Hurling’s phoney war begins this weekend. You might know it better as the Allianz Hurling League.
It is a competition without jeopardy for the game’s top teams. Like those underage blitzes where there shall be no losers, in the Allianz Hurling League the traditional powerhouses shall not have the threat of relegation dangle over them.
Nope, not everybody is cut out for relegation. Best leave that as the preserve of the ‘developing counties’.
Unlike the high-stakes nature of the football league, the GAA has created a system in hurling where the stronger teams can adopt a much more a-la-carte approach. It’s a structure that allows them all to keep dining at the top table. There shall be steaks, not stakes.
There is plenty to play for in the lower tiers of the hurling league, but of the 12 teams across the contrived formulations of Divisions 1A and 1B, before a ball is struck you could probably predict Westmeath will be in a relegation playoff against either Laois or Antrim.
Division 1A is comprised of Galway, Limerick, Cork, Wexford, Clare and Westmeath.
Division 1B is comprised of Waterford, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Dublin, Antrim and Laois.
The top two teams from each division advance to league semi-finals, where first in 1A will play second in 1B and vice versa. The bottom team in each division will contest a relegation playoff.
Of the two Division One groups, 1B at least has more chance of throwing up a couple of surprises. Antrim and Laois have never feared playing Dublin.
Division 1B also has the appeal of resembling a managerial work experience endeavour with five of the six bosses entering their first year in charge of their respective teams. Now, Davy Fitzgerald, Liam Cahill and Micheál Donoghue are not exactly new to the circuit – but it remains the case that Darren Gleeson, with Antrim, is the only boss returning with the same county.
Of the sextet, there are three managers from Tipperary – Gleeson in Antrim, Willie Maher in Laois and Cahill in Tipp. And while there will be a huge amount of focus on how Fitzgerald’s second coming fares in Waterford, there will also be much interest in how Cahill gets on in his native Tipperary.
Liam Sheedy, who managed Tipp to two All-Ireland senior titles, believes Cahill can lift the fortunes of the Premier County again.
“I think they have a really good set-up there and they are probably a bit hurt after how it worked out last year, as a playing group,” said Sheedy.
“Most of those guys who won the under-21 and under-20, they started training with me, so they now have four years programming of an intercounty senior set-up.
“So, I think they will be a lot stronger. I think it’s very clear that you need to be hitting that 24, 25 mark before you really start to get into that environment where you are in the peak of it. I think it’s exciting.
“Liam knows them all, he has still got that mix of the older guys and then the young brigade that he knows inside out.
“A lot of people would have said Tipp are in transition, I’m not so sure, I think he has a really good set-up. The thing about Tipperary generally is you’ll be well able to find 15 really good hurlers and a few to come in and make a difference, so I think they will be looking forward eagerly to the season.”
Waterford won the league title last year, beating Cork in the final at the start of April. Two weeks later they opened their Munster SHC programme with a win over Tipperary, but slipped thereafter and lost their next three matches. As their campaign went on, Waterford looked ever more weary-legged. They did not advance to the All-Ireland series.
This year’s Division One Allianz Hurling League final is fixed for the weekend of April 8th-9th. Both the Leinster and Munster senior hurling championships get underway a fortnight later.
“Looking back on it, Waterford, were they too ready? If you look at their performance at the end of that league final, and then you look at their performances for the four matches in Munster,” said Sheedy.
“I thought they played to a good level against Limerick, but they certainly imploded in the last two games, there looked to be a lack of energy. Were they too front-loaded?
“I think a lot of managers now will be trying to get to those top positions, to get into the semi-finals, I think once you get to the semi-final if you’re mad for silverware then I think silverware is good but not at the expense of championship. Like, two weeks doesn’t give you a lot of time.
“If you are trying to find your panel, the National League is a really good place to get a chance to blood players. Any panel that has depth, I’d say you could see 30 players-plus used during the league.”
Let the phoney war commence. For hurling’s top teams, the countdown to the championship cranks up a notch this weekend.