WITH the National Football League on a break two weeks ago, and denied his usual quota of live Gaelic football, Pat Spillane sought to fill that void with hurling.
Spillane went on such a splurge that he took in the two Fitzgibbon Cup semi-finals, which were streamed live, before gorging on a multitude of live league matches over the weekend.
Unsurprisingly – despite his constant criticism of the state of Gaelic football – Spillane wasn’t impressed with the hurling he watched.
After describing the application of the rules as “laughable”, Spillane said that having no relegation from Division 1A this year had removed the competitive edge.
‘I thought I was watching a pre-season challenge game when I tuned into the Cork v Clare league tie, such was the lack of intensity,’ wrote Spillane in his Sunday World column.
‘The fans are clearly fed up, with only about 4,000 present to witness the non-event in Páirc Uí Rinn. Hours earlier, more than 7,000 watched the all-Cork Harty Cup final at the same venue.’
Spillane will always naturally be biased towards football but did he have a point?
Anoraks are always looking for something to hang a theory on and, those with an eye for detail, could have spotted a trend.
After the opening three rounds in Division 1A and 1B in 2018, there were 11 occasions when a team had hit 23 or more scores.
Yet, after the opening three rounds this year, that 23 or more scores threshold had only been breached three times, all of which had come in 1B routs. Not having relegation in 1A was always likely to dilute some of the competitiveness from previous years.
That had been evident in many games, but the low scoring totals were also reflective of that perceived drop in intensity.
The comparisons from Round 1 in 2018 and 2019 offered the starkest contrast. Last year, Wexford hit 2-20 against Waterford, Offaly scored 2-25 against Dublin, while Limerick registered 1-25 against Laois.
The Cork-Kilkenny match was played on a pitch full of sand but it still produced 49 scores from a colossal 73 shots at the target. In the opening round this year, though, only three of the 12 teams managed to hit more than 20 scores.
Three of the 12 teams failed to hit more than 13 scores on that opening weekend. In the past, players were still unfit or always playing catch-up during the spring but the body shape of many modern players is the same in January as it is in July.
Players have been in super shape this spring but with wins not as paramount as in previous years, managers and coaches have had more of an opportunity to increase training loads and experiment with personnel, tactics and gameplans.
That was reflected on the scoreboard but, with quarter-final spots up for grabs entering round 4, the trend spiked last weekend; Clare and Wexford hit an aggregate of 47 scores; Cork beat Limerick 2-21 to 1-21. Dublin-Waterford was a total score-fest, with Dublin winning 1-26 to 4-15.
Heading into the final round in 1A this weekend, all six teams are still in contention for a quarter-final spot, with Limerick the only side guaranteed to do so.
With Tipperary currently bottom on two points, they have to beat Cork in Páirc Uí Rinn tomorrow to have any chance of qualification.
Yet, Liam Sheedy said after last week’s defeat to Kilkenny that missing out on the knock-out stages won’t be a body-blow for their championship preparations.
“It’s out of our hands but if there was a year to be out of it, it mightn’t be the end of the world,” said Sheedy.
Because of bad weather, the league ran two weeks later than scheduled last year, which further condensed the club month, especially for Tipperary, who reached the league final.
Their championship preparations were further compromised with a raft of club matches fixed for that month, and then having to play four Round Robin championship matches in 21 days.
“I’ll be honest, I don’t think Mick (Ryan) or the team stood a chance last year,” said Sheedy a few weeks back. There’s no way they could have managed to play three weeks of club matches in a row and look to roll on and rock into four weeks in a row of championship.
“Let’s call it straight – 22 of the 32 counties absolutely ignored (the club month).
“Why is it that some counties inside and outside of Munster will decide, ‘Well, we won’t play any club matches’ and other counties are going to try and flog the life out of each other for three or four weeks?”
Every team has at least a one-week break in this year’s Round Robin but the Munster championship begins one week earlier than in 2018.
And every manager is already trying to ensure that April is not the impediment it was to some of them last year.
The County Competitions Control Committee (CCC) in Tipperary decided last December to play just two rounds of county club championship games (one football and one hurling) in April (prior to April 14th).
At the time, the vice-chairperson of the North Tipperary Board, Michael Tierney argued that “it will be an absolute disgrace if only one club hurling championship game is played in April”.
Tierney also added: “We are already forfeiting four of the summer months to the inter-county game. We can’t give them April as well”.
It was an issue in Tipperary last year but now that every county manager knows how cut-throat the new Round Robin championship is, they won’t want to lose sight of their players for too long in April.
The constant planning continues. Last weekend’s scorelines were more in line with what hurling supporters have become accustomed to.
The scorelines should rise again this weekend but that still won’t disguise the reality that every team is calibrating their preparations to be exactly right for six weeks’ time.