The hurling league is now effectively a pre-season tournament even with the threat of relegation

The hurling league is now effectively a pre-season tournament even with the threat of relegation
Tipperary's Billy McCarthy and James Maher of Kilkenny. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

IT’S far too early in the year to be assessing the prospects of those challenging for the major trophies.

In both codes, there are just three competitions on how you might be judged at the end of the season, the national league, the provincial championships and the All Irelands.

For some counties, a national league triumph would be a cause for great celebration but where hurling is concerned and the new championship schedule that has been put in place, the status of that competition has been diminished.

Both of the hurling provinces, Munster and Leinster have now opted for a Round Robin series which is effectively another league campaign with the top two in each province making it through to the final.

Let’s take our own county here in Cork. 

In the current national league, there are games against four of the counties that they will be meeting up with again in the months of May and June.

The only county that they have a championship date with and that they are not meeting in the league is Limerick who are plying their trade in 1B.

There is still the possibility of the two counties clashing in the knockout stages of the secondary competition but, as things currently stand, that’s not likely to happen.

So when you play a team that you are certain to be coming up against again in a short enough space of time there has to be some element of shadow boxing.

There hasn’t been a league game played yet in Division 1A where a county has fielded it’s championship 15 and, presumably, the same situation applies in 1B.

Last Sunday week Tipperary and Kilkenny were involved in a pulsating encounter in Nowlan Park, Kilkenny coming away with a one-point win.

Both sides wanted to win it, Kilkenny that bit more because they were more precariously placed in the league table than Tipp were.

Both counties were minus at least six or seven of what their championship line-out will be and it was very noticeable that when push came to shove in the final 10 or 15 minutes, Tipp boss Michael Ryan opted to keep two of his star players, Pádraic Maher and Noel McGrath on the line.

In many ways that decision told us quite a lot about the league this year, it’s standing has dropped a fair bit.

Tipperary are one of the counties that really have very little interest in winning the league it seems.

Preserving their 1A status and avoiding relegation are their primary priorities.

That situation could be applied to nearly all those competing in 1A, Clare and Wexford excepted on the evidence we have seen so far.

Wexford's Damien Reck tackles Shane O'Donnell. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Wexford's Damien Reck tackles Shane O'Donnell. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

They have won three of their four games to date and Davy Fitzgerald in Wexford, in particular, must be thinking that there’s a handy national title to be picked up here given how the rest of the counties seem to be treating it.

Winning a league title would be a huge thing for Wexford, a county bawling out for success and the GAA must be hoping that they reach the final.

Because if they do the capacity of Semple Stadium might well be tested on final night.

Clare have had an empty few years too since the 2013 All-Ireland victory and their followers would not say no to a league title either.

Of course, somebody has to win it and somebody has to be relegated.

The word relegation does not have a nice taste to it in any sporting arena but will there be much sleep lost in the county that does have to take that drop? The answer is very likely to be no.

After all, the league has been won over the past three years by a team from 1B and Galway’s relegation in 2016 after losing to Cork in a playoff is now seen by many as the platform for their huge successes of the following year, the league, Leinster and the All-Ireland.

Limerick might be another county thinking about outright success in the league and they seem to be motoring well even without their substantial Na Piarsaigh contingent.

The blank weekend has not helped where the league is concerned and to reach the final now a county is going to be involved over the next four weekends, next Sunday’s final round in the group stages, a quarter-final, a semi-final and a final.

And with four more big weekends coming up in the new championship format in May and June every county will be planning very carefully on the direction that it wants to travel in.

Next Sunday it’s Cork and Tipp in Thurles and with the way results have fallen, the game takes on some significance.

A Cork loss and it’s a relegation decider a week later while a Tipp loss could see them in stormy waters too.

Tipp have lost their last two competitive games to the old foe and Michael Ryan will want to put a stop to that sequence.

John Meyler has a different kind of losing sequence to halt after three losses to Wexford, Clare and Waterford.

Both combined, it certainly has the potential for a game with a bit of an edge to it.

But, at the end of the day, whether it’s a case of winning it outright or getting relegated, the league has dropped down a few rungs of the ladder.

As one scribe put it last week: The upshot of it all is that the league is the pre-season tournament now more than ever.

Whether or not that’s what everyone wanted when they voted in the new championship format, that is what it has become.

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