Planning for a hurling league like no other

Enda McEvoy on the issues and individuals to look out for over the coming weeks 

THE BIG PICTURE

Care to try and nominate the 2019 Division 1 NHL champions? Of course you don’t. Care to at least have a shot at naming the two finalists? Of course you won’t. Not if you have any sense, anyway.

It used to be easy over the past decade and a half. In any particular season solid grounds usually existed for hazarding that Kilkenny or Tipperary or Galway, depending on the circumstances and needs of each of them at that particular juncture, would go hard on lifting the trophy.

Not this season. For two reasons.

The first of them is the decision to reformat 2020’s top flight as two groups of equal strength, meaning that the threat of relegation is no longer the issue — or semi-issue — it was. Everyone can do as they see fit for the next couple of months.

What they’ll regard as fit is obvious: auditioning a local cast of Ben-Hur proportions in order to cope with the trials they’ll face come May and June. Limerick have made every manager a Cecil B DeMille.

In the course of eight championship outings last summer John Kiely introduced no fewer than 16 individual substitutes. Limerick claimed the silverware as much by possessing the best panel as by being the best team. They couldn’t have claimed it, indeed, had they not possessed the best panel.

Winning the 2019 league, then, is what will happen to some team when they were busy making other plans. For the managers the new dispensation is manna from Jones’s Road. They’ll no longer be required to field their best XV, or close to it, every week in order to put relegation-averting points on the board. You retired a year too soon, Derek McGrath.

The Division 1A of the past few years was a curious, complicated, cramped entity, more enjoyable for the punters than it was for the managers. The action took place in a kitchen full of delicious scents and harassed chefs and with barely enough room to swing a cat. Now that the windows have been flung open and the heat banished and rare beef removed from the menu, the danger for the paying customer is that, with everyone playing the long game, the opening phase of the 2019 renewal will amount to little more than five rounds of shadow boxing.

Irritatingly and inexplicably, those ridiculous quarter-finals have been retained. Ugh. On the plus side, even the most obscure panel members will receive game time along the way. It’ll be an anorak’s paradise.

Two teams will reach the final despite themselves. Somebody has to. One of them will carry off the silverware, also despite themselves. Somebody has to. That for now is as far as we can venture.

THE TEAM

Limerick

Finally out of the Dantean circle of hell in which they were immured for so many fruitless springtimes to taste the fresh air in the top flight after they’ve lifted the MacCarthy Cup. It’s as though, having graduated summa cum laude last August, they’re now sitting one of the modules. The fact they won’t be going through the motions in Division 1B is helpful. What lies before them is another step in their education.

John Kiely will employ the league to see what his subs are really made of. It is one thing to come on in the closing stages of a championship match and make a difference; it is quite another to be there from the throw-in and stay afloat. Not all cameo subs make intercounty stalwarts. Kiely will also use the next couple of months to inculcate the kind of creative tension Brian Cody puppeteered for so many years on Noreside (“a settled team, no — a settled spirit, yes”). Last year Galway didn’t have enough aspirants hounding the heroes of 2017 for a starting berth. Come mid-August it mattered. Kiely cannot allow Limerick to fall into the same pit.

THE MANAGER

Liam Sheedy

Couldn’t be anyone else. The sense of unfinished business is unmistakable and there can’t be a Tipp person out there who hasn’t constructed their own alternative history in which Sheedy stayed on after 2010. A healthy proportion of these Sliding Doors scenarios doubtless have Tipperary doing the three in a row, probably with a World Cup thrown in for good measure.

Not every item on the revenant’s to-do list will be ticked off in the short or even the medium term. There’s the holistic, creating-the-conditions stuff. There’s the strategic/tactical stuff, primarily finding a solution to the question Tipperary failed so badly last year: how best to convey the sliotar up the field and into the forward line. How many of the old knights at arms who’ve been on the go since the start of the decade does Sheedy retain, how many of them does he dispense with and how many does he phase out gradually? How many of last year’s All Ireland under-21 possess the wherewithal to jump up a level? And who, oh who, will be full-back?

THE PLAYER

Patrick Horgan

Play the 2017 All Ireland semi-final again. Either Cork aren’t reduced to 14 men and they go on to win, or they’re still reduced to 14 men but they improvise better, bring back someone in order to maintain a six-man defence — and they go on to win.

Play the 2018 All Ireland semi-final again. Nickie Quaid is a couple of inches short with his dive, the Immaculate Interception never happens, Seamus Harnedy puts the ball in the net and Cork go on to win.

Despite the fact they’ve lost successive semi-finals the sight of the men in red reaching the last four will, now that the underage motor is humming again, become a more common sight over the next 10 years than it was over the past 10. In the short term, they have one last chance to win an All-Ireland in the current decade. His first-half wides against Limerick merely underlined Horgan’s importance to the collective. He remains the man whose points haul the county over the line. Cork are not yet in a place where they’ll regain the MacCarthy Cup without him.

THE FIXTURE

Tipperary v Kilkenny, Semple Stadium, February 24

Action from the 2018 National League clash between Kilkenny and Tipperary.

Has lost the concussive force of yesteryear now that the pair have returned to the pack, but it’s still blue and gold against black and amber. The fixture retains its relevance and attractiveness. Two years ago the counties made the earth shake when producing a Saturday night classic in Thurles and last season they met in the final. They’ll renew hostilities this time around in the fourth round of games. Tipp haven’t beaten Kilkenny in springtime since 2015 and face three away outings. Come the end of next month their needs may be more pressing.

THE OBJECTIVES

Carlow: Enjoy the scenery and beat Laois.

Clare: Try winning the thing. After successive Munster final defeats silverware would constitute a boost for the management as well as the players.

Cork: Develop a deeper bench in order to preclude a repeat of the events of extra time against Limerick six months ago.

Dublin: Source more points from play.

Galway: Find a pacy little scoring forward of the type the county churned out in spades 15 years ago.

Kilkenny: Find a scoring forward, whether pacy and little or otherwise.

Laois: Beat Carlow.

Limerick: Maintain standards and give those subs their head.

Offaly: Prove to the world that, though things have slipped, they’re still better than Carlow and Laois.

Tipperary: At all costs avoid reaching another league final.

Wexford: Walk on the wild side and try life without a sweeper. What’s the worst that could happen?

Waterford: Finish the competition knowing what position Austin Gleeson will occupy in the championship.

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