League important but only in relation to the championship
Winning the league is a bonus for that county but doesn’t guarantee greater things later on
Aidan Fogarty in action for Kilkenny during their NHL final victory over Tipperary last May. Neither of the finalists made much of an impact on the championship later in the year, again raising the question of just how important is the league. Photograph: Inpho.
It’s Valentine’s Day when love is supposed to permeate the air. However I don’t think there’ll be too much love, flowers, chocolates, greeting cards, doves,or figures of the winged Cupid present on the hurling fields of the country this weekend as the Allianz hurling leagues begin.
The inter county hurling season finished on such a high last year we can’t wait for the commencement of this season’s serious business .
But is the league serious business? Well I suppose like most things in life, the answer is relative. Winning the league outright is a bonus for that county but doesn’t guarantee greater things later in the year . In the past decade only Kilkenny have managed to add the Liam MacCarthy to the league title on a number of occasions . Getting to the final is an extra game for the runner-up.
Making the semis is also a bonus, especially if your team has spent the previous two months in the lower division.
Being in the higher division would be the preferred choice of all the counties who think they have a reasonable chance of participating at headquarters in September. Obviously for a team outside the elite (is there only one county presently in this category? Kilkenny have won a staggering total of nine All-Irelands and seven league titles since 2000) winning the league is a significant morale booster for the year ahead.
In terms of players making a statement to their respective managements the league is very serious . Most panels are trimmed after the league campaign, so it’s important for new or fringe players to make a statement on the field of play during the league campaign.
In financial terms, apparently, the payout to the county boards from league takings is not insignificant.
So, yes, relatively speaking, the league is serious enough. But when the players put the hurleys and helmets away at the end of their inter county careers there’s only one medal of real value and that’s the one that’s played for in September
There is no doubt but before a ball is pucked this weekend it would seem that all of the games in Division One have a seriousness about them .
That venerable pecking order has changed, or at least it’s in a state of flux. Clare are now at the head. Last year they felt they had to be almost at championship readiness in all their games to survive in their first year back up.
This year they’ll be the yardstick by which the other five teams in the division will measure themselves. But this brilliant young team might be under a similar pressure in testing conditions in games in which they’ll probably start all as favourites.
League champions Kilkenny, going for three in a row, have already shown signs in the Walsh Cup they are not to be underestimated.
We’ll let comment on Galway for another day when we’ll have some definitive evidence as to where they’re at.
Their win last Sunday in the Railway Cup will buoy them up for their visit of Dublin, though.
Tipperary have put up big scores in many of their recent games and indeed their big score against Clare last weekend will have them in a positive frame of mind on Saturday night against Waterford.
They looked to be going places early last season on their Waterford Crystal form but Cork beat them out the gate in the first league encounter and even though they did contest the league final they never achieved any consistency after that.
Big job ahead
Waterford, under Michael Ryan, did very well to maintain their Division One status and will start out this season again as odds on to be relegated . New manager Derek McGrath has a big job ahead .
Dublin, in their first year back at the top table, will need to prove early on they can build on last year’s championship form.
In the Division 1B, the most important game is in Páirc Uí Rinn tomorrow night with the visit of Limerick. Indeed this game can be classed as the most important game of the weekend. I don’t know why this isn’t held as the last group game. This year, unlike last, the top team after the five games achieves promotion. No final this time round.
So for both Cork and Limerick this is a hugely significant game.
Cork have to go in as favourites. They will certainly be buoyed up by their 2013 post Munster final performances .
They have most of their first choice players available, Pa Cronin and Séamus Harnedy the most notable omissions.
Obviously there will be considerable interest in how the dual players fare over the league season. Aidan Walsh and Eoin Cadogan are the most high profile of this very much endangered species, whose survival is very much in the balance. We’ll watch with interest.
Munster champions Limerick, on the other hand, under-performed against Clare in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final and will be without very important players in Declan Hannon and Séamus Hickey,who are both rehabbing after leg operations, as well as the Na Piarsaigh quintet who are being rested after their club championship campaign.
Being without Hannon and Shane Dowling, their first-choice free takers, puts them under pressure before a ball is struck. Cork have home advantage and with a stronger panel available, will be difficult to beat in this very important opening game.
On the evidence of the recently published GAA financial report the public’s affair with hurling blossomed last year and on this romantic weekend we hope that this liaison continues .