Sean Moran: Waterford just the latest county to discover the unreliability of league form

There aren’t enough hurling counties to sustain two meaningful competitions

The consequences of Diarmaid Byrnes’s equalising free on Sunday didn’t immediately occur to everyone in Walsh Park but as soon as they sank in, the vista became clear. Waterford were bunched if Cork could beat Tipperary the following weekend.

How on earth could this have happened? Waterford have been freely spoken of as Limerick’s most consistently serious challengers for the past two years. Only a few weeks ago, they were comprehensively defeating Cork in the league final.

There has consequently been a focus on the unreliability of the league and how it could almost be sued for breach of promise by the likes of Waterford and Wexford.

There’s no arguing the essential truth of that but the ‘past performance does not guarantee future results’ disclaimer has always applied in the GAA’s secondary competition.

That is because different counties want different things from the league so it’s difficult to compare the merits of the teams on the basis of results and dangerous to base too much optimism on its outcome.

After all, what is the purpose of the league if not to prepare for the championship and has that changed very much down through the years? Not really. Were a glossy brochure about the competition to be produced, its large cover photograph would be of a false dawn.

Wexford went through the regulation season with an 100 per cent record, the first time in 34 years they had managed that. But once in the semi-finals they got blitzed by Waterford and head into Leinster’s final round-robin weekend as distant outsiders to secure their All-Ireland progress in Kilkenny on Saturday.

In fact for all their league success, Wexford became the first county in the round robin’s three-year history to drop points to one of the teams yo-yoing between MacCarthy Cup and McDonagh Cup status. Westmeath rallied magnificently to earn a draw but they had spent the league outside of the top 12, in Division 2A.

Did wining the league handicap Waterford by taking too much out of the tank too early as a result of requiring sharpness at the wrong time – or simply make them complacent?

If so, it would be hard to blame them for the latter miscalculation, as there was consensus that they had improved and that the new players brought in had greatly expanded Liam Cahill’s panel options.

Whereas the truth of those perceptions may appear to lie shattered in the emerging reality of the round robins, the fact is that form can be elusive and Waterford have not looked in good from since their championship began over a month ago.

Little time

One of the bigger concerns about the league was how little time there was between the final and the start of the championship. Yes it’s true that in the past such tight intervals were also possible and Waterford themselves had to bounce back from a league final defeat in 2004 to play Clare a week later but it’s different these days.

Teams aren’t simply stringing together two big matches in a fortnight but a gruelling programme that requires them to play four times in five weeks.

That has impacted heavily on Waterford. A compact fixtures schedule gives little time for teams to recover from even minor injury, suspension or in the current case, loss of form.

This disconnection between league and championship can be solved if the best teams choose to do so. After all, Kilkenny in their pomp gobbled up leagues as if they were hors d’oeuvres.

What is the main difference between the hurling league and its football equivalent, which is razor-sharp competitively and which also was gratefully won last month by All-Ireland front runners Kerry?

One is that football’s provincial championships are not uniformly taxing and certainly don’t require a team to play four of its peers in the space of a few weeks more or less as soon as the league is over.

Counties do however want to be in the top division because that’s how they maintain performance levels, competing with the best.

This is not how it works with the hurling league. For two years, in 2017 and ’18, the All-Ireland champions weren’t actually in the top division at all. This didn’t escape the attention of other counties, who agitated to lower the volume on league competition by expanding Division 1 from the top six to 12 counties, judiciously distributed into two groups.

Result: none of the top teams have the remotest chance of getting relegated and can busy themselves preparing exclusively for the championship, trying out players against weaker opponents and in general replicating what was seen as the Galway and Limerick experience of a few years ago.

Any alternative

Those who fancy a piece of silverware can take their chances but won’t be encouraged by the fate of Waterford.

Is there any alternative?

Not really. The game needs an early-season competition to provide a programme of matches for all teams. The problem is that there are just 11 MacCarthy Cup counties, a couple of whom are no threat to the established order.

Football generally has all four provinces represented in its top division – next year is an aberration after the relegation of Dublin and Kildare – and so its teams stand less chance of playing each other again as soon as the league is over.

When football had its Super 8s in the same years, 2018 and ’19, as the initial hurling round robins, the eight qualifiers changed by three or more than a third. Hurling wouldn’t have that level of churn.

The simple fact is that there aren’t enough hurling counties to sustain two meaningful competitions in the current compacted schedule.