Christy O'Connor: How important is league success to league this season?

'Hurling league no longer means as much to the counties involved as it once did, and especially like it does in football.'
Christy O'Connor: How important is league success to league this season?

Cork captain Patrick Horgan leads his team in the pre-match parade before the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Limerick in Croke Park, Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

BEFORE the hurling league began in May, former Wexford hurling manager Liam Griffin said that the GAA would be better off proceeding to a round-robin championship rather than engaging in a hurling league that had no final scheduled to conclude the competition.

“I think they would have been better going straight to a round-robin championship and let teams get ready for it,” said Griffin.

“The league is just giving people matches before the championship. They want games so they’re making up games, and calling it the league, but it’s not the league without a league final.”

Whatever about the argument of the league being devalued without a final (which it absolutely was), Griffin’s point about going straight into the round-robin provincial format was well made in the context of timing.

It was even more pertinent given that the hurling league no longer means as much to the counties involved as it once did, and especially like it does in football.

Of course, teams couldn’t go straight into the cut and thrust of championship without warmup games, while it would have also removed that forum to try players which might not yet be physically and mentally ready for championship.

There was another argument to be made that it would have been better to have given hurling counties more time to prepare in May (after only going back to collective training in April), play two or three challenge games, and then go straight into the round-robin.

Before the winter championship began at the end of 2020, there were no hurling league games, which saw a revival of challenge games, all of which took place behind closed doors.

The main benefit of that arrangement was privacy. Obviously, there had to be a mutual agreement between managers that one team wouldn’t show up with a second-string just because they wanted to test them out against the opposition’s strongest 15.

There also had to be an element of trust that what went on in those games would stay between those two groups, as in if some team tried something wacky, that word wouldn’t leak out to blow their cover.

Yet that was less likely to happen anyway when it was only word of mouth because there were no TV cameras and no footage for the opposition to dissect and analyse.

All of the teams were conducting their championship rehearsals in public during the league, which will be the same in 2022. Every squad was coming from a different starting point in 2021 because of such a delayed return to collective training.

But with the round-robin being reintroduced in 2022, will teams have learned from the 2021 league and focus more on the challenge game circuit again like they did at the end of 2020?

That scope will be there for a number of teams.

The last round of regular league takes place on March 20, with the semi-finals fixed for the following weekend and the final scheduled for the weekend of April 2-3.

Those extra games will be ideal preparation, but their proximity to the championship will still be a concern because the round robin starts in mid-April.

BALANCE

That will only leave a two-week window for the finalists, while the teams which don’t qualify for the league semi-finals have an extra two weeks to prepare. Those squads will doing more loading to fine-tune their championship preparations, but it also presents the scope to try stuff in challenge games that they might not otherwise have risked during the league.

The only drawback with that approach is that the challenge game options will be restricted as teams from the same province certainly won’t want to be working on tactical tweaks that they might intend to use against the same opposition a few weeks later.

Some teams will target the league and see where that takes them, but everyone will be absolutely conscious of getting their timing precise for the championship because their season will be over in a flash if they don’t; two teams, possibly three, will be gone from the Leinster title race before May even arrives because the first three rounds of the Leinster championship are fixed for the last three weekends in April; two teams will be out of the Munster championship before May even warms up.

The flipside is that at least every county will be guaranteed four championship matches again, with five in Leinster, something that nobody was sure of over the last two years.

After playing five games in an epic 2019 Leinster championship, Wexford played just three games in the province in 2020 and 2021.

Wexford were at the heart of the incredible drama the round robin was always capable of producing in 2019, and what everyone else — especially the public — has missed in the meantime.

The apex of that drama arrived in the last round of fixtures which produced the most spine-tingling and nerve-wrecking tension imaginable at the end of the Dublin-Galway and Kilkenny-Wexford matches.

Dublin were through after their win, but Galway would have progressed too if either Wexford or Kilkenny won in Wexford Park.

The odds on Galway failing to progress were as long as 22-1 beforehand but that apocalyptic vision was soon realised when a draw in Wexford Park saw Galway become the first team to be dumped out of the championship on scoring difference.

It was cruel, but everyone really missed it.

And can’t wait to have it back.

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