Ciarán Murphy: Hurling league phoney wars now phonier than ever
Teams merely going through the motions in advance of new-look championship format
Limerick’s Sean Finn shows his delight after the victory over Galway at Pearse Stadium which sealed promotion for the visitors. Photograph Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
So, who’s currently winning the Allianz Hurling League, then?
It shouldn’t really be that difficult to answer – if you’re running a league competition, the league table should answer most of your questions. But then again, this isn’t most leagues.
There were of course quite a few question marks over this league season before it began. Given the provincial championships have themselves been turned into into two leagues, just how much importance teams would put on the spring round-robin was a live question.
Division 1B came down to one game between a team 95 per cent sure it wanted promotion, and another team 100 per cent sure it wanted promotion. The result in Salthill last Sunday told us that, given even that small disparity in motivation, Limerick’s hurling was good enough to make up the difference. They’re not too far away.
Division 1A on the other hand was a hot mess. Trying to draw a racing line between the teams we’ve seen this spring is even more of a fool’s errand than it usually is. Four teams ended with three wins apiece, and Cork and Waterford won one each.
Clare and Wexford looked to be fitter, stronger and more tuned in than anyone else in February. They had their own reasons for that. Clare needed to start winning games again, and duly won their first three.
Davy Fitzgerald appears to have attacked every single game he’s had in charge of this Wexford team with an almost maniacal focus. He was rewarded for that ambition with three wins, and two very creditable defeats away to Tipperary and Kilkenny. Whether they’ve come on enough to erase the memory of last summer’s losses to Galway and Waterford remains to be seen.
It’s not in Brian Cody’s nature to let his team drift, even for one second, and for him and his Kilkenny team this spring was no different. Similar to Clare and Wexford, Kilkenny were plain in their ambition to win every game, or to try to win every game. Despite a stuttering start, they won their last three games and finished on six points too.
Having predicted after those two early losses that Kilkenny wouldn’t win another All-Ireland under Brian Cody, Michael Duignan looked like he was wavering on that opinion on TV on Sunday night, and it’s true that there has been much to admire in Kilkenny’s recent wins. But Duignan should have held fast to his word, because those three wins all came with a caveat.
The first of those victories came against Waterford, at a time when Waterford were getting plenty of stick for effectively throwing their hat at the entire competition, and this February was another one of those times when Derek McGrath’s honesty counted against him.
Plenty of teams have been naming plenty of newcomers (not least their relegation play-off opponents Cork) but when he comes out after the first league game against Wexford, having decided beforehand not to make any substitutes, and says that he’s already picked a much-changed team for their second game against Tipperary, he merely makes explicit what a few other managers were implicitly telling us.
Given that build-up, maybe it’s not too much of a surprise that Kilkenny were able to turn Waterford over. Then Tipp went to Nowlan Park with a much-changed team, and refused to bring on Padraic Maher and Noel McGrath to try and win the game when it was in the melting pot . . . which brings us to their win over a Wexford team already in the quarter-finals last Sunday.
They’re waiting on players to come back, but how match-ready will Colin Fennelly and Paul Murphy be when they return from their spell overseas with the Irish Army next month? Has Richie Hogan been able to put his injury worries behind him? The names to come back have question marks over them too.
Contrast the caveats attached to all those wins, with how Tipperary got to six points. They lost to Clare on the first day of the league, and lost to Kilkenny with that second string side. But they’ve been at their ease. They’ve been auditioning furiously, been without a raft of their star players, and still finished top, with the best scoring difference in the division.
Maybe Clare, Limerick and Wexford have taken giant leaps forward, and maybe they haven’t. Maybe we can take Kilkenny’s recent wins at face-value, but I’m not sure we can. The suspicion remains that for all the entertainment we’ve gotten from the last six weeks, this has been even phonier than the usual springtime phoney wars.
How many games can we say with certainty were a match between two equally motivated teams? When you look at all 15 games played in 1A, you’re struggling to say definitively there have been many more than three or four three or four.
The new structures for the Munster and Leinster championships are a tacit acknowledgement that the league has been for years a far fairer test than the action in high summer. The first casualty of the Great Restructuring Of 2018 has been the inspiration behind those changes in the first place.