There is nothing like the unknown, hurling wise, for sauce.
This weekend loads Leinster’s plate. Next weekend will do the same for Munster. Order of service is dictated by the week’s gap between provincial championship start.
Here is the relish of unknown. Championship hurling, courtesy of a round robin format, becomes as much about overall roster as individual result. Four matches in five weeks for all counties, with four matches in four weeks for Offaly, Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford, transform the dynamic. There simply will be no time, between courses, to draw breath.
Wait and see. A month’s time will be short work and long implication. Four counties exit by mid-June, with one Leinster candidate relegated into the Joe McDonagh Cup. If results remain the instrument of this reckoning, structure hones the blade.
No county knows whether the extra winter training undertaken will provide an adequate platform. Item: Kilkenny play four serious games by early June, a juncture at which they were normally gearing up for their first outing, a Leinster semi-final.
Then again, what will management truly learn about training’s adequacy if their county misses the top three by scoring difference of a point or so? A morsel, at this new table, can comprise feast or famine.
Far from everyone finds this unknown a tasty affair. All is changed and the club scene is lit with anger and frustration. To many eyes, the alteration is like a cake too big for its tin, a largesse upon which intercounty hurlers can gorge while their club counterparts wither into irrelevance.
Do not underestimate the anger. I met a man during the Roots Festival in Kilkenny, someone sound out and much involved with managing local teams for years. He is no crank and recently guided a club to an All-Ireland Final.
One minute, we were talking about promising gigs. Next minute, hurling mentioned, he was in a fury, claiming clubs should withdraw stewarding services, thereby preventing inter-county matches. Ordinary players and mentors need to march on Croke Park, he said.
Maybe so. But Congress, in its wisdom, acted chef. As matters stand, three seasons must pass before the issue can be revisited. Is there a mechanism that says otherwise? Watch that space.
Or maybe not. If 2018’s All-Ireland champion is not Cork, Kilkenny or Tipperary, who will urge return of a format that saw nearly two decades of dominance by those Big Three? Most people are fickle in their allegiances, with a sweet tooth for the short term. Watch that taste.
Then there is the relegation issue in Leinster. The clear presumption was that Offaly would be Paddy Last, that everyone would pretend they were actually James Last spooling through ‘Happy Heart’, content playing along, making up the numbers.
This craic drives me cuckoo. Just as Kevin Martin is getting everyone back inside the Faithful tent, some bright spark decides to perforate said tent. You could not make it up.
Offaly avoiding this fate would mean some gnashing of presumptions. Relegating Dublin, Kilkenny or Wexford then looks like a GAA solution to a non problem.
We can only give only thanks for the mercy of four fascinating ties in prospect. Last Sunday, Kilkenny were nearly caught in Parnell Park, when league form evaporated. They appeared to have exchanged a game of darts for a game of rings, finding it much more difficult to make anything stick.
Winner’s luck? Not so much Cónal Keaney’s injury in the 59th minute as Dublin’s spendthrift first half. More economy would have meant their third goal granting an eight- or a nine-point lead on 44 minutes rather than a five-point one. Even Kilkenny’s redoubtable spirit, game to the end, hardly erases that gap.
This Sunday, they should muster too much for an improving Offaly. If so, sauce gets salted. If this result transpires, Kilkenny’s four points head to Salthill to take on Galway’s two points. Although the All-Ireland champions still win in most anticipatable scenarios, whatever pressure is there swings to the home side.
A disappointed Dublin take on a fresh Wexford. But how fresh will Wexford show, given their training regime, their running game? I foresee a Japanese monster movie, Sweeper System versus Round Robin.
Here is another area of implication. Hurling’s new format, piling extra demands on fitness, could eradicate ultra defensive set-ups with a decisiveness achievable by no single result.
Cork and Clare go at it in Munster. Spring heard mutterings about John Meyler’s traditionalist loyalties. Like it or not, that Cork strike of the late 2000s is the rift that keeps on giving. Yet did not Dublin’s performance last weekend, glossing Ger Cunningham’s tenure as manager, explode some myths about the supposed divide between traditionalism and progressivism?
Clare supposedly showed well in a recent challenge against Wexford. Even so, their front eight wants equilibrium between fleet of foot and sure of fetch. Hard choices need to be faced.
The other Munster tie might centre on Tipperary’s confidence level after successive NHL Final defeats. Yes, their panel possesses the most skilful forwards. Those figures are a joy to watch at times, as per the wit and precision with which John McGrath and Jason Forde engineered their last competitive goal.
But what of Tipperary’s backline? Best composition of it remains no less opaque than Brexit and the Irish border.
Week on week action will test Tipp supporters, the game’s most combustible cohort. They are typically mad up and mad down on the basis of one result.
There is a sense in which Tipperary hurling, these last four decades, does confidence like Elton John does hair, bouffant enough but conscious the true glories are rather in the past. Disarrangement is never far away.
Limerick mostly lack the composure that seizes big games. Capsule case: the talented Diarmaid Byrnes. Nearly as adept at gaining possession as Austin Gleeson, Byrnes is every bit as bad at losing it via headless pots for points. The Limerick backs often treat their full-forward line like unregarded cousins.
To maximize chances of an upset, these backs must hark to an Elvis Presley film of 1964. Needless to add, Love Me Tender dates from 1956.
Which emphasises a final truth. Whatever the changes, championship hurling stays the fattest candle. Will ordinary players and mentors remain at home this weekend?
Not likely. The reason is simple, a catch all for appetite.
Championship hurling, whatever its ingredients, provides that tantalising blend of sauce and sauciness.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved