Hurling flying nicely under the radar, away from football chaos

Tipping Point: With no relegation from 1A to 1B, managers can ease into the season

Kilkenny’s Luke Scanlon and Cathal Barrett of Tipperary in action at the Allianz Hurling League Division 1A Final at Nowlan Park, Kilkenny last April.

So the three-handpass rule got canned. Panic over. Football is safe, the Republic will stand. A decent measure of just how unpopular it was among players and managers could be seen at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh on Saturday night where, not six hours after Central Council had dispensed with it, the teams in the Dr McKenna Cup final decided to do the same, despite having been subject to it in every game in the pre-season competition up to then. The old phrase “Would you take my grave as quick?” springs to mind.

All the hullaballoo has done a grand job of filling out the requisite rations of winter talk while everyone itches for the beginning of the real stuff next weekend. It has dictated, above all, that football has been the beginning and end of the majority of GAA conversations since before Christmas. Though balls aren’t being kicked very much, the tyres of the sport very much are. Love or hate the outcomes, that’s probably no bad thing.

Amid all the noise, hurling pootles along, minding its own business, happy and content in itself. There is no crisis of confidence, no search for identity, no drama to be found. If football is an unruly classroom, hurling is sitting quietly to one side, unruffled and ever-so-slightly smug in the quality of its homework.

The upcoming league is unlikely to change that state of affairs one iota. With Divisions 1A and 1B down for restructuring ahead of the 2020 league, there is no promotion and relegation between the two for teams to worry about this spring. Ahead of next year, the two divisions will be redrawn and mixed, deliberately diluting the strength of 1A and giving 1B an equivalent injection of oomph. The plan is to redraw them every two years from there on out.


Too real

The current format, with its six-team top division, has been distinctly unpopular with managers for much of its eight-season life, particularly since the introductions of quarter-finals in 2014. It has caused the hurling year to always begin on the “b” of the bang, whether you were ready for the gun or not. It was all just a little too real.

Oddly enough, even as the years passed and it became increasingly clear that a stint in Division 1B was far from the end of the world, it still didn't do much to lessen the breakneck speed of life in Division 1A. Waterford, Clare and Galway all won the league from Division 1B – Galway and Limerick have won All-Irelands from there, indeed. Yet none of that gave managers licence to slacken off once Division 1A hurling kicked in.

It's easy to see why. You can, of course, rebuild in Division 1B, as has been shown. Problem is, you generally have to wait until the following year to do so. In the seven seasons so far where there was relegation from 1A to 1B, only Cork in 2013 went on to make an All-Ireland final later in the year having gone down in the spring. Galway made an All-Ireland semi-final in 2016 but, for every other team whose year began with a drop in grade, the rot proved impossible to shake.

When everyone is eyeballs out from the start of the show, there is no time to breathe or think or coast

For Waterford in 2014, Clare in 2014 and Dublin twice, relegation from 1A has been the prelude to exiting the championship in Phase Two of the qualifiers. Waterford went down last year and ended up finishing bottom of the table in the Munster championship. Take out those Cork and Galway teams and no side who got relegated in the spring since 2012 has hurled past July 19th. Relegation is never a good look, even if it doesn't appear to matter a damn in the greater scheme of things.

When everyone is eyeballs out from the start of the show, there is no time to breathe or think or coast. Part of the reason the well-meaning idea of keeping April for clubs last year didn’t work out was that the top players in the top counties had just come out of a league where there was almost no respite from early January onwards.

Heavy work

Most counties did their heavy work the previous October and November in order to bank a level of conditioning that would see them through the league. Come April, their stocks of energy and inclination to engage in club championships was decidedly slim. Throw into the mix the new summer structure and it was increasingly hard to make an argument for another flat-to-the-mat league season. So Central Council rang the changes last November, to kick in in 2020.

This time around, everybody knows their business a little better. Or at least you'd imagine they should

The question now is what this means for the 2019 edition. It was never especially clear last year who was trying a leg in the league – Kilkenny seemed to back into a final almost by accident after losing their opening two games, and Tipp certainly played on the day as if they had an engagement somewhere else.

It was the first time since 2013 that neither of the league finalists made it to an All-Ireland semi-final. There was an air of unreality around it all, with more than one manager freely conceding that they were flying blind in the shadow of the unknowable championship demands up ahead.

This time around, everybody knows their business a little better. Or at least you’d imagine they should. Someone might want to have a quiet word with the Waterford player who did a newspaper interview over Christmas where he posited that it would be good to get down to the last few games in the league still in with a chance of going up to 1A. Might want to have a word with the chap who wrote the piece too, come to that.

No matter. The worth or otherwise of the 2019 league will be for each distinct tribe to decide for themselves. But although relegation will still apply from the bottom of Division 1B – as well as promotion from 2A – none of the Liam McCarthy chasers will have that on their mind. It will be a league stripped of all jeopardy.

So everyone can relax a little. Ease into the season without getting too excited. Leave that to the football crowd.