Hurling’s first step into the unknown

Every year the comparative article here on this day constitutes a variation on a familiar theme. We have, oh dear, had precious little to talk about since last September. We have, oh woe, been living on processed meat. Now proper hurling — real beef — is back again. Yay! Rejoice and be glad. Etc.
Not today. Not in 2018.

Not with this National League, an entity whose structure nobody saw fit to revisit, and scale down, as soon as the plans for a radical new championship were drawn up.

It starts too early, it finishes too early, and it lasts too long. It is a needless series of hasty and unsatisfying visits to the chipper as a prelude to an evening in a Michelin-starred restaurant. It is exactly what hurling, on the eve of Championship 2018, doesn’t need.

How seriously will the teams take it? How seriously will the paying customer take it? With the start of the most demanding championship in the history of the sport three months away, how many league games will amount to little more than an opportunity for the managers to explore the depths of their panel?

The three rounds of the knockout stage take place on successive weekends. Even from this remove, the temptation to take a dive in a quarter-final screams out.

Michael Ryan hit a large nail on the head during the week when he reached for the word “quandary” to describe the task ahead of him and his managerial fellows.

Instead of giving a run to 20 or 21 players as usual, the prospective demands of the championship — a match every week, minimal recovery time, injuries, the importance of options — will mean giving as much playing time as possible to up to 25 or 26 panel members.

How attractive the presence in any given match of two clutches of aspirants busting a gut will prove remains to be seen. Ditto the quality of the ensuing product.

Still, being number 29 on a county panel will never have been so glamorous.

If the upshot is not guaranteed to be a plethora of shadow bouts there’s at least a reasonable risk of same. The heavy stuff is coming in May and June. More of it than ever. More concentrated than ever. Something’s gotta give. It may be the club scene in April, that month supposedly ring-fenced for the club scene but at risk of becoming a plaything for inter-county managers and their demands. Or it may be league fixtures in February and March.

That isn’t to say that an extended championship is in any way undesirable. It is clearly the way of the future. But for every action there’s a reaction, and in this instance enlarging the championship should have entailed a concomitant diminution of springtime activities. It hasn’t. The league will suffer as a result. The road to stultification is paved with good intentions.

Who’ll win the thing? Who’ll be there or thereabouts? Usually we’re able to venture a fairly shrewd guess. Three or four years ago we’d have said Kilkenny because accumulating silverware was what they did, Tipperary because they were the leaders of the chasing pack and Galway because winning the league was what their cycle demanded once every five or six years.

Not so now. Galway have no need, having finally caught and fried the big fish.

Tipperary, burned by their experience in last year’s league, will be experimenting on a grand scale. Kilkenny no longer have dragons. The outcome of Division 1B looks far more interesting, the presence of Galway, Limerick and Dublin ensuring a minimum of non-triers. It is not a remark that can be made of the top flight.

Some other observations.

No county will anticipate the coming months with quite the same frisson as Wexford.

Their first season in the top flight since 2011 awaits, one that guarantees them a minimum of 10 matches between now and early June. In big-picture terms it may prove transformative.

While Dublin are likelier league champions in 2019 — now there’s an ante-post shout for you — than 2018, they ought to improve as the competition wears on and Pat Gilroy finds his feet. Potential semi-finalists? Surely. The return of Conal Keaney, Liam Rushe, and Danny Sutcliffe furnishes them with a base from which they can and will be competitive.

The plus side of the communal managerial quandary referenced by Michael Ryan is that he and his colleagues been handed a get-out-of-jail card of sorts.

The pressure of recent years to balance the importance of blooding newcomers with the imperative of compiling enough points to avoid a relegation battle has been removed. As one unfortunate manager will be left holding a red-haired stepchild nonetheless, they may as well all throw caution to the wind, mixing and matching to their hearts’ content.

This experimentation dispensation, inasmuch as it exists, is of notable good news for two guild members, Davy Fitz and Derek McGrath.

 The former cannot keep relying indefinitely on Diarmuid O’Keeffe sallying forward to shoot while the latter needs to get more players up the field and into the scoring zone on a permanent basis. The return from injury next month of Tom Devine will afford McGrath a new landing area and a man who can hurl with his back to goal.

A team to keep a particular weather eye out for? Clare. One or other of Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor — and the sooner some erudite reader comes up with a suitably snappy portmanteau word for the pair, the better; Molonnor? O’Clony? — declared lately that they learned more in eight months last season than they had in all their previous years together. No surprise there. 

Now to see the fruits of their education.

Clare, who’ve lost a number of crew members but have regained Cian Dillon, won the league two years ago. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to win it again.

Someone has to, if only by default. It may as well be them if they want it.

Three talking points

THE BATTLE

Promotion from Division 1B On the face of it this should be a walk in the park for the All Ireland champions, especially as they won’t have forgotten the memory of their slip-up against Wexford last February, when defeat in Salthill meant their promotion campaign was over almost as soon as it began. But Pat Gilroy’s Dublin will demand respect and Limerick – watch out for last year’s U21 starlet Aaron Gillane - are bound to be a stiffer proposition in John Kiely’s second season.

THE FIXTURE

Kilkenny v Wexford, Nowlan Park, March 4

Already shaping up as one of the games of the league, even without factoring in the possibility – or likelihood – it will have an influence on the relegation battle. Following their Walsh Cup win Wexford have now beaten Kilkenny on three successive occasions, a scenario unimaginable a few years ago. The worm has turned. What’s more, the temperature in the relationship between the two managers is bubbling up nicely, with Brian Cody’s banishment to the stand last week leaving Davy, hilariously, as the man occupying the moral high ground. Get set for more fun and games.

THE MANAGER

John Meyler

Meyler may have preferred to stay doing his thing with the U21s but circumstances intervened. At least he won’t have to reinvent the wheel; continuing Kieran Kingston’s youth policy is the only game in town. Yet the possibility shouldn’t be overlooked that a breakout year like 2017 may, through no fault of the manager, be followed by a season of retrenchment. Kilkenny customarily win, whether deservedly or otherwise, under Saturday-night lights on Leeside. A home win tonight would do Meyler no harm at all.


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