Christy O'Connor's hurling league preview: Early games often the highlight

Given the new format, early league encounters like Cork v Limerick are usually the best bet for early season entertainment
Christy O'Connor's hurling league preview: Early games often the highlight

Cork's Patrick Collins is tackled by Waterford's Michael Kiely in last year's league final at Semple Stadium. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton

IN the immediate aftermath of last year’s National Hurling League final, there was a photograph taken of Conor Prunty walking off the pitch in Semple Stadium, largely undisturbed he strolled to the dressingroom with the Dr Croke Cup.

Shortly afterwards, the Waterford captain was pictured from behind casually heading down the tunnel of the Kinnane Stand, holding the cup in his right arm, the blue and white ribands wrapped around the trophy touching the floor as he went.

A photograph tells a thousand words, but it doesn’t always paint the full picture either. Nobody knows what kind of celebrations went on in the dressing room once Prunty entered it, but one of the players privately said afterwards that it was muted and very calm — for a reason.

Conor Prunty of Waterford returns to the dressing room with the league trophy. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Conor Prunty of Waterford returns to the dressing room with the league trophy. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

It’s almost as if nobody is allowed to get carried away with a Division 1 hurling league title anymore, but a strict tone was instantly set by then Waterford manager Liam Cahill once Prunty entered the dressing room. Cahill more or less told the players not to look at the cup because it wasn’t the trophy they were chasing.

Setting that tone was understandable — to a point — for a side which had reached an All-Ireland final just over 15 months earlier. But that mood was also evident amongt the Waterford public.

“I know that the championship is only around the corner, but I was on the field afterwards and what really took me was that no one was getting carried away,” said John Mullane a few days later.

“Went up, collected the cup, took the pats on the back, and it was a case of we move on to championship in two weeks.”

Waterford were so locked on over that weekend that they barely celebrated the success. They couldn’t really afford to, as Cahill and Mikey Bevans had them back going hard on the treadmill again early the following week.

Players are so physically well prepared now that they could probably play another tough game again within three days. But the biggest challenge for players in an amateur game is the mental challenge of getting themselves up again so soon afterwards.


After mentally reaching such a high pitch, it’s only natural that players need to come down again afterwards. Did Cahill allow the Waterford players sufficient time to unwind after last year’s league-final performance against Cork?

Waterford performed well in their opening two round-robin games. 

Cahill’s biggest mistake was overtraining the squad in the lead-in to the Cork match. That was the gamble that forced Waterford to blow up, and which ultimately led to Cahill’s departure after three years.

Yet whatever the reasons for Waterford’s train derailing so spectacularly off the tracks, they were clearly going full steam ahead too far out from the end of the league.

They weren’t the only side caught in the same predicament. Cork had a brilliant league up until the final and then got well beaten in their first two championship matches, before getting a reprieve — possibly from Waterford’s gamble — to get themselves right back in the championship.

Wexford were the only team in Division 1 to win all five of their regulation league games but they got hammered by Waterford in the league semi-final, before only managing to win one of their first five games in the Leinster round-robin.

Wexford found some decent form at the right time, defeating Kilkenny in their last match, before rattling Clare in the All-Ireland quarter-final. But their whole league experience left Wexford with a lot to reflect on at the end of the season.

Under a new manager in Darragh Egan, Wexford needed early results to build confidence and momentum, but Matthew O’Hanlon said in October that Wexford needed to learn from the experience.

“I’m 31 next week, do I need to be playing every league game, or should I be focusing on getting ready for the championship?” asked O’Hanlon.

That viewpoint is even more relevant when compared with Limerick’s 2022 league campaign when they didn’t win a game until their last match — against Offaly — before going unbeaten in the championship.

The league was always bound to be devalued after the introduction of the round robin championship, but it had even less of a chance of being viewed as a positive once the league final was fixed for two weeks before the first round of those provincial championships.

The competition’s stock value has crashed even more after Limerick’s approach to the last two league campaigns, where their win-rate has been as low as 30%.

And yet, the great anomaly with the league, is that the most enticing and eagerly anticipated clashes take place more at the outset than at the end of the competition.


Páirc Uí Chaoimh will be rocking on Saturday night when Limerick come to town, just like the Gaelic Grounds will be in a week’s time when Clare arrive to have a cut off the All-Ireland champions.

Yet that anticipation is rooted more in intrigue and a voracious appetite for big games when hurling supporters are keen to see where their teams are at after being starved of those contests for seven months.

Some of the early action will be loaded with intensity, ferocity and high drama but the fizz will gradually dissipate once the campaign progresses and players, managers and supporters begin to fix their eyes on the championship.

Until the league format is changed, or until there is more of a gap between the league and championship, players, managers, and supporters can’t expect hurling’s second most important competition to be treated, or regarded, any other way than it currently is.

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