WE’ll start with a question.
Is the national league really relevant anymore, its status diminished because of the provincial championship format introduced in recent times?
Has the secondary competition gone the same way as the FA Cup has across the water, a very nice consolation prize but little sleep will be lost if it does not come to pass for the big teams?
Every inter-county manager will be at pains to stress that the league is very important, that it’s a national trophy and they want to do well in it.
They believe that success can breed success, players can build up a head of steam with a strong league campaign before the minefield of the provincial championships begin.
People will have different viewpoints on the league but once the championship starts it’s quickly put on the back burner.
It all starts tomorrow night and there’s the prospect of a fine opener in Semple Stadium between the All-Ireland champions of the past two seasons, Tipperary against Limerick.
Both sides will be missing key players, that will be the story with all the participants, players out through injury and outside commitments.
Of course, the league does provide the opportunity for some players to really state their case and to make it difficult for managers to leave them out when the championship begins.
Limerick already have a victory over Tipperary to their credit in the new season. That was in the Munster League before Christmas but nothing whatsoever should be read into that result, Tipp had a second or maybe even a third string on duty.
Limerick, it seemed, took the Munster League more seriously than the others. They gave Cork a fair trimming in the final and scored some sublime points in doing so.
Despite the fact that the pre-season competition was well down the list of his year’s priorities, Kieran Kingston was not happy with the manner of Cork’s second-half capitulation that night in the Gaelic grounds and he’ll be targeting a victory on Sunday in Walsh Park against a Waterford team hoping for a big bounce off their new boss Liam Cahill.
With Tipp coming to Cork a week later, Kingston does not want his players to be getting into a losing groove. This is Tipp’s first real game tomorrow night in Thurles since they won the All-Ireland and that in itself will create a buzz.
And the last time they met Limerick in a competitive game, the Munster final, they got a bit of a beating.
This is the perfect opener to the NHL and Thurles should have a big crowd in for this one and the outcome will be very interesting although Limerick, at this point in time, probably have more done, have a bit of momentum with them after winning the pre-season competition.
Aside from Cork and Waterford, the other game in Division 1A should be straightforward enough, Galway against Westmeath in Salthill.
Galway will want a bounce in front of their home fans under Shane O’Neill’s management and there should be only one winner here.
In fact, despite the great progress that they have made and the work going on in the county, it’s difficult to see Westmeath getting much out of this league campaign.
Galway lost the Walsh Cup final last weekend to Wexford and again we should not read a whole pile into that but new boss O’Neill will want to get things up and running fairly quickly.
After the success of their club teams in Croke Park last weekend, Kilkenny hurling seems to be in a strong place starting the new season.
It’s a super achievement for any county to have its three club representatives on the national stage all winning.
Brian Cody will probably leave the Ballyhale-Shamrocks contingent out of the plan against Dublin in their IB opener. One player we might see in the Kilkenny colours is James Bergin who starred for Conahy Shamrocks last Saturday against Russell Rovers in the junior club final.
He was outstanding in that game, scoring some outrageous points.
Every team wants a positive start to the league and in Nowlan Park you’d expect a Kilkenny win.
Clare will have Brian Lohan taking charge of his first competitive game in Cusack Park against Carlow and nothing but a home win will suffice.
And that’s what should happen. There might be a nice game in IB on Saturday night between Laois and Wexford in Portlaoise. Laois had a tremendous 2019, ousting Dublin from the championship and Eddie Brennan did great work in the O’Moore County.
Wexford won the Walsh Cup last weekend and Davy Fitz will have been delighted with that.
He has the right attitude, win everything that you can, treat every game the same irrespective of the status of the competition.
Games in any opening round are always difficult to predict the outcome of but here goes.
1. Limerick to come out of Thurles with the win.
2. Cork to take the points in Walsh Park against Waterford.
3. Galway to be too strong for Westmeath in Salthill.
4. Wexford to come out of a tough encounter with Laois in Portlaoise.
5. Kilkenny to win in Nowlan Park against Dublin.
6. Clare to be much too strong for Carlow in Cusack Park.