DURING last year’s hurling league, one of the standout images came off Broadway in Ennis in early March.
At the final whistle of the Division 2A final between Westmeath and Kerry, Sam Barnes from Sportsfile captured the moment perfectly, of Joe Quaid — then Westmeath manager — celebrating with four members of his backroom team.
Quaid has his eyes closed as his face is contorted in delight and elation, his arms wrapped tightly around Seán Ó Briain and Willie Banks. Ó Briain has his two feet off the ground, his mouth wide open as the joy is more graphically illustrated across his face.
Only 715 turned up to witness a classic dogfight in wind and biting rain between snow-showers, with Westmeath eventually edging the match 0-12 to 0-10.
The weather contributed to the low score, especially when the two teams had played out a high-scoring thriller (4-13 to 2-17) five weeks earlier in Tralee. But the pressure on both teams to win was immense. Because everything was on the line.
The victory secured Westmeath’s place in the top tier of the National hurling league for the first time since 1987.
Quaid, who is no longer Westmeath manager, spoke after that game of the importance he had placed on gaining promotion to the top flight. “I said to them in the dressing room before the match,” said the former All-Star goalkeeper “that this was a Limerick All-Ireland moment.”
Making that jump was all the more important again considering that Westmeath had failed to break into Division 1B over the previous years.
That would have granted them games against some of the top sides in the country — including Limerick and Galway. But the prize for securing promotion last March was a completely different windfall — in this year’s league, Westmeath will play Cork, Tipperary, Limerick, Galway and Waterford.
In that context — despite Limerick’s impressive run to last year’s league title — one of the biggest games in the top two Divisions of last year’s league was the 1B relegation playoff between Offaly and Carlow, where Carlow’s win confirmed their place in this year’s top 12.
With Division 1A and 1B being scrapped in favour of a 12-team top flight that will be split into two groups of six, Carlow will have games against Wexford, Kilkenny, Clare, Dublin and Laois.
The groups are so broadly similar that they’re like a precursor to the Munster and Leinster championships. Yet it wasn’t just the quirk of the draw because the format had been equitably planned — first in 1A, second in 1B, third in 1A, fourth in 1B, and so on.
In order to set up the new structure, there was no relegation from last year’s Division 1A. Under the old system, the bottom team in 1B went into a playoff with the winners of Division 2A, where the trend normally saw the 1B side retain their top 12 status.
Under the new format, one team will be relegated this year, which will be a playoff between the bottom side in each group. Already, the bookies have Westmeath and Carlow earmarked for the drop.
Despite the elation in Westmeath and Carlow last March after securing their place in this year’s league, they know full well what awaits. Carlow will be mindful of experiencing that potential yo-yo effect again, especially after being relegated back to the Joe McDonagh Cup in June.
Protecting the top teams in the Joe McDonagh Cup from that brutal reality is a question that needs to be answered. It is a matter for discussion, as to whether the GAA will, in time, expand Leinster to six teams, which would give counties like Carlow, Westmeath, Antrim, Kerry, Meath, Offaly — or whoever wins the Joe McDonagh Cup in the near future — the opportunity to consolidate and develop.
It will be difficult for Carlow and Westmeath to consolidate in this year’s league but, with only one county going down, the chance is there for whoever can take it. Consolidation and further improvement can then come if one of those counties can remain in the top flight over time.
It’s just brutal reality again for whoever gets relegated but finding an ideal format for any hurling competition is difficult. The new league system pretty much insulates the top counties from relegation.
Yet that was one of the primary reasons for the change — the old system was deemed too competitive, especially with the constant threat of relegation from 1A, and particularly with the new championship format moving to a round-robin system.
That security blanket that teams didn’t have in the old Division 1A is there now, but it would still be a mistake to believe that this year’s league won’t be ultra-competitive.
Teams will have more of an opportunity to experiment with game-plans and personnel, but the majority of teams will still be going bald-headed for the league.
The weather has been a factor in the league being delayed over the last couple of years but, weather permitting, six of the top teams in the country will have their league concluded by March 8 (the weekend of the league quarter-finals). That will leave more time than normal for teams to focus on championship preparation in March before players return to their clubs.
That opportunity will also be open to the top four remaining teams, with the league semi-finals scheduled for March 14-15 and the final down for March 22.
With that window in place, and with the championship still six weeks away by that stage, most teams will be chasing that final spot.