After a hurling drought, counties must take the league seriously

Almost two years since summer inter-county action, upcoming matches will allow us to gauge the likely challengers to Limerick's crown
After a hurling drought, counties must take the league seriously

Patrick Horgan on the ball for Cork last season. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

IN the days after Galway won the 2017 League, the county’s first national title in seven years, manager Micheál Donoghue found himself defending Galway’s informal post-match celebrations.

After hammering Tipperary in the Gaelic Grounds, the Galway bus stopped in Gort before travelling 10 miles out the Loughrea road to Kilchreest and the St Thomas’ club, the home of then captain David Burke.

The thrust of the criticism afterwards was that Galway allowed themselves to receive a league homecoming, hinting at them possibly not yet being prepared to handle the hype and expectation of an All-Ireland bid.

Days later though, Donoghue contextualised the supposed mini-homecoming by stating that it was an opportunity for the players to interact with their young supporters.

“We’re in this game to try to promote hurling as much as we can,” said Donoghue. “And we were happy to do that with the St Thomas’ club.”

It was an over-the-top reaction towards a group of players which had contested the 2015 All-Ireland final, and which had lost the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final to Tipperary by one point. That group had enough experience and worldliness not to be side-tracked by accusations of seemingly losing the run of themselves after winning a league title.

But that reaction also smacked of indifference around the perceived trade-off between league success and All-Ireland ambitions.

Apart from Kilkenny, who had mastered the art of winning the league and All-Ireland double on seven occasions between 2002-2014, it had been 16 years since another county had managed to win those two national titles in the same season.

Tipperary bucked that trend in 2001 but, for most of the previous decade, league success had nearly been portrayed as a curse on championship ambitions. 

Between 1992 and 1997, the league winning manager was either gone out of a job by the end of that championship campaign, or by the end of the following season.

Galway’s All-Ireland and league double in 2017 finally appeared to have changed the historical attitude towards winning the league, especially for counties outside of Kilkenny.

Wexford's Aidan Nolan with Johnny Coen and Adrian Touhey of Galway battle for the sliotar in the league. Picture: INPHO/Donall Farmer
Wexford's Aidan Nolan with Johnny Coen and Adrian Touhey of Galway battle for the sliotar in the league. Picture: INPHO/Donall Farmer

Brian Cody’s side did win another league title in 2018 before being ultra-competitive in the championship; Kilkenny lost the Leinster final to Galway after a replay, before narrowly losing an All-Ireland quarter-final to Limerick, just seven days after that Leinster final replay.

That 2018 All-Ireland win transformed Limerick into a different animal, but the project really began to take shape during that year’s league. Marooned in Division 1B for almost a decade, Limerick finally cast the chains off that spring, defeating Galway in a promotion decider in Salthill, before losing an epic league semi-final to Tipperary after extra-time.

Limerick won the league title in 2019 before narrowly losing the All-Ireland semi-final to Kilkenny, but they secured the double last year.

After winning every game they played in 2020, Limerick are now comfortable operating in a space that Cody used so well to shape and define his successful teams; winning is more than just a habit because the league also provides the ideal opportunity to foster intense competition for places.

The league has always been whatever teams want it to be — the chance to win games, to experiment with personnel, to tactically prepare for the championship, or all of the above.

It can’t be all of the above for a host of sides since the introduction of the Round-Robin championship in 2018, because teams couldn’t afford to risk leaking too much gas in the spring if they wanted the tank to be full for such a long-haul championship.

Every team is mad for road now after so long spent on the sidelines, but there has still been a sense that the 2021 National League can only guarantee so much considering the championship starts two weeks after the league concludes.

“I don’t think it (the league) will be taken seriously,” said Ken Hogan, former Tipp player and manager in February.

“I don’t think it will even come into the equation of preparing for championship, not the way things are this year.

“A challenge game behind closed doors would be seen as a more suitable means of preparation by most inter-county managers.”

Challenge games do make preparation more private, especially ahead of live TV games, but the majority of teams have only played three-four inter-county games in the last 15 months.

It’s been almost two years since counties played summer hurling. So, in that context, it’s hard to see teams holding back.

Of course, there will be some shadow-boxing, especially in the games between counties set to meet in the championship a few weeks later.

On the other hand, there are only five guaranteed meetings in the league and championship, and that’s primarily because there are five Leinster teams in Division 1B.

That leaves the potential for some brilliant contests, but there are multiple layers of intrigue around this campaign; the new rules, and how they may increase goalscoring and see a decrease around cynical defending; more substitutions allow for more opportunities for players; games played in summer conditions on brilliant pitches; with the coverage spread across TG4, RTÉ, and Eir Sport, most Division 1 games will be live on TV.

Every side will be conscious of saving their best form and peaking for the championship, but teams can’t take their foot totally off the gas either.

Because with such a quick transition from league to championship, any team struggling for form and momentum in the league will have minimal time to address those concerns and find their groove again ahead of the championship.

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