More divisions won’t improve tier-2 hurlers, says Westmeath boss

More divisions won’t improve tier-2 hurlers, says Westmeath boss
Shane O'Brien. Picture: Sportsfile

Results from the opening fortnight of league hurling did little to strengthen the case of keeping faith with the new 12-team Division 1 structure.

Westmeath beaten 17 points by Galway first day out. Improvement in the second round, yes, but still nine adrift of Waterford on home soil.

The picture isn’t any more encouraging in Group B.

Carlow falling 16 points short against Clare — 21 adrift of Kilkenny the weekend before.

Laois too, the side who last season made inroads on the gap between the elite and chasing pack, have struggled.

This collection of one-sided encounters has meant that despite the 2020 league season being less than a month old, the suggestion has already been made, including on these pages, that two groups of five, rather than the current six, would deliver the right balance going forward.

To do so, however, would ignore the benefits the lower-tier counties are deriving from such week-on-week exposure to hurling’s ruling classes.

Telling two from Carlow, Laois, and Westmeath to pack their bags and make for Division 2 might well restore the cutthroat feel Division 1 enjoyed in recent seasons, but it certainly isn’t going to improve any of the hurlers in the three mentioned counties.

Cork are the visitors to Cusack Park in Mullingar tomorrow, the Rebels recording a 23-point victory over the home side when they were last there summer 2019.

And while anything other than another Cork victory this weekend would be a shock, Lake County boss Shane O’Brien says his players much prefer to step inside the whitewash with Patrick Horgan, Alan Cadogan, and Seamus Harnedy than be operating in the second division, even if their chances of picking up a spring victory are far greater in the latter case.

The county has been waiting 32 years for Division 1 status and with it the opportunity to play these top teams on a weekly basis, so how could you not look forward to days like Sunday when Cork are coming into your backyard?

“Now, there is no denying it is a massive jump up from Division 2 to 1. But I firmly believe that in order for teams like Laois, ourselves, and Carlow to get better, we have to be playing the top teams on a regular basis, and we are relishing that at the moment,” O’Brien, a native of Cuala, said.

“We have a very ambitious group, both management and players. I couldn’t speak highly enough of the lads. We are not going out with a defeatist attitude in any game.

“At the same time, we do have to be patient. We are not going to simply adjust to this level overnight. It will take time.

“There has been no failings in my eyes when the outcome of the opening two games didn’t go our way. It wasn’t doom and gloom. They were positive performances.

“Adjusting to this level is a huge challenge, but we are getting there and we are going in the right direction.”

As O’Brien sees it, spring learning will stand them in good stead when the Joe McDonagh Cup rolls around.

“It is all about getting exposure at this level. When you pursue an exciting path like we are at the moment with Division 1, you are inevitably going to be facing those moments of struggle, but the fact is that later down the season we do have a realistic chance of winning something in the Joe McDonagh competition.”

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