The John Horgan column: Is the hurling league less relevant this season?

The John Horgan column: Is the hurling league less relevant this season?
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

IS THE National League of any great relevance anymore given the new format of the provincial championship in Munster and Leinster?

That is a question being posed more frequently now with all the counties putting their eggs into the championship basket in trying to ensure that they are among the three that qualifies for the All-Ireland series.

The National League is definitely diminished in status but that’s not saying it should be disregarded either.

Liam Blanchfield of Kilkenny is fouled by Sean O'Brien of Tipperary in last year's league final. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Liam Blanchfield of Kilkenny is fouled by Sean O'Brien of Tipperary in last year's league final. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

After all, there are only two national trophies on offer each season and for some counties winning a league title can be a springboard to something bigger later on.

There is a great emphasis now on the depth of resources available to each county, some have squads deeper than others which provides them with the opportunity of fielding stronger starting 15s in the secondary competition.

Some might suggest that winning the league can lessen your championship chances but it’s difficult to go along with a theory like that.

Cork manager John Meyler.  Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Cork manager John Meyler.  Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

When did winning ever do any harm?

Staying in the top-flight has been a priority in the past and avoiding relegation but that’s not the case this time as there is no relegation because of the fact that the format of the competition is going to be changed significantly in 2020.

That might have an effect on things too and lead to a lesser competitive environment.

Anyway, it all starts this weekend with three potentially very good games in Division 1A, Clare going to Thurles on Saturday night to face Tipp, Cork travelling to Nowlan Park the following day to tackle the Cats and Wexford hosting Limerick in Wexford Park.

Given how well the pre-season competitions, the Walsh Cup and Munster League were attended, there is an obvious appetite among the general public for the games involving the top counties and you may well get very high returns at all the venues this weekend.

Clare have already secured some bragging rights over Tipperary by comprehensively defeating them in the Munster League final last Sunday week and if they were to repeat that win in Semple Stadium some of the feelgood factors that accompanied the return of Liam Sheedy in the Premier County might diminish a bit.

A successful manager going back for a second stint provides absolutely no guarantees at all.

It might have only been a pre-season game but that heavy loss did not sit easily with some Tipp supporters, supporters who are very fickle at the best of times.

How Sheedy and his players react in this game on Saturday night will be very interesting, all the more so in front of their home fans. 

Clare's Ryan Taylor and Robert Byrne of Tipperary. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Clare's Ryan Taylor and Robert Byrne of Tipperary. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Twelve months ago, Kilkenny came to Leeside and lost their league opener to Cork.

That was followed by a loss to Clare and all of a sudden they were being heavily touted as relegation candidates.

Well, look what transpired thereafter, they end up winning the league.

Nowlan Park has not always been a happy hunting ground for Cork teams in the past and more often than not you come away empty-handed.

This is Brian Cody’s 21st year at the helm, a phenomenal record by any standards and as he said on RTÉ radio last Sunday in the aftermath of losing to arch-rivals Wexford in the Walsh Cup, he still retains the enthusiasm that has set him apart.

Cody hates losing, a loss in a game of Scrabble would annoy him so he’ll be anxious to get back on the winning trail against Cork.

A betting man would probably put his few bob on them doing so.

The biggest crowd of the weekend may well be in Wexford Park for the visit of the All-Ireland champions from Shannonside.

Wexford have probably the most passionate supporters in the game, they cry out for success down there and Davy Fitzgerald will have them all fired up here.

They have had two good outings in the Walsh Cup against Kilkenny and Galway while, Limerick, in stark contrast, have probably had the least preparation of all the six competing counties in Division 1A.

One is inclined to think that the league will not be a priority for Limerick.

The fact that all the Munster counties bar Waterford are in Division 1A and that they will all be facing each other again very shortly afterwards in far more important assignments adds more intrigue to the situation.

So there is an obvious thought of mind games and shadow-boxing coming into play.

Division 1B has plenty of potential too with Waterford, Galway and Dublin operating from it.

Again, with no promotion involved, the intensity levels might not be as great.

At the same time, there should be some cracking games between the three counties and Offaly and Laois might throw a spanner in the works along the way.

For the record, the second round games in Division 1A feature Limerick at home to Tipperary, Clare at home to Kilkenny and Cork hosting Wexford in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Again, three games with plenty of potential when we should be that much wiser after the first round encounters are sorted.

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