Hiding cards in league a risky play

Spring success is an expression of championship intent

Cork’s William Egan tackles Richie Hogan of Kilkenny during last year’s final. Photograph: Inpho

Cork’s William Egan tackles Richie Hogan of Kilkenny during last year’s final. Photograph: Inpho

Sat, Apr 20, 2013, 07:00

It so happens the counties contesting tomorrow’s Allianz Hurling League semi-finals in Thurles are the four most recent winners of the competition. Each in their own way testifies to the significance of the league in charting a positive course for the following summer.

Kilkenny have done most of the path-finding over the past decade or so. By assembling an unprecedented collection of double achievement, six leagues and eight All-Irelands since 2002 – both in the same season four times – the holders have validated spring success as an expression of championship intent.

This wasn’t always the case. During the 1990s, no county won the double and seven times in the eight years between 1990 and 1997, the manager of the league winners didn’t even retain his position for the following season.

As in football, the calendar year has made a significant impact, creating a coherent and sustained season that ran through from February up until a few weeks from the championship. It has meant roughly similar levels of fitness, as everyone starts at the same time. 

That has meant league fixtures have carried greater reliability when assessing differentials between teams.  

Aside from the inarguable success of Kilkenny in building their season’s momentum during the league and genuinely competing – it has also cut the other way with the county failing to win the All-Ireland in two of the three years out of 11 that they didn’t reach the league final – there is also a clear link between Tipperary’s first league success in seven years in 2008 and the All-Ireland that followed two seasons later. 

Firstly the county added a first Munster title since 2001 and then in the following league gave notice in a dramatic final, narrowly lost to Kilkenny, that they were ready to step up.  

Domination of hurling
Yet to what extent is the whole association based on Kilkenny’s domination of hurling in the years in question?

Galway and Dublin, who won the titles in 2010 and ’11, haven’t won All-Irelands or in Dublin’s case even a Leinster but both would argue that the league achievement didn’t end up as a cul de sac either.  

Most of the Galway side that beat Kilkenny in last year’s Leinster final and took the eventual champions to a replayed All-Ireland had featured on the 2010 league winners.

Dublin followed up their stunning defeat of Kilkenny in the 2011 league final by putting down their best championship in 50 years. Their opponents were under strength and reduced to 14 men but the manner of Dublin’s win with its meteor shower of late points culminating in a 12-point victory and a first elite national trophy in 72 years seemed to usher in a new era.

John McIntyre, who managed Galway up until 2011, says that he was sufficiently concerned by the county’s poor follow-through on league titles (five won since the last All-Ireland success 25 years ago) to address the players on the subject. 

“I remember the first night we resumed training after winning the league in 2010. At the very start I made a point to the players: the last couple of times Galway won the league they hadn’t trained on for whatever reason and that the win had raised the level of expectancy in the county. 

“I knew there was an issue there to tackle. We were aware of it and were marking the players’ cards. Unfortunately, despite that awareness we struggled in the championship matches, we were flat. The final score against Wexford was convincing but we weren’t comfortable. Then it took two games to beat Offaly. 

“Battle fatigue was setting in by the time we played Kilkenny in the Leinster final. It was seven points in the end but they finished us off early in the match. We moved Damien Hayes to midfield in the second half but it was damage limitation.”

He also agrees that 2010 was the best of his four years in charge in that the championship defeat by eventual winners Tipperary in that year’s All-Ireland quarter-final was as close as Galway got to a significant breakthrough.

“We regrouped and had a right cut at Tipperary. There is a theory that you should be getting better as the season evolves. But until the Tipp game, we hadn’t reproduced the tempo and performance of the league campaign. We knew that winning it wasn’t going to be the gateway to championship success but just an indication of what we could do as well as giving us some momentum and confidence.”

Emphatically reversed
Some of the fizz went out of Dublin’s historic 2011 victory over Kilkenny when two months later the outcome was emphatically reversed in the Leinster final but manager Anthony Daly says that the achievement had important consequences and that it’s the same for any county unaccustomed to success.  

“Huge. Going back to my playing days we got to the ’95 final and lost to Kilkenny. Ger Loughnane didn’t believe in the league at all and we won the All-Ireland so no one looked back much but anyone who says we weren’t gutted on the day after losing is wrong.  

“It (2011) was a big final against Kilkenny and we won it and it was great to score 22 points when the fellas cut loose – because it was Kilkenny we couldn’t be sure until about five minutes from the end! It really stood to us because you can’t buy the confidence that comes from winning big games.

“It was definitely a factor in winning the All-Ireland quarter-final against Limerick. We were missing Conal Keaney and Tomás Brady by that stage and I still feel the experience of having won something kept us going. Remember, we’d lost a quarter-final to Limerick two years before.

“The same in the semi-final: Tipp were after hammering Waterford and I remember thinking, ‘God, what’s going to happen now?’ when Lar Corbett got the goal but we stayed in the zone and kept going point for point.” 

Achieved in League
The margin in the end was four points but for Dublin in a first All-Ireland semi-final since the 1950s, to prove so competitive against the then champions underscored what had been achieved in the league.  

This made last year all the harder to process. A year with one competitive win of any sort (against Laois in the Championship), which took in relegation and a grim championship, the disappointments of the league were all too accurate an indicator of what was to follow.  

The centrepiece was probably annihilation by Kilkenny in the Leinster semi-final, a match that had been hyped up as a serious collision – not least by the champions themselves. But the Kilkenny issue had also been highlighted in the weeks after the previous year’s league success.

The 2011 Leinster final ended in double-digit defeat – as if the bright dawn promised in May had never happened.  

“Hard to know,” says Daly when looking back. “We analysed it and talked to the lads. The old insecurity came back and maybe they bought into the backlash stuff. The papers were talking about the backlash; their buddies in the work-place and in college were talking about it and I think it got inside enough heads – not all of them – to make a difference.”

As well as establishing the strongest link between league and championship success, Kilkenny have also been capable of mocking the claims of others trying to do the same. In 2004, ’10 and ’11, Galway, twice, and Dublin have had their new-found feelings of wellbeing well and truly bruised by Brian Cody’s team.

Nonetheless McIntyre, looking back, is still not tempted by the attractions of playing cute in the league and trying to hide your cards. “There are only two national competitions. Demands on players are so intense and so much effort goes into preparation that a team can’t just target the championship. Why not win the league when you’re putting in such a huge effort on the training field?”