Choose life on a Sunday afternoon amid the rain and the raw. Choose a competition more a part of you than the Premier League or the Six Nations ever can be. Choose seeing various youngsters for the first time and spending the next few days speculating long and loud about which of them will make the grade and which of them will never be heard of again. Choose Davy and Cody and Michael Ryan and the two new lads in Clare. Choose the National Hurling League.
While you’re at it, choose to juggle with the following notion. That Cork may win the competition, or at any rate may go a long way towards it. Please don’t all splutter into your morning tea/coffee in symphony. There may not be a doctor on hand.
Yes, Cork. The same Cork, more or less, who were given a trimming by Tipperary last summer on a day when only the weather conditions kept the margin of defeat down. The same Cork beaten by Wexford for the first time in the championship since the 1956 All-Ireland final. The same Cork who were much of a muchness with Limerick and Dublin, which doesn’t read as a compliment and isn’t intended to.
Amid all the fuss over Ger Loughnane’s “functional beyond belief” line last year, a much more relevant observation in the same interview passed largely overlooked. Had Cork, wondered our Feakle friend, finally bottomed out or could they actually get worse before they got better? Performances against Tipp and Wexford answered the question.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument 2016 was the year they did bottom out and that, as per Yazz and artificial associates, the only way is up. Kieran Kingston’s charges begin the league with home dates against Clare and Dublin: ample chance there to bomb out of the traps and have four points on the board by the second weekend of the competition. In that case, everything changes in the short term for Cork. They’ll be halfway to the quarter-finals, visions of another relegation battle shelved if not totally dispelled. They can play without overthinking matters.
Of one thing we can be pretty sure, however. Cork will not make a splash in the championship until or unless they make a splash in the league. They have to compile a body of work first. This isn’t 1966 or 1999 all over again — and the 1999 All-Ireland triumph, remember, was preceded by National League success the previous season, meaning it wasn’t a case of overnight mushrooms. That particular train left the station as far back as the 1995 minor final, indeed. Which or whether, let’s hope over the coming months Leeside folk are able to enjoy what Shane Kingston can do rather than grumble about what the chap cannot (yet) do. Choose patience.
Elsewhere, there’s plenty happening, both on the surface and below it. Tipperary not in need of winning the league but needing to keep her lit all the same. Kilkenny not merely in transition but rebuilding, requiring not simply a lick of paint here and fresh slates there but new foundations, new stairs, a new roof, the works. Clare, Limerick and Wexford under first-year management.
Waterford? They’ll be interesting too, except for a different reason. They won’t win the league and for the first time in three seasons they’ll hardly contest the final either. Because they don’t have to. Because times and targets have changed. Because Waterford are, as of last August, officially a grown-up team. A championship team. Genuine MacCarthy Cup aspirants. In 2016 they dreamed of September glory. In 2017 they’re entitled to dream of September glory. There’s a difference.
Michael Ryan’s job for the next few months is not dissimilar to Derek McGrath’s: develop the panel in order to cope with demands and necessities down the road. Yet it could get very interesting if Ryan were to do what Brian Cody did around this time in 2003 and decide that if a match was worth playing it was worth winning and that no possible harm could accrue from his charges winning more silverware. Thus Kilkenny started out on the journey from being a team to becoming a monster.
Imagine if Tipperary were to win the league. It would constitute quite the pre- championship shot across the bows of the rest of them. As for Cody himself, he needs new players and he needs them in key positions. This will not be a one-year process. It’ll be a three-year process.
How long the process of deprogramming Clare will take is anyone’s guess. Donal Moloney alluded to the task after they defeated Kerry in Tralee last month. “We conceded too much space by dropping our half-back line too deep, especially when they had men withdrawn,” he observed. Habits learned under Davy will have to be unlearned and, as per Waterford, Clare will be obliged to acquaint themselves with the truly terrifying prospect of operating with a three-man full-forward line at some stage. Moloney and Gerry O’Connor could start by reassuring their charges that there isn’t an invisible electrified fence on the opposition 20-metre line.
If anything the second flight looks more interesting than Division 1A. What’s more, it was presaged as far back as the 14th century by Dante in the Divine Comedy. He got one thing wrong. He wrote about himself being stuck in Hell with its nine circles; he meant, of course, Limerick being stuck in Division 1B for eternity. Good luck to John Kiely.
Kiely’s charges, Galway, Offaly and Wexford will slog around in the division and will all surely reach the quarter-finals. Thereupon the second, and perversely the giddier, less serious phase of the competition, will unfold. Just about anything could occur in the knockout stages.
If there’s to be a dark horse it will probably be Galway. They win the league every so often when they’re at a certain point along their evolutionary curve and right now they’re there or thereabouts; 2010 was the last time they lifted the trophy. League silverware would be the perfect item of evidence to show everyone Micheál Donoghue is on the right track. That ‘everyone’ includes Donoghue himself.
He’s had them for a year now, he’s sensibly jettisoned a few of the lags with bad habits and he’s far more acquainted with what most of the rest of his troops are capable of, and not capable of, than he was 12 months ago. Watch Galway send up a flare over the next couple of months.
In big-picture terms, look out for a tilt back towards attacking hurling. The sport reached Peak Sweeper last summer and is about to move on, as sport always does. It was a phase, nothing more. It’s not over yet but it’s reaching its sell-by date. While the quest for optimum pitch coverage will continue, Waterford proved to themselves against Kilkenny that they can best achieve it with more bodies in the other half of the field. In Clare’s case, rinsing that seventh man right out of their hair may come at the cost of a couple of early defeats. So be it.
Choose six forwards. Choose attacking abandon. Choose the NHL.