Enda McEvoy: Hurling has never been less important. Hurling has never been more important.

It would have been the ultimate firestarter. Over 40,000 partisans descending on the Ennis Road for El Midwestico. 
Enda McEvoy: Hurling has never been less important. Hurling has never been more important.

Kilkenny’s Ciaran Wallace is tackled by Wexford’s Joe O’Connor during the Allianz Hurling League match earlier this year. This is likely to be Davy Fitzgerald’s last year in charge of Wexford — can he sign off with silverware? Picture: Ray McManus

It would have been the ultimate firestarter. Over 40,000 partisans descending on the Ennis Road for El Midwestico. 

Green and white on saffron and blue. Light the fuse, stand well back and let the descendants of Mike Houlihan and Ollie Baker wire into one another. Now that’s what you call a championship opener.

Still, we have the ghost of a Munster championship opener at the LIT Gaelic Grounds on Sunday, we have a Leinster championship opener at Croke Park tomorrow and at the time of writing we have an All-Ireland championship itself. 

For all of which may the Lord make us truly thankful.

Hurling has never been less important. Hurling has never been more important.

One or two existential questions do arise in consequence. Is there an element of government-sanctioned bread and circuses here? Patently. Equally, it is not difficult to visualise officialdom running for cover should the pandemic breach the walls and leaving the GAA to hold the baby.

Why, as many people have enquired, should Gaelic games be afforded the kind of VIP-lounge treatment denied to the arts? A perfectly legitimate observation but one to be teased out in forums elsewhere.

It is what it is. We are where we are. A hurling championship is taking flesh and there’s no need to apologise. Especially not to one particular constituency: oul’ lads in rural Ireland deprived these many months of such simple pleasures as attending matches or watching them on TV, then reviewing or previewing them on the church steps of a Sunday morning or in the pub of a Sunday night.

The simple, purest pleasures, the ones that add meaning to ordinary lives and in doing so provide the splashes of colour that help to elevate them. It is overdoing it to suggest that Championship 2020 will save lives. It is not overdoing it to suggest that the successful enactment of Championship 2020 will assist in preserving sanity.

The event will produce popular winners, regardless of their identity. The new MacCarthy Cup holders will assume a righteous, golden glow for a period – yes, even Tipperary or Kilkenny. (Granted, for all of about two days in either case.) They’ll be remembered wistfully in 50 years’ time as the nation tunes into another rerun of Reeling in the Years.

 “Ah yes, the team that won the Coronavirus championship back when I were a lad…” 

Just as long as there’s just the one Coronavirus championship, eh?

This All-Ireland will be won by a Gold Cup horse, not a Derby horse. Tipperary will be succeeded either by themselves or by the crowd who best prosecute the hurling equivalent of ten-man rugby, solid and coherent and free of curlicues or undue ambition.

While they’ll all be striving to control the controllables, one major uncontrollable will be beyond the best laid plans: the state of the going, dictated by the amount of rainfall in November and early December.

A wealth of difference separates a wet sod from a heavy sod. The former suits the small crafty ballplaying lads (and indeed the big crafty ballyplaying lads), the latter the big athletic lads. Seanie McGrath would – and did – win an All-Ireland final with the rain sluicing down from the September heavens, his wizardry enhanced rather than effaced by the sodden turf and greasy sliotar. But Seanie wouldn’t win an All Ireland final up to his hocks in December mud.

New old structure

The scrapping of the provincial round robins has refashioned the first championship of the new decade as a cup competition that offers one, and only one, shot at a second life. This, by enlarging the net of contenders, is better news for the middle-rankers – Cork and Clare spring to mind – than for the market leaders. Anyone can win the cup, after all.

A tús maith will constitute a healthy proportion of the obair. Bomb out of the traps and, like, surf that wave, dude. No team that builds up a head of steam will curse the absence of spectators more than Cork should they manage to do so. No red and white hordes acting as a 16th man as the pot boils.

Losing one’s provincial final will carry a stiffer penalty than in recent seasons, given that the vanquished will take the field again the following weekend in the All Ireland quarter-finals. Then again, a quick turnaround is only a drawback if you allow it to be.

One last trend to look out for. Territory will be contested with a grimness not witnessed in recent championships. Easy points will not be flicked over from 90 metres every other minute, meaning that absurdly highscoring shootouts will not be a feature of Championship 2020. Excellent! Dig first, hurl afterwards.

We are in uncharted – not ‘unchartered’; that’s for boats – territory. The customary headlands and signposts are not applicable.

The form teams? There are no form teams.

The three or four newcomers who made half a name for themselves in the National League and might make a proper name for themselves come the championship? Like Jon Bon Jovi’s Orangemen rampaging through middle-class north Dublin, they do not exist.

Would that a certain well-meaning waiter from Barcelona was still around. Like Manuel, we know nawww-thing. Or near enough.

Lessons from the league... if you can remember that far back

Some research was required to unearth the takeaways from the National League, back about 300 years ago. The defending league champions, doing in springtime what they do in summer, were five from five: call it the new Limerick normal. Waterford had three wins, among them victories over Cork and Galway, while Clare were the only unbeaten team outside of John Kiely’s charges.

Unfortunately, the return of Darragh Fives and Tadhg De Burca for Liam Cahill has been more than offset by the injury to Pauric Mahony, the most rotten luck imaginable. What have Waterford possibly done to deserve this? For their part Clare will be missing – and will miss - John Conlon, who like Seamus Harnedy for Cork combines the roles of husky ballwinner and clean finisher.

Brian Lohan’s approach did not entail deep divination. More muscularity in all areas of the field, more long balls to the forward line, where Peter Duggan is another absentee tomorrow. The Gaelic Grounds against Limerick at the end of October is no place for a Banner outfit sans Conlon, Duggan and Colm Galvin.

Wexford will likely be compromised by the weather. They possess the most delicately crafted inner workings of all the runners and, as such, the mechanism most vulnerable to mud and moisture. Accumulating a winning total will again be more of an ordeal for them than for Tipp and Limerick.

It is probably Davy’s last fling with his current adopted county and, as if to emphasise this reality, they didn’t leave a tooth in it in the recent challenge match with Waterford.

With Cork it’s difficult to shake off the memory of the second half of last year’s All Ireland quarter-final and their inability for most of it to channel clean ball – nay, any kind of ball – to Alan Cadogan and Patrick Horgan. 

With Galway it’s difficult to shake off the memory of their post-2017 failure to achieve a satisfactory synthesis between force and finesse. This won’t be quite as much an issue over the coming weeks. Simply let the big lads loose to batter down every door in sight.

Winning a lockdown title with a mediocre team is exactly the kind of thing Brian Cody would do. A pandemic All Ireland would complete the set, as it were. Yet Kilkenny’s approach was so rancidly dunderheaded in the second half against Tipp 14 months ago that a quantum leap in game intelligence is required. As, in view of the lack of green flags that afternoon and in the Leinster final, are goals.

Back here in 2011, your correspondent mused that one of these years, astonishing as it might sound, Kilkenny “would field a team without Henry Shefflin, Tommy Walsh and JJ Delaney”. A similar remark can now be made of Tipperary. Substitute the names of Padraic Maher, Noel McGrath and Seamus Callanan and you get the drift.

The holders possess a fifth gear inaccessible to the pack. The caveat about them is that top speed is more easily reached on summer swards and the top of the ground.

Enough about the weather. What about the whethers?

Whether Shane O’Neill has had sufficient time to stamp his way of thinking on Galway. 

Whether there’s anything more substantial to Cork than the usual flimsy prettiness; easy on the eye, easy to close down. Whether – the now annual question - Austin Gleeson can return to his 2016 apogee and drag his county along with him.

Whether Cian Lynch’s sliotar-levitating sorcery works in November. (Presumably.) The reflexive reaction a few months back, when the prospect of a winter championship emerged, was to hold that Limerick and Galway would be the two counties most suited by the scheduling change. It was a statement of the obvious. 

Now that the starter’s pistol is upon us, nothing about that initial response warrants revisiting.

Limerick have course and distance. They have the panel, although the loss of Mike Casey’s mobility and intelligence is significant and Dan Morrissey is scarcely a like for like replacement. They learned an extremely valuable, because extremely painful, lesson in last year’s All Ireland semi-final. Painful lessons are, when properly digested, good.

The one real qualm surrounds their shooting. There have been too many unhealthily high wides tallies over the past two seasons. On any given day Limerick will be obliged to create more shooting opportunities than Tipp, Kilkenny and perhaps even Cork to post a winning tally.

Chances are they’ll quarry out a sufficient quantity of possession on every given day to get by. And to win this most bizarre, most blithely irrelevant and most badly needed of championships.

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