How would any sane person fathom a bet on the National Leagues in hurling and football that begin this coming Saturday? League form has always swayed hither and yon like a faulty weathervane at the best of times but this year it feels even more unpredictable than ever. There are so many questions that even those on the inside don’t really have the answers to at this point.
Most crucially, who is going to be trying a leg at all, at all? Whose best interests are even served by a decent league? It’s not long since it was an article of faith that you needed to be in Division One of the football league and Division 1A of the hurling league if you were going to achieve anything come summer time.
But the All-Ireland hurling champions couldn't get out of 1B last year and the team they beat in the final downed tools at their earliest possible convenience during the spring.
In football, eventual Connacht champions Roscommon were relegated to Division Two with a historically bad spring campaign. Not alone that, they as good as claimed it was deliberate as they went along, asking to be judged on the championship.
That they beat Galway in the Connacht final, the ship that had passed them in the night en route to Division One, looked like the perfect vindication. Or they could have just been lucky to see it work out so well. Who knows?
Talking to a few inter-county managers over the past fortnight, the general consensus is that everyone is going to be guessing to a certain extent over the coming months. Everything is happening quicker and earlier and the change in the summer schedules is a total step into the unknown.
"This will be an incredible year for us all and it will really test us in ways that we've never, ever been tested," says Tipp manager Michael Ryan.
“That in itself is exciting but it will be testing. It will be interesting to look back on it all at the end of the year to see who handled it best. Who won the All-Ireland? Who managed their fellas the best? A lot of great challenges coming.”
It’s hard to shake the suspicion that watching the hurling league in 2018 will be like tuning in to At The Races on a Tuesday afternoon to see a load of big strapping chasers lumbering around in a handicap hurdle, all of them minding their mark for later in the year.
You wouldn’t necessarily call them non-triers – not in print anyway, m’lud – but neither will they be ridden out to the line with any great gusto. Come the middle of May, all teams are down for a spell of four championship games in five weekends. January and February is no time to be a hero.
Same goes for football. In recent years, teams like Monaghan and Donegal in 2017 and Roscommon in 2016 have been early-season revelations, only to find themselves flat out of juice come the business end of the summer. With the Super-8s coming up at the quarter-final stage in 2018, it’s increasingly hard to justify gasket-blowing before the clocks go forward.
Problem is, how do you measure half-speed? Or more pertinently, how do you apply it? It’s all very well telling players not to kill themselves but what happens when they get into a close game with a summer rival and there’s a bit of skelping and the dander gets up? The quietly underestimated feature of the leagues these past few seasons is that they’ve often turned into rip-roaring affairs whether the players involved want them too or not. You’re pitting teams of generally similar ability against each other – there will be blood.
Art McRory’s line is the guts of 20 years old at this stage but like all the best ones, it is timeless in its wisdom. Asked when he was Tyrone manager what he was going to do about the cynical edge that his team had very obviously developed, he shrugged and said: “There’s no point me putting manners on my boys if the fella up the road isn’t putting any on his.”
In the GAA, everything is an arms race. You can set out on a league campaign telling yourself and your players that it doesn’t matter a damn where you end up come the latter stages. But all it takes is a couple of games where the fellas up the road look to be giving it a bit more holly than you and all of a sudden the crowd is grumbling and the local papers are getting cranky and your meticulously-plotted year looks like it needs a rethink.
The point is, on plenty of these weekends coming up, we're going to be in William Goldman territory. Nobody knows anything. It's going to be a league filled with afternoons of radio reports that start, "Well Des, this one didn't go the way many of us thought it would…" A league of unfamiliar line-ups and missing stars. Of half-informed injury reports and panicky rumours over big-named players. Of young lads banging in 2-7 in back-to-back games, never to be heard of again.
In those circumstances, who could possibly recommend a thoughtful bet? Anywhere, at any time? Certainly anyone putting together one of those five-game accumulators that band together a quintet of short odds-on shots ought to have their account suspended on general principle. They are the reason bookies live in solid gold houses.
This is the most unpredictable league campaign in living memory. Walk easy and bet sparingly, if at all.