It’s become a custom of the National League’s fixture makers to start the competition with a bang.
Just as pitting Clare and Kilkenny, last year’s All-Ireland and Division 1 champions, against one another is the kind of fixture to whet the appetite, there would also appear to be plenty of logic in commencing Division 1B with a meeting of its two best teams, Cork and Limerick.
Just how big a deal is Saturday’s game? Enough for dual players Aidan Walsh and Eoin Cadogan to miss the footballers’ round two clash with Kildare, that’s how big.
Even though Brian Cuthbert stated he was satisfied those dividing their commitments would prioritise football, clearly Jimmy Barry-Murphy has persuaded his equivalent to make an exception.
Be under no illusions — what happens in Páirc Uí Rinn in four days’ time is worthy of an amendment to the bilateral agreement. Whoever wins will all but likely be promoted to Division 1A next season.
Presumptuous, you cry? Not as much as you might think. As there is no final this year, the team that finishes top after the five rounds is automatically promoted as well as picking up one of the four Division 1B quarter-final spots. The new competition regulation might suit Limerick who beat Dublin last year in the league proper only to lose out to them in the promotion final.
In 2011, they won all seven rounds as well as the final against Clare to earn a return to the top flight, but were then recast in a structural re-jig to Division 1B.
This is Limerick’s fourth season in the secondary division and since 2011 they have won 14 of 17 round games, losing just one. Being confined to Division 1B has become for them a bore as much as a chore.
Cork, meanwhile, face the other two teams likely to reach the quarters, Wexford and Offaly, at home. The long trip to Ballycastle in Antrim on March 16 might be a little tricky but nothing close to be anything beyond them.
If they begin this campaign as hot as they did last season’s at the same venue against Tipperary, they can start rubbing their hands at the prospect of rejoining the top table.
No competition worth its salt should be decided on its first day but the combination of a poorly thought-out format and fixture planning means barring a draw on Saturday the Division 1B winners will almost surely be known before 9pm that evening. For the losers there will be the consolation of a quarter-final place against Division 1A opposition. However, it will hardly act as compensation for the dread of another season in the lower tier.
The same prize is also on offer to the two teams who finish below them. Last year, Wexford finished fourth, winning just two of their five games. In 2012, it was Antrim when they lost three matches and finished with a score difference of minus 14 points. It makes a mockery of the league that such mediocrity will be rewarded with qualification to the knockout stages; that they should gain entry ahead of two teams who have been competing at a higher level and earned the right to do so. Expect a couple of lopsided results when the quarter-finals take place on March 30.
Sadly, that is what last year’s league mess has brought us. GAA director general Páraic Duffy was right to call for another look at this flawed structure, but in the end there were too many options for counties to consider such as the Michael Burns blueprint and the Carlow-Westmeath proposal.
In his annual report last month, Duffy wrote: “I accept the criticism that the process might have been handled better, but the uachtarán and I were striving to establish a wide consensus on the best structure for the league. One positive outcome is that we now have stability for a period of three years.”
The fact this system is in place until 2016 is nothing to cheer about. Cork and Limerick supporters are no fools. They’ll congregate in their droves in Páirc Uí Rinn because they and the players realise what’s on the line.
But when it’s settled, will there be much more to keep them engaged in a league their teams are too good for? Division 1B may start with a bang but the rest of it will be a whimper.
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No need to panic in February
There was genuine concern for Kerry at this time last year given how poorly they played against Mayo and Dublin in their opening two games.
The alarm bells aren’t as loud this time despite finding themselves without a win after the first two rounds. Lose to Mayo, who are also pointless, in Castlebar on March 2 and the storm warning will rise to yellow, but nobody has been given reason to traipse back into the record books on the foot of one and two-point defeats.
As Dara Ó Cinnéide wrote in these pages on Saturday, not much should be read into the first two rounds, divorced as they are by three weeks from the main block of league fixtures. Just two of the eight home teams have lost but the table points to the peculiarity of the action so far. Westmeath are last having kept clean sheets in their two games. Cork are top having yet failed to find the net. Mayo, who are second from bottom, have five points scored more than Cork. February is not a time for pride or panic.
Kudos to new Waterford boss McGrath
Waterford did their bit for the promotion of next weekend’s opening weekend to the National Hurling League by yesterday announcing their team to face Tipperary on Saturday.
It’s an applaudable venture by new manager Derek McGrath, providing of course the same team line out in Thurles. A lot can happen in the space of five days. The move brings to mind what Páraic Duffy wrote about the release of teams in his annual report. His preference is for each county to name their panel five days before a game, disallowing any extra players regardless of injuries to the announced squad. That might seem a more practical step to take but much like the naming of Rabodirect 12 squads in rugby early in the week they would hardly garner a wealth of excitement. It’s the teams fans want in advance but rarely get.
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