That’s two seasons straight now that the winners of the competition outright has come from Division 1B where, away from the war-a-week mode of 1A, they had greater chance to acquire two invaluable friends — experimentation and momentum.
It’s not that 1B was a stroll for either Waterford or Clare the past two years. Waterford’s first league game of 2015 was against Limerick, in Limerick, a game the home side were favourites to win; in fact Wexford, you might remember, were also more fancied than Waterford to gain promotion after dumping Derek McGrath’s team out of the championship the previous summer.
And yet Waterford would eke out a deserved draw in a floodlit Gaelic Grounds that night, manufacturing the kind of last-minute equaliser that themselves and Clare have specialised in the past fortnight in Thurles.
Even allowing for Limerick being considerably depleted that night with basically their entire first-choice forward line unavailable, it was a fine result for McGrath, especially on the back of controversially omitting the likes of Liam Lawlor, Richie Foley, and Jamie Nagle, all Munster champions in 2010 and still in their 20s.
“We’ll be able to put our own stamp on it now,” he’d say after that cull, and it was in the safer environs of 1B that he was allowed to do it.
Clare this year were similarly able to embed some of the finer points of Dónal Óg Cusack’s coaching without the fear of failure or defeat against a Kilkenny or Galway in late February; instead they were playing the likes of Offaly, Laois, and Kerry before it cranked up with a promotion decider against Limerick, who again were depleted with the absence of their Na Piarsaigh party.
You cannot take away from Clare’s achievement and what they did with that momentum. Over the last six weeks, they’ve beaten the reigning Munster champions in Tipp, the reigning All-Ireland champions in Kilkenny, and the defending league champions, Waterford. There was nothing soft about that; in fact not since the Year of Dan, in 2007, when Waterford gunned down the traditional Big Three of Tipp, Cork, and Kilkenny to claim their first league title since ’63, can we recall a more impressive or enjoyable run of games and wins to win a league title.
It raises a few questions though about how the GAA roll out their competitions. Imagine the fresh dynamic Tyrone would have brought to the Division One football semi-finals if they could have qualified on the back of topping Division Two a la Clare, instead of a barely-interested fourth-placed Donegal. (With Tyrone then into the main competition proper, the Division Three final could then have been the curtain-raiser on the Sunday, allowing Gary Brennan and the Clare footballers have their moment in front of an almost-full instead of an almost-empty Croke Park).
There’s an anomaly there that the team that tops 1B — or indeed comes fourth in it — can still win the league outright, while in football, a Tyrone can’t.
The hurling league has underlined again something else, just as the 2013 All-Ireland championship did. Teams like Clare — all teams actually, but especially Clare — play their best hurling when they’re out every second week or so. Now we won’t see them for another month — albeit, what a prospect it is, a third clash between the counties, and the gap allows the clubs to get a round of their championships in. The winner of that must-see game on June 5 won’t play their Munster final for another five weeks, and if they win that, they won’t be out again for a further five weeks.
To paraphrase Snap, hurling has a rhythm and a hurler like Tony Kelly is a dancer, one that moves best when he’s in the groove of playing with Podge and Conor McGrath every week or two. A series of five-week layoffs then? Off The Wall stuff, and not in the good, Michael Jackson, sense. The same flow, cohesion, fluidity they’ve had in recent weeks, especially coming up against a side with — that word again — momentum coming through the backdoor, will be very hard to capture. That’s why it won’t be a disaster for Clare if they lose on June 5. Of course they will desperately want to win.
The county has reached only one provincial final since the turn of the millennium, which they lost, a desperately-poor record considering the legacy Loughnane bequeathed.
They’ve also learned over the past two summers how your season can be derailed by losing in Munster.
But from the structures Fitzgerald put in place over the winter and which have been further legitimised with this league success, their confidence is more robust to withstand any setback. Whatever way June 5 is, you expect as much as hope to see the likes of Kelly playing and dancing come Lughnasa. Could you watch him play enough?