The Allianz Hurling League made its entrance at the weekend. Entrance is possibly too grand a word for something that was accompanied by the tinkle of a xylophone rather than the blast of trumpets and clash of cymbals.
For all that unpromising mood music, one manager wasn’t having any of the talking down of the competition. David Fitzgerald is of course in a tricky position, having taken over the team whose victory in the same league – followed by a dismal championship – had been widely used as exhibit A in the prosecution case.
His return to Waterford, 12 years after a first stint, began in earnest in Fraher Field, Dungarvan on Sunday. Dublin were the visitors and a fine contest ricocheted backwards and forwards before Dónal Burke nailed a free in the last minute of injury-time to secure a draw.
The match had such a variety of incidents that the 3,800 (additional capacity agreed on the morning) tickets might have carried a warning to those of nervous disposition.
Dublin looked likely to be mauled in the early stages and yet by the end, with their opponents reduced to 13, they might have even felt slightly disappointed.
“I’m looking for competitive games,” said the Waterford manager. “I see a few pundits writing that [the league is worth little] alright and I think you could see with myself and Micheál Donoghue today [that the teams took it seriously] – and we’ve both won All-Irelands as managers. I don’t think we were treating that lightly outside there. I don’t think any of the managers I saw over the weekend, be it John Kiely or Pat Ryan, were treating it lightly.
“We’re trying hard. Are we going to expose more players than we would in championship? Yeah. But the games are competitive. I’ve yet to see teams going out saying ‘Ah we’ll just try out twenty players’. We wanted to win that. They wanted to win that.
“Limerick and Cork [on Saturday] – Limerick mightn’t have had their full squad out, but they were absolutely bursting to win that last night, the same as Cork were. So that’s fine. I suppose people have to write something [laughing]. I’m not saying it’s the be-all and end-all.”
His brow darkened, however, when he recalled without specifics one comparison that he considered particularly wounding. It was made in Saturday’s Irish Examiner by Fitzgerald’s former captain from his intercounty playing career, Anthony Daly.
The All-Ireland winning Clare captain wrote in his column: “our second most important intercounty medal now seems to contain as much value as a loose €2 coin.”
“There was one stupid comment I heard – that it’s the same as a two-euro coin,” fulminated Fitzgerald. “You win a National League – I didn’t win one. I’d love to have won one – it’s not the same as an All-Ireland, it’s not the same as a Munster. Probably coming after that, it isn’t bad.
“And I wouldn’t devalue what the boys did last year, fair play to them. So, someone making a comment like that is pretty stupid, especially probably that they never won one themselves.”
To be fair to Daly, he acknowledged that he hadn’t won a league and considered it a career regret.
Whatever the value of the competition, it produced a couple of cracking matches at the weekend. Cork and Limerick drew nearly 20,000 to Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday and the home team clipped the All-Ireland champions at the very end of 10 minutes’ injury-time, brought about by a serious injury to Robbie O’Flynn, scorer of Cork’s first goal, when Shane Kingston flighted over a winning point.
There were also wins for Galway, Tipperary, Clare and Kilkenny – on a first trip to Corrigan Park in Belfast since Antrim beat them in an All-Ireland semi-final 80 years ago.
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It was also the second weekend of the football league, in which a crop of unexpected results occurred, among them the defeat of All-Ireland finalists Galway in Salthill by Roscommon. Richard Hughes shot the injury-time winner on a 0-9 to 0-8 scoreline after Galway had led by four.
Of main concern to Galway and manager Pádraic Joyce, however, was a serious-looking injury to All-Star forward Damien Comer.
“He has to go for a scan to see but it doesn’t look good,” said Joyce.
“We are disappointed to lose the game in the first instance, the injury to Damien probably had a downer really on the rest of the lads and we didn’t really recover much after that so, look, just a bad day all round for us with injuries and losing the game.”