NHL Division 1B: All you need to know ahead of the new season
With Pat Gilroy at the helm and players returning, Dublin will be an intriguing prospect
With development potential
Despite previous forebodings that teams playing in the lower division couldn’t realistically compete against top-flight opposition, the story of the past five years indicates that of the big prizes in the game - Leinster and Munster, national league and All-Ireland - 40 per cent have been won by counties from Division 1B. That’s two Munsters, two Leinsters, three leagues and Galway’s All-Ireland last year.
Needing a good league
Two wins - one a good one in Cork in February and the other a so-so routine against Laois - were all Dublin had to show for last year’s league and championship. On the debit side were seven defeats by an average of more than 10 points. The management replacement programme was equally drastic with the importing of Pat Gilroy’s successful football structures together with former Galway manager Anthony Cunningham (himself with football credentials).
The hard work required in January has included Walsh Cup fixtures and challenge matches. A succession of players who had withdrawn have returned: All Stars Peter Kelly and Danny Sutcliffe, former captain Johnny McCaffrey and Conal Keaney among them. But the integration of younger hurlers will be of longer-term significance.
The hardest fixtures are towards the end of the schedule, which will help Gilroy get up to speed with a daunting task, as Cuala players may be tied up for nearly the entire campaign.
There is traditionally a pre-destined look to the race to avoid relegation in this division, which in recent years was alleviated by the introduction of an additional playoff, effectively requiring the 2A winners to beat the bottom side in 1B. That was discontinued last year and given that for five of the past six years Offaly have been either third or fourth in table, this season looks like a straight shootout between Laois and Antrim - the counties who when in this division have occupied fifth or sixth place in all but one of the years of the current format
Limerick have produced a number of talented young players in recent years and last autumn won their second All-Ireland under-21 title in three years. The consensus star of the show was Aaron Gillane, both the national and Munster U-21 Hurler of the Year, as well as a member of the team of the year - an honour he also received after the 2017 Fitzgibbon Cup. Usually a wing forward, accurate from play and frees, he received the praise of Limerick manager John Kiely when used in the full forwards during the defeat of Cork in the Munster League. Sure to make his league debut and take it from there.
David Fitzgerald had a point when he reckoned that Wexford’s hard start to the season last year was a tacit acceptance by the fixture makers that the county was unlikely to feature in the promotion race.
If so, it turned out to be disastrous miscalculation and the contest was effectively over in eight days at the start of the league. This time around the expected big three of Galway, Limerick and Dublin have their meetings spread at the other end of the programme, in weeks three, four and five.
The draw suggests that All-Ireland champions and league holders Galway are expected to be facing off against Limerick on the last day of the regulation season - which was exactly the same assumption 12 months ago.
Did you know?
There was a certain amount of comment last year that the counties providing the All-Ireland finalists, Cuala and Ballyea - Dublin and Clare - ended up in the relegation play-off places in Division 1A. This season for the first time in the history of the club championship, the top flight in a hierarchical league actually contains none of the All-Ireland semi-finalists: Cuala (Dublin), Liam Mellows (Galway), Na Piarsaigh (Limerick) are all in 1B whereas Derry, whose champions Slaughtneil complete in Division 2B.
This has tended to be an issue for counties below the top division, who tend to rely more heavily on leading clubs. In this instance there’ll be no great problem for Galway who had no players from Mellows on their All-Ireland winning team.