KIERAN SHANNON: Hope springs eternal ahead of summer revels

It’s very possible every top-eight hurling team will improve in 2014.

Tipp, Kilkenny and Galway are bound to

When people recall and rejoice about just how wonderful a hurling year 2013 was, nearly every image is confined to its summer, with barely a look in from spring.

You get the odd reference back to the league final in Nowlan Park to underline how little idea we had that such a ferocious battle would be a dress rehearsal for the most intriguing and surprising first-round qualifier match-up ever. But even those battles and its warriors were hugely downplayed over the winter, with Paul Murphy overlooked for an All Star and Tipperary’s magnificent Michael Cahill somehow not even garnering a nomination.

What’s worth remembering though is that the 2013 league was one of the most intense and competitive ever, and contributed — albeit somewhat inadvertently — to probably the most thrilling and open championship ever.

With the exception of the disappointing semi-final double bill, virtually every Division 1A game last year was evenly matched; only three of the 15 round-robin games were decided by more than two scores.

Only two points divided top from bottom. When Kilkenny lost their opening two league games, they were on a war footing for the rest of the campaign, most notably their clash against Clare in Ennis.

Lose and they were in a relegation playoff. Their pride wouldn’t stand for that and ultimately they scraped through. In avoiding being sucked into a relegation battle they were suddenly sucked into winning a league.

It was a bit like that for Tipp too. Heading into their last round robin game, they were like every other team in the division. Lose and they were probably in a relegation playoff; win and they’d probably top the table and be through to a league semi-final. After they dismissed a jaded-looking Clare side, Eamon O’Shea remarked that the league had become a monster, with little margin for error. A subtext was there: in wading off one crisis, you were probably inviting and prolonging another.

This year’s league will be different. Every team, especially Kilkenny and Tipp, will want to do well in it and every game, but it won’t take on the quasi-championship dimensions of last year.

The chasm between playing Division 1A and 1B hurling is no longer so severe. This year there’s no Division 1B final, sparing any loser the agony that’s visited Limerick and Clare in recent years. The team that tops the division wins outright promotion to 1A but the team who finishes fourth still gets a game, a league quarter-final, against one of the top four teams from the top flight. In fact they can still win the league outright.

It’s why Saturday night’s clash of Cork-Limerick is merely interesting, not vital. Whoever wins most likely will win the division. But whoever loses still has latitude to shift through the gears while getting in decent games against the likes of Wexford and Offaly. By the quarter-final stage they’ll be ready for the step up as well as being closer to their best lineup. Just as last year’s league was no disaster for Cork — they lost only one game by more than two points — missing out on promotion would hardly be catastrophic either, especially if they were to win the overall league.

That such a possibility is highly conceivable not only highlights the anomaly of the current league but also shows just how open and even hurling now is.

For four or five years Kilkenny and Tipp were out on their own. The gulf between the second-best team in the country and its third — usually Davy Fitzgerald’s Waterford — was bigger than that which now divides the country’s top team and its eighth-best side.

Take Clare. They deservedly won the All-Ireland, but had they been drawn to play away against Tipp or Kilkenny instead of Laois on the first weekend of last July, their summer would’ve ended there and then.

They will be even better these next two seasons. But that does not mean they will win another All-Ireland. The Armagh footballers were a better, more seasoned and rounded side by 2005 than in 2002. The way Cork won the 2011 league and played most of 2012 was superior to the football they played in winning the championship in 2010.

It’s very possible every top-eight hurling team will improve in 2014. Tipp, Kilkenny and Galway are bound to. Waterford have an exciting young team led by a progressive new management team. Donal O’Grady’s coaching will build on the good work of John Allen. Last September’s replay will have brought Cork on a year. Dublin should play with a greater freedom and confidence having finally won a Leinster. But all of them can’t win. Last year seemed so freakish. The two teams that contested the relegation league playoff made the All-Ireland final. The two Division 1B finalists finishing up as provincial champions. The two Division 1A finalists facing off in a first-round qualifier.

Yet something similar could happen in 2014. You could say it won’t really heat up until the summer. But thankfully the fun and intrigue starts next weekend.


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