Hurling league does weaker counties no favours and fans get a substandard product

League put in front of each team like a piece of playdough, to be shaped and moulded

Nothing explains the difference between the football and hurling leagues in 2022 better than the mood in the two counties whose teams started the year as All-Ireland favourites. Neither Limerick nor Dublin have won a game yet, nor even squeezed out so much as a draw. They've both been beaten by teams who ordinarily wouldn't have a prayer against them. They've both been sluggish in defence, feckless in attack and ponderous in transition. It's all been a bit of a shambles, in technical terms.

But whereas the league woes of the Dubs have sprouted online critics, supporter panic and oh-so-many think pieces, there is precisely none of that when it comes to Limerick. Dessie Farrell is desperate for a result, John Kiely is looking forward to a good six weeks on the training ground ahead of championship. Limerick are still odds-on for the All-Ireland with the bookies; Dublin are the biggest price they've been in over a decade.

The reason for the contrasting reactions is pretty simple. The football league comes with jeopardy attached for everyone and the hurling league doesn't. Or, to put a finer point on it, Dublin are in danger of getting relegated and Limerick are not. The Dubs need at least two wins from games against Tyrone, Donegal and Monaghan, and even then it might not be enough. Limerick need only beat either Clare or Offaly and they'll be grand.

None of this has happened by accident. The downgrading of the hurling league has been a quite deliberate move by the bigger hurling counties over the past three years. Throughout the 2010s, Division 1A of the hurling league threw up some of the best matches of the year on a weekly basis. Problem was, those counties didn't want to be playing some of the biggest games of the year in the league.

Play-off

"I remember we played in a relegation play-off against Clare in 2015," says Michael Fennelly, then the engine at the heart of the Kilkenny midfield, now the manager of Offaly. "We had beaten them the week before by a point but none of the Ballyhale lads played because we'd been in the club All-Ireland final during the week. And we were all thinking, surely Brian [Cody] will give us a few weeks off here.

“But there was a real feeling at the time that you couldn’t afford to get relegated from 1A because once you went to 1B, that more or less ruled you out of the following year’s All-Ireland. Funny enough, Galway and Limerick later won All-Irelands from 1B but at the time you couldn’t risk going down.

"We were thinking he might name TJ [Reid] or something and leave the rest of us out. But I don't think it even crossed his mind! He named Joey Holden at full-back, me in midfield, TJ at centre-forward and Colin [Fennelly] at full-forward. We all played a full game and it went down to the wire again, a savage game that we won by a point."

All just to stay in Division 1A the following year. It was all a kind of glorious madness, really. The league was still the league, but it had an unmistakable edge to it. The Division 1A teams couldn’t stomach getting relegated, although most of them ended up taking their turn eventually.

And Division 1B had some cut in it as well. It was generally made up of three teams looking up and three looking down, and if a big ‘un met a little ‘un, a hammering usually ensued. But when the top teams met each other to try and get up to 1A or the lower orders fought to stay in the division, the games were legitimately worth watching. There was far less shadow boxing and the league was a brilliant stand-alone competition.

“Those leagues were better than the championship in some respects,” Fennelly says. “The games were brilliant and you got crowds at them all. I know supporters often made weekends away out of them, and part of that was because they knew the matches would be full-throttle come Sunday.”

More games

Two things changed to cut the legs from under it. First, the provincial championships moved to a league format in 2018, which straight away meant more games for every county in the summer. By extension, everyone took it down a notch during the league – the season was going to be longer than ever before so it made everyone less inclined to be involved in February and March epics.

But just in case anyone was inclined to get too stuck into each other, the more fundamental change came ahead of the 2020 league. Divisions 1A and 1B were reconfigured, placing a broadly equal number of big teams and not so big teams in each one. It meant everyone could take the league on their own terms again.

If you were a new coach and you wanted to put the pedal to the metal from flag-fall, by all means knock yourself out. If you were a team who had been on the road a while and you fancied easing yourself into the year, that was okay too.

The league was put in front of each team like a piece of playdough, to be shaped and moulded whatever way they pleased. Everyone got to suit themselves and that suited everybody.

Everyone, that is, except the teams on the other side of the divide. The (presumably) unintended consequence of the change of format is that hurling's social climbers are exposed to a level far above their capabilities. Teams like Laois, Antrim, Westmeath and Offaly now play more league games against the Limericks, Tipperarys and Kilkennys than they do against each other. The results are rarely pretty.

Offaly's dance card in February read Galway (17-point defeat), Cork (19-point defeat) and Clare (16-point defeat). Their opening three games in last year's league were against Meath (16-point win), Kerry (21-point win) and Carlow (eight-point win). They have gone from beating up flyweight to trying to trade punches against heavyweights with nothing in between. By any measurement, the league structure has failed them.

“I try and look at this from a neutral point of view,” says Fennelly. “There’s no point me complaining as the Offaly manager just because we’re getting some bad beatings. But I think it’s fair to say that everyone can see there’s no logical progression for the teams around the top of Division Two and the bottom of Division One.

“I’ve said it a few times – in football terms, you’re jumping from Division Three to Division One. The way it was made sense for teams who were trying to bridge that gap to the bigger counties. You made your way up through the divisions and you improved as you went because you knew you would have two or three games in every league against a team at your own level. Now, you kind of know your fate before you set out.”

Targets

Fennelly's side were hanging in manfully against Clare last week – as the clock ticked past the hour they were only two points down. But a couple of quick Tony Kelly goals reminded them of their place in the world and they ended up conceding 3-6 in the last 10 minutes.

“We need to get as much as possible out of these games,” Fennelly says. “Whether that be in terms of fitness, work rate, putting good sequences of play together, staying in games for as long as we can. These are all targets that we’re honing in on and trying to get the most out of.

"But it does become disheartening when you have those heavy losses, without a doubt. You can't shake them straight away. I feel them, the players feel them. But I am content with where things are at. I knew going into this that this could be the result, we had prepared for it. Westmeath got heavier beatings last year than we are now and they still won the Joe McDonagh Cup. So that's where we have to set our sights."

Ultimately, as Fennelly is keen to stress, counties have to help themselves. No league structure is going to be a substitute for getting things right at underage, for bringing through players who’ve spent their teenage years genuinely competing at schools and provincial level. Unless you have that foundation in place, it doesn’t matter what format the GAA comes up with for its competitions.

But on a broader level, it does seem a shame that what was not so long ago a highly enjoyable competition has been gerrymandered into insignificance. For one thing, supporters pay the same into the hurling league this weekend as they do into the football despite the obvious disparity in what’s at stake once you get through the gate.

It doesn’t seem especially fair that hurling supporters have to pay full price for games that amount to little more than pre-season run-arounds.

For another, the intercounty season has already been sliced and diced over the past few years and had the guts of two months lopped off the end of it. With the hurling league such a reduced entity, you’re down to just nine weekends in the whole year where the sport’s best teams play each other like they mean it. Ten, at a push, if you want to count the league final. The sport deserves better, surely.

Annihilated

And yet there’s no push to change it back. The bigger counties are perfectly happy with the format the way it is. In Limerick last Sunday the All-Ireland champions were annihilated by the team they put to the sword in last year’s final and nobody on either side pretended it meant a thing.

They see it as a nice luxury to have, a smooth relaxed vibe about the place. Nothing like the wild days of the 2010s when skin and hair was flying in these games. It does the weaker counties no favours and supporters pay over the odds for a substandard product. But so it goes.

Hurling has never pretended that those voices matter anyway.

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