KEVIN HINPHEY: The race for club honours

AS predicted by many, Limerick completed an historic three in a row of All Ireland title victories.

They are a serious team and the likelihood of more success in the coming years seems more than likely. Yet in my opinion, Kilkenny’s performance in this year’s championship, the final in particular and the subsequent retirement of the legendary Brian Cody will be the story of the 2022 intercounty season.

The fighting spirit that Cody seemed to imbue into every Kilkenny team he has managed over the years is truly remarkable. Even in defeat they covered themselves in glory, going out on their shields having made this truly great Limerick team fight for everything they got. They GAA is unlikely to ever have a manager again that will match his longevity or his success.

With the county season completed the club championship has begun in earnest over the last few weeks. The race for county honours will be hotly contested throughout the nine counties with the respective champions hoping to go a step further and compete for provincial glory. The structure in the majority of counties is a round robin group stage which seeds teams for the knockout phase of the championship.

Donegal is the first county to have completed their competition. Favourites Setanta will be delighted to have fought off old rivals Burt to claim the Donegal crown. Burt will be very disappointed in defeat but taking Setanta to extra time in the decider is a strong statement that Burt may be coming again after a comparatively lean period, given their tradition of success in the County.

Dunloy are the favourites for most people to take the Antrim title again. The return of Nigel Elliot from Australia will be a welcome boost for Gregory O’Kane, as his young team continues to mature. The return of a few key players who spent some time in America over the summer is likely to give Dunloy the edge when the Antrim championship reaches the business end. St Johns, Rossa, Loughgiel and Cushendall will all feel they are in with a serious chance of spoiling Dunloy’s party.

St John’s had a very impressive opening day victory over Loughgiel in Corrigan Park. The addition of Down’s Oisin MccManus was pivotal to the win, as he scored 0-10 on his championship debut with his new club.

In Derry Sleacht Néill have looked very comfortable in their opening two group games despite being without several key players due to injury. They will top the group if they defeat neighbours Swatragh in the final group game. The second place is likely to be decided on score difference between Lavey and Swatragh who drew their opening game against each other.

The second group will come down to the deciding fixture between the Kevin Lynch’s and Ballinascreen, for the top spot. Both teams won their opening two games against Banagher and Coleraine respectively.

Ultimately Sleacht Néill are still heavy favourites to retain the Derry title an to complete and unprecedented ten in a row championship victories.

The Down championship group stage matches the three Ards clubs with Newry Shamrocks and Bredagh. Bredagh have lost a few key players over the last year or so, which will be disappointing for them as the gap between themselves and the Ards teams seemed to be closing. Portaferry are maybe slight favourites at this stage but all three clubs will feel they have a chance of turning each other over on any given day.

Elsewhere, Craobh Rua had an excellent victory over Cuchullains in Round 1 of the Armagh group stage with county footballer Jarly Óg Burns playing a starring role. However the title will most likely come down to the battle between the traditional rivals of Middletown and Keady.

In Tyrone the same scenario is likely to play out with Carrickmore and Dungannon fiercely contesting for supremacy in Tyrone. Both games are very hard to call but my early prediction would be for Middletown and Carrickmore to win out. Cootehill and Castleblayney will be strongly favoured to retain their titles in Cavan and Monaghan respectively. Lisbellaw are going to have another year of being nominated in Fermanagh.

The margins are very tight across the province. With most players competing on both hurling and football fronts, managing busy schedules and avoiding injuries to key players could be key factors in deciding the destination of county honours this year.

Finally, Derry hurling suffered a great loss since my last article. Much has been said and written about the great Collie McGurk over the past few weeks. Collie was a driving force for the development of hurling in Derry and Lavey over the years and his loss is still keenly felt by the entire hurling community in Derry. All our sympathies continue to be with Collie’s family and friends.

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