be favoured to emerge from this side. In a week's time, Waterford's credentials will be fully examined by Tipperary who have recorded two wins in three years over this year's League finalists.

Tipp seem a slightly troubled camp between injuries and positional uncertainties, but Len Gaynor has a flow of young talent that will in time mould into a formidable unit. This year, however, it's the experience that's likely to be decisive in pipping Waterford for the Munster final place.

Leinster is again up for grabs but injuries may fatally inhibit Wexford's attempts to do justice to the '98 bicentenary. If they survive the tilt with Offaly both Liam Dunne and Gary Laffan may be back for the provincial final but the feeling here is that Babs Keating will get enough out of Offaly to reach the final, quite possibly against Dublin whose once-in-a-lifetime shot at Kilkenny in Parnell Park may bridge a gap of all of 56 years since they last lowered the black and amber colours.

The quarter-finals this year will be more impressive events than last summer. Galway will be optimistic because of their more settled selection policy and should be too good for the Leinster finalists but maybe not their Munster counterparts.

In Ulster it's tempting to believe that Down's forwards and good League campaign will equip them to retain the title but Antrim manager Sean McGuinness's experience of both his team and Down may prove decisive.

As the quarter-final pairings aren't known until July, everything is rather vague in the long term but the hunch bet here is that, fortified by some new acquisitions, the success of Birr and a renewed hunger, Offaly can pick their way through to a repeat of the 1995 final meeting with Clare.

There, with the hierarchies of three years ago swapped, Offaly can win a fourth All-Ireland.

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