Experimentation the name of the game for top hurling counties
There has been a strong element of phoney war about the league as managers test their squad depth
Paddy Deegan in action for Kilkenny against Clare. Brian Cody has handed game time to 34 different players during the course of the league. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
It took five weeks for Dublin to complete their Allianz Hurling League campaign, exactly half the amount of time they will now wait until their championship campaign begins.
As Dublin defender Paddy Smyth noted this week, when they return in mid-May it will “nearly be like two different games”, the storms of February swapped for the firm ground of summer.
Cork and Laois, who also failed to qualify for the league quarter-finals, are in exactly the same boat.
One more county will conclude their Division 1 campaign this weekend with Galway and Tipperary effectively engaging in a shoot-out on Sunday to secure the last knock-out spot.
Saturday evening’s tie between Group A leaders Limerick and Waterford is another shoot-out of sorts as the winners will advance directly through to the semi-finals.
Westmeath and Carlow finished at the foot of the respective Division One tables so will meet on Sunday in the relegation play-off in Mullingar.
Exactly how much any of the above means to the competing players and managers is open to debate of course.
Kilkenny lost a relegation play-off to Cork last year – a league restructure meant there wasn’t actually any relegation – and Tipperary were surprisingly beaten in the quarter-finals by Dublin yet both ended up contesting their provincial finals and the All-Ireland final.
The suspicion since the new round robin championship structure came in, requiring counties to hit the ground running and to produce sustained top form over a series of weekends, is that counties are less inclined now to empty themselves throughout spring.
The statistics for players used across the two hurling groups in Division One makes for interesting reading, suggesting counties are experimenting heavily.
Kilkenny have experimented the most so far, handing game time to 34 different players throughout a campaign that may still have plenty left to run.
None of the 12 counties across the two groups have used less than 28 players.
Meanwhile, in football, Monaghan’s introduction of David Kirk against Donegal last weekend brought to just 23 the number of players they’ve used so far in the same amount of games.
Donegal have only used 25 players in the same period and Kerry 27, an indication perhaps that hurling managers are placing more of a developmental emphasis now on the spring games.
The format of the campaign allows them to as Carlow and Westmeath were favourites from a long way out to end up the relegation play-off, ensuring the other 10 counties had little in the way of relegation fears.
The new reality for the hurling league may be that it will only be at the quarter- and semi-finals stages that teams begin to show a real appetite for destruction.
“I suppose when it comes down to the knock-out stages of the league, no-one will want to lose or want to give way to any teams and it’ll start to ramp up at that stage, yeah,” said Kilkenny full-back Joey Holden, who is likely to return to duty in the coming weeks following club commitments.
Galway and Clare have also been in experimental mode in the campaign, fielding 31 different players each, a large number in Galway’s case having played just four games.
That’s no great surprise as new Galway manager Shane O’Neill and his Clare counterpart Brian Lohan assess all their options.
Next up in the league of experimentation on 30 players used is a clutch of teams including Waterford who, like Galway and Clare, are under new management following Liam Cahill’s arrival.
As the only team across the two groups with a perfect record so far, Limerick will feel they have navigated the campaign most successfully, winning four out of four. They only need a draw on Saturday evening at LIT Gaelic Grounds to make it through to the semi-finals.
John Kiely has made careful use of 28 players throughout their four-game campaign to date with Darragh O’Donovan the only one to have started each of the games.
Carlow, in contrast, fighting hard since the beginning of the season have relied on a core group of players with Damien Jordan, Paul Doyle, Michael Doyle and David English lining out in all five of their games and half a dozen more featuring at some stage in virtually all of their matches too.
Liam Sheedy, manager of All-Ireland champions Tipperary, has been busy blooding more of his former underage stars though a loss this weekend would end their campaign.
Kilkenny may be the team to take most from spring with Cody throwing the net out widest, handing starts to 28 of those 34 players and apparently building nicely for the championship.