Last month, Cork hurling manager Kieran Kingston spoke to The Echo at a time when it wasn’t an absolute certainty that there would be space for the Allianz leagues to take place before the commencement of the championship.
The delayed start to the GAA season and the desire to fit in championships at inter-county and club levels meant that the league was looking more dispensable than would usually be the case.
Given that the Cork panel that competes in the 2021 season will be quite different from that seen in 2020 – with experienced players such as Anthony Nash, Christopher Joyce, Aidan Walsh and Conor Lehane having departed – there is a need for newer players to be integrated in a fashion that will allow them to be viable options for the championship. Naturally, from that point of view Kingston was keen that there would be maximum opportunity to use the league as a test-bed for that.
“From our perspective, of course you’d love an extended national league campaign to give lads a bit of game-time,” he says.
“There’s a big gap between U20 and senior in every sense of the word. Even if fellas are physically ready and hurling ready, there’s a mental side to stepping up.
“Blooding guys in the Munster league and national league, as previously done, has been a plus, I’d put it that way. What we need a is a campaign that will give us as many games as possible as we evolve and develop
While the discovery of county football teams breaking the training ban would indicate that the playing field isn’t absolutely level – and would raise the question as to whether other counties have been training and just haven’t been caught – there is now at least some clarity on the fixtures schedule.
At the end of March, the GAA contacted counties to canvass opinion on what shape the league should take – whether the initial plan of two six-team groups was viable, meaning five games; or if a three-game programme would suit better. Almost unanimously, the support was for the five-game option, even allowing for the fact that it slightly reduces the training lead-in time once counties get back on the field on April 19. Cork will meet Galway, Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford and Westmeath.
It does mean that there may not be outright league champions – the sides topping Divisions 1A and 1B will be joint-winners unless they meet in the championship, in which case that clash will double up as the league final – but it’s unlikely that any managers will lament that too much. At the other end of the scale, the relegation final is pencilled in as a curtain-raiser for one of the All-Ireland semi-finals but, of course, if either county involved makes it to the last four then that will raise another fixture conundrum.
The logic is probably that, in such a compacted timeframe, form that is absent during the league won’t be easily found during the championship, especially with the knockout nature of the provincial championships and only one second chance for every side.
Last year, Cork experienced the sharp end of the wedge as they came in cold against Waterford and under-performed. While the performance did improve in the win over Dublin and then the loss to Tipperary, the Waterford match was the key one as victory would have sent them into the Munster final, guaranteeing an extra two games.
They will naturally hope for a favourable draw this coming week – if such a thing exists – but Kingston and his backroom team and players will at least know the layout of the season and be able to plan accordingly to produce the optimum level of performance.
Allianz HL round 1, May 8/9
Allianz HL round 2, May 15/16
Allianz HL round 3, May 22/23
Allianz HL round 4, June 5/6
Allianz HL round 5, June 12/13
Munster SHC quarter-final, June 26/27
Munster SHC semi-final, July 3/4
Munster SHC final, July 18
All-Ireland SHC qualifiers rd 1, July 17/18
All-Ireland SHC qualifiers rd 2, July 24/25
All-Ireland SHC quarter-finals, July 31/August 1
All-Ireland SHC semi-final, August 7/8
Allianz HL relegation play-off, August 7/8
All-Ireland SHC final, August 21/22