The imminent and eagerly-awaited hurling championship will spearhead the GAA’s hoped-for transition back to normality. It has a number of advantages over football at this point.
Firstly, it will provide a more complete championship. The contagion of many of the issues that bedevil football has not spread. Hurling has always made peace with graded championships, making its senior, MacCarthy Cup level a more compact field and therefore more conducive to an optimal structure.
The irony of all the agonising – ongoing – over what shape the football championship should take is that the radical introduction of round-robin All-Ireland quarter-finals or Super 8s, had the knock-on effect of refloating a 2012 proposal to make the provincial hurling championships also a round robin.
This was simply a late, reflex response to disquiet among hurling counties that their season would be eclipsed by the new football format.
There was scepticism about this apparently hasty initiative. Surely football had been correct to position its round robins at a later stage so that the best teams could battle it out in late summer. That done, it was a fixture making impossibility to do the same with hurling so its groups had to be played out earlier.
It became a reminder that the law of unintended consequence is sometimes beneficial.
Having home-and-away fixtures created great atmosphere and for two years we had a string of epic encounters: from 30,000 in a blazing Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the 2018 draw between Cork and Limerick to the last day of the 2019 Leinster championship with the positions of the counties continually changing throughout the evening, as Dublin beat Galway in Parnell Park and Kilkenny drew with Wexford.
By the final whistle in Wexford Park some of the players and spectators weren’t even sure of who was in the final.
This could never work in football because there isn’t an equivalent strength-in-depth in the provinces. Even in hurling it would have struggled, you suspect, during the heyday of Kilkenny’s pomp in Leinster.
Then again, maybe the format made it impossible or highly unlikely that the ultimate champions could negotiate the season unbeaten but it also created a marked equality of opportunity.
At the starting line for this year’s championship, the smaller field has made it feasible to build in All-Ireland qualifiers, which give the counties a season which won’t be derailed by one bad day at the office.
Contrasted with football, which because of numbers simply can’t run a second-chance structure, hurling is three-dimensional. It is another reason why the game restores normality this summer; it has a viable format whereas footballing counties are again hard-wired into the last century.
Take Clare: a promotion play-off against Mayo and a championship opener against Kerry basically predestined them to remaining in Division Two and ending their season two weeks later. Their hurlers, however, have a decent shot at Waterford and even if they lose, further opportunity to progress in the All-Ireland championship.
Elsewhere on this page, Nicky English makes the point that we are embarking on a first summer championship in two years. In the catalogue of 'needs must' the most conspicuous restriction in 2020 was the winter season.
In vast, empty grounds and frequently dire conditions, it was the sort of experience you might expect from a hurling championship in purgatory.
Impressively improved pitch technology saved matches from ruin and somehow we escaped without weather-driven postponement. The play was slightly more controlled as both on and off the field it was possible to direct the game without the fear of not being heard.
Water breaks, necessary for Covid protocols, doubled the number of access points that managers and coaches had to players and increased their influence on the game.
It’s hard to argue that it disadvantages any particular team but its role as a momentum breaker has been obvious. Anyway, the will remain in place as long as the pandemic.
The biggest shortcoming of last year was the absence of spectators and remedying that has already begun. If all goes well – and the last year has made everyone wary of making too many assumptions – the permitted numbers will rise in August, when they are scheduled to be reviewed, well into five figures.
Crowds bring their own normality in hurling, which has a greater number of teams with identifiably vocal support. Two, Wexford and Limerick had contrasting seasons last year.
There was something vital missing from matches involving each county and whereas Wexford looked lost – whether or not that had anything to do with the lack of supporters – Limerick sailed through their routines, unimpeded by the loss of their excitable followers.
Holding both All-Ireland semi-finals on the same weekend was initially looked on as a waste of promotional opportunity but the ‘festival of hurling’ concept has been borne out by two sets of terrific matches, from the inaugural Galway-Clare draw and replay the day before Limerick stated their credentials with a relentless comeback against Cork, which went to extra time.
Last year even in the darkness of winter and an entirely different climatic system, Waterford’s recovery against Kilkenny was the stuff of starburst whereas Limerick and Galway went to the wire a day later.
Such matches can’t be guaranteed every year but there is enough going on in the hurling counties as we embark on the championship for hopes of a bright future to be realistic – with all of the wider metaphorical possibilities that brings.
2020: The first crack in the veneer that Galway were the only team who could stop Limerick came in the provincial final when they squandered a winning position against Kilkenny, who typically conjured a couple of goals to nail the 16th Leinster title of Brian Cody's 22 years in charge.
What's changed? Galway look to have advanced this year, judging by league form, and Kilkenny, although beaten only once, didn't always convince, particularly at the back. Prospects for other contenders have at best stagnated. Antrim provide some novelty after a decent league saw them finish ahead of Dublin, who they play in the quarter-final.
All-Ireland prospects: Dependent on Galway, who disrupted the Munster domination over the past five years with the 2017 All-Ireland. Kilkenny have twice been finalists in that time but well beaten on both occasions although they are the only county to have knocked out Limerick since 2016, which they achieved in 2017 and '19.
Fixture to book: Kilkenny and Wexford are on the same side of the draw and scheduled to play in the semi-finals should Wexford beat Laois, which at this stage is more than likely. It is generally accepted this will be David Fitzgerald's last season in charge of Wexford and during his four-year tenure to date their matches against Kilkenny have generally been tight. On form, Kilkenny's big win in the league makes them clear favourites but if Fitzgerald's men can rise to one last occasion there may be a twist in the tale.
Stat: The history of Leinster is the history of Kilkenny v someone else, whether that has been Dublin, Wexford, Offaly or more recently, Galway. Not surprising then there have been only five times in which three separate counties have won successive titles and only two of those have led to a fourth name being added. Curiously two of these five sequences have come in the past 10 years: 2012-14, Galway, Dublin and Kilkenny and 2018-20, Galway, Wexford and Kilkenny.
Who wins? The form strongly suggests Galway and Kilkenny to reach the final. Galway look an improved unit but are they considered any more certain than last year – and we know what happened then. As an added reward, should the counties fulfil expectations the league will be at stake, as they topped Division 1A and 1B respectively.
2020: Once they had obliterated Tipperary in the Páirc Uí Chaoimh monsoon, Limerick were obvious winners of the province. It was Waterford who provided the tale of the unexpected by defeating Cork and pushing hard in the Munster final, leaving Limerick slightly jumpy at the second-half water break.
What's changed? Not a whole heap apart from things becoming more competitive among the challengers. Limerick have picked up steam in the league whereas arguably Cork have deflated a bit but there's actually no result in Munster that could be entirely ruled out.
All-Ireland prospects: Strong. Four of the last five Liam MacCarthy Cups have gone south. Tipp won two of them and Limerick, who are hot favourites to retain the All-Ireland for what would be the first time. Waterford have been finalists in two of the last four years.
Fixture to book: The opening day in a week's time sees Clare take on Waterford. It was a draw that looked predictable when made back in April and even more so after Clare had lost their opening league matches against Antrim and Wexford. The recent weeks have seen form pick up – the only county to win their last three league matches in Division 1 – and injuries clear although David McInerney remains a doubt. Remember when the counties met in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final, Tony Kelly got injured early on and yet Clare were still competitive for a long period. Waterford can't be as strong without Tadhg de Búrca and under the shadow of other injuries.
Stat: This draw has only happened five times previously and three of those occasions involved other counties (Kerry and Galway) albeit to no material effect. In 1984 and 1952, however, the Munster championship was exactly as this year with Clare and Waterford meeting in the quarter-final and the winners playing Tipperary while Limerick and Cork met in the other semi-final. Clare and Waterford have one win each but ended up defeated by Tipp, who went on to lose to Cork, who defeated Limerick both times, in the final. Furthermore, Cork won the All-Ireland in both years.
Who wins? The obvious answer is Limerick. Their form settled after a run of not winning their first three fixtures. They gave Cork a sound beating in the league and were a lot more interested in establishing a psychological advantage than their opponents, who were clearly hoping to keep the masterplan under lock and key until June 3rd.