The GAA weekend that was: league has become pre-season
Kilkenny and Tipperary a thriller but not a classic, Leinster sides struggling in league
Tipperary’s Tomás Hamill challenges Kilkenny’s Walter Walsh. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
In the pleasantly euphoric aftermath of a thrilling hurling match, the temptation to pronounce upon it in grand terms is rarely resisted. Nothing in Irish life brings dew to the eye so readily, nor frilly words to the lips so naturally. So it may have struck some people as curious that Kilkenny’s 2-22 to 2-21 victory over Tipperary wasn’t immediately hailed a classic to pass on to future generations.
Fun, yes. Captivating and absorbing, yes, all of that. But ultimately, just a game. Come the end of the year - come the end of the month, even - nobody will remember it. That’s the reality of the league in 2018.
Mick Ryan was anything but heartbroken afterwards. He and Brian Cody had a good chuckle together on the sideline before heading in. Though the second half was frantic at times and there was no effort spared on the pitch to claw out a result, nobody was pretending that The Real Thing was on show. If Tipp and Kilkenny meet again in 2018, it’s hard to imagine much more than half the players who took the pitch yesterday being involved.
This was the restructuring of the championship in full effect. When Tipp and Kilkenny met in the fourth game of the league last year, neither manager spared the horses in selection. Both of them started 11 players who would take the field for their opening championship game later in the summer. Contrast with yesterday, when you wouldn’t be certain of many more than half a dozen on either side getting the nod come mid-May.
“We’re trying to spread the net as far as possible,” said Cody afterwards. “Lads just jump up and take their chances. It’s not just plain-sailing. Lads who played well last Sunday just don’t go out and play fantastic today. That’s not the real world. It’s all part of the education they get in these kinds of games.”
Ryan could have sent Padraic Maher or Noel McGrath into the fray at any stage if the result had mattered. That he didn’t tells you all you need to know about the league this year. For the first time in quite a while, results are secondary. Building a squad for the championship and nurturing depth is paramount.
“As I keeping saying, we are carrying almost 40 fellas,” said Mick Ryan.
“We’ve a lot of injuries, the squad is pretty depleted, at the moment, and we need everybody. We take a view that that’s fine. That’s why these guys get an opportunity to play here today. You couldn’t buy it.”
The upshot of it all is that the league is the pre-season tournament, now more than ever. Whether or not that’s what everyone wanted when they voted the new championship through, that’s what it has become.
Leinster struggles a glaring trend
February league tables aren’t usually the place to go hunting with your fine-tooth comb, never mind poring over the results for definitive conclusions. Nonetheless, there’s a glaring trend across the football leagues, which makes atrocious reading for the game in Leinster. Even in the spirit of not getting carried away with early-season results, the fact that a Leinster team fill five of the six relegation spots with three rounds to go looks ominous.
More to the point, of the five teams across the leagues who have lost all four games so far, four of them are from Leinster. Kildare are pointless in Division One, as are Louth in Division two, ditto Wexford and Offaly in Division Three. Leitrim at the foot of Division Four are the only other team not to have registered so much as a draw so far.
In fact, apart from the unstoppable Dubs on the top of the pile, the bottom division is the only one where Leinster teams are gaining any traction, with Carlow and Laois unbeaten. Wicklow haven’t managed a win yet, both their points coming from draws.
Kildare have had no luck so far, coming out on the wrong side of three one-score games and having to play 50 minutes against Donegal without their best defender Eoin Doyle after he got sent off for a second yellow on a gumshield violation. They look fairly nailed on for relegation now, with defeats against Donegal and Tyrone, two of the teams they’ll be jousting with to stay up.
As for Leinster’s supposed next-best hope, Meath find themselves in relegation trouble from Division Two after capitulating to Tipperary on Saturday night. No such hard-luck stories here. “We are very disappointed with that performance,” said Andy McEntee. “We were outplayed all over the pitch and can’t have any excuses. We have a lot to do.”
Don’t they all?