Denis Walsh: The League does not matter like it used to, but hurling is still hurling

Leagues, as a concept, occupy such a harassed place in the GAA psyche that asking intercounty teams to take two of them seriously never stood a chance.

At least there is no more pretending. For generations, the National Leagues had very little truck with transparency, either of them. Guessing, and second-guessing, were part of the pageant. You could believe what you wished and nobody could say you were wrong. Verification of your gut instinct was always retrospective, months later, long after anybody cared.

Now, the hurling league has distanced itself from its earnest sibling, and renounced all of its sinful pretences. Maybe it’s a relief. The hurling league is now a preseason competition, one step removed from the pre-pre-season competitions, with a rat-a-tat schedule of non-alcoholic, no-hangover matches to get you through Lent.

The possibility of happening upon a team hell-bent on issuing a “statement” performance in the League, or the jackpot outcome of happening upon two teams with the same thought, on the same day, in the same place, is now next to nil. Naturally, there was never a refunds policy when you paid into a dud league match, but at least everyone is clearer about the risks now before they leave the house.

This is partly a function of the split season, with its compressed calendar, but mostly it is a consequence of the round-robin phase of the provincial championships, and their status as the only leagues that count for something in hurling. Leagues, as a concept, occupy such a harassed place in the GAA psyche that asking intercounty teams to take two of them seriously never stood a chance.


In the old championship system, and in the discarded calendar, different dynamics were at play. Every manager took account of the gap between the League final and the first round of the championship and made a calculation about the worth of a League run, depending on their needs. The profiling was easy: a new manager with an emerging group of players, in search of momentum and low-hanging fruit, was guaranteed to give the League a rattle.

Can we make those kind of predictions any longer? Of the 12 teams in the split Division One, five of them have first season managers, which, in the past, would have been a recipe for extra spice. In Davy Fitzgerald’s first year as Clare manager they won their five games in the second tier of the hybrid Division One, as it was then; five years, later, in his first year as Wexford manager, he repeated the dose.

All of that would have been utterly predictable. None of the other teams would have been put through the ringer of such an intensive preseason training programme, and the new manager needed results to illustrate to his players the fruits of their hardship. The crowds flocked to Wexford’s games that spring, and there was a genuine renewal of optimism.

The old League, for all its faults, had a capacity to generate those feelings. Now? Almost certainly not. In the first season of Fitzgerald’s second stint as Waterford manager, are any of the locals gagging for a storming run in the League? Even if winning the League last year had far less to do with their later downfall than a grossly misjudged block of heavy loading before the Cork match in the Munster championship, the Waterford players and public would have no mind to invest in the volatile stock of the League again, at least not so soon.

And yet, teams want to win matches too. With the championship starting in the third week of April nobody can afford to reach the middle of March demoralised by a sequence of bad outcomes. There is a balance to be struck. Tipperary played nine competitive games last year, and lost six of them, including every one of their Munster championship matches. Can they afford to breeze through the League, blasé about results? They can’t.

On paper, the most attractive match of the opening weekend takes place tonight, when Cork host Limerick in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. The RTÉ cameras will be in town for a live broadcast, and if the weather stays fair there might be 15,000 people in the ground.

These teams played a pre-pre-season match less than a month ago, on a beautiful Sunday in January, and even though the game was an inconsequential footnote in the season, there was plenty of hard-tackling, and for the last 10 minutes the crowd forgot about the negligible value of the outcome. There is usually something to suck you in.

Tonight, both managers are experimenting and every result is biodegradable. But so what? Finding somebody, or finding somebody out, was always the turbo that kept the competition moving. That much hasn’t changed. And what about Patrick Horgan? You’ll be glued to him.

Don’t think about it. Take it for what it is.