Counties upset by early league start

 

The early start to next season's National Hurling League has been greeted with scepticism by a number of leading intercounty managers. Kilkenny's All-Ireland winning manager Brian Cody described the February 4th start as a "great pity", while new Galway manager Noel Lane said "the balance is way off".

The league fixtures, announced on Monday, presented a hectic schedule for Divisions 1A and 1B. The seven rounds are to be completed between February 4th and April 1st, which forces each county to play six games in eight weeks.

But that's only part of the problem. The weather is sure to cause problems and, for the likes of Galway, there is also the latter stages of the club hurling championship and early rounds of the Fitzgibbon Cup to contend with.

"It is too soon, especially with the situation in Galway at the moment," said Lane. "We have several players with Athenry who are involved in the club championship, and we also have a number of players involved in the Fitzgibbon Cup.

"But more than that, you just have to look at the weather we're having at the moment. Chances are that's the way it's going to be in February, and nobody wants to be playing in the shit and muck. That does nothing to promote the game. With this sort of weather you just can't play any honest hurling from September to March."

Of additional concern to Lane is the intensity of the programme. With six games in eight weeks, injuries, he feels, are sure to be a greater problem than usual. And then there is the possibility of an extended layoff, depending on how the team fares.

Galway have always put a strong emphasis on the league, as their championship usually begins so much later than the other provinces, and reaching the latter stages always suited their championship preparations. But if they fail to make the semi-final stages here and finish at the end of March, then there is the possibility that they may have just one more intercounty game until the following February. And it's a similar situation in the other provinces.

Cody also sees problems with the new schedule. "The first Sunday in February is very early," he said. "It was two weeks later than that last year and even that was very early. It means three matches in February, and if you lose those then the interest is over, and it's a lot of meaningless games after that.

"So it is a great pity that it's going ahead so soon. The reality is that it can be a good competition, the second most important, and of course we will try to win all our matches. But you have no guarantee of the weather at that time of year."

Kilkenny's situation won't be helped by the fact that they arrive back from their winter holiday in Thailand just three days before the opening game with Cork. And they don't benefit from a bye until the last of the seven rounds, on April 1st.

"I believe the new football recommendations had something to do with bringing the games forward," added Cody, "but I certainly heard no consultation on the early start. It used to be the case a couple of years back where we played two games before Christmas, but then they made a big push for the new format. There are recommendations expected from the hurling development committee and we'll have to wait and see what they are."

For Lane, the new schedule appears to diminish the league even further: "The league has a great tradition for bleeding in new players and getting players and the team right for the championship. But you can't do that in February. The balance is way off.

"I certainly advocate an open draw for the championship, and possibly tying the league in with that. But the amount of effort that players put in these days just makes it very unfair to have to play all these games in February."

The league final will be played in late April, and while that may suit some club championships, Lane still feels that there must be a better way.