ON being banished to the league's second tier last April, after a relegation play-off defeat by Galway, Dublin hurlers might have expected a new life stripped of privilege. They'd mixed in exalted company, shared in thrilling matches, enjoyed access to the best tutors. You could trace a line of improvement from promising results in the spring of 2007 to their accomplished league final victory over Kilkenny four years later.
And then, almost in the blink of an eye, the league champions were relegated. If it seemed catastrophic, that fear was based on dated impressions of life in the second division. After Dublin won the league in 2011, the old eight-county system in Division 1 and 2 was discarded, each trimmed down to six counties, leaving just five games and more intense competition. The second tier, formally named Division 1B, is no longer the home of layabouts, vagabonds and matches of sleepy inconsequence.
Dublin began their campaign with a nervy home win over Offaly last night, a hazardous foe, and they travel to Casement Park to play Antrim in two weeks, the start of four league games on successive weekends. On March 16 they have Limerick, a team considered a championship dark horse this year, in Croke Park as part of a double-header featuring the Dublin footballers against Tyrone. Wexford
host them a week later and their final game is against Carlow who count Wexford among their scalps of recent seasons.
"It's a great chance for us to get on a winning run," Anthony Daly, speaking ahead of the Offaly game last night, said. "Our goal is to get to the final and hopefully win it."
He doesn't see relegation as a worrying imposition, nor does he view that morale-lifting run he aspires to as fool's gold. "We had four seasons in Division 1. It is not as if we don't know what the pace of Division 1 is like. We were very competitive in Division 1A last year and some of those games could have gone either way. And it is not like we don't know our squad by now, who we have available to us."
Last year Clare defeated Limerick in the Division 1B final, securing promotion and a place in the league semi-finals, an added reward for winning the second tier. Later they would lose to Limerick in the championship, despite defeating them twice in the spring. Having a final at the end of a league, even a shortened league of five regulation matches, is an issue with some. "I would prefer the top team going up," says Liam Dunne, whose Wexford begin with a game in Carlow today. Three years ago they lost the same fixture and last year, Dunne's first in charge, they needed to beat Laois in a relegation play-off to avoid a drop to the third tier.
"Tell you the truth I would rather be playing a challenge game against a Division 1A team than playing the same team again (in a Division 1B final). For instance, we got beaten by Dublin in the Walsh Cup final and we could end up playing Dublin twice in the league, the second could be the final, and then we have them on June 8 in the championship as well. I would favour the old system of having the top two promoted, or at least have the top two reach a league quarter-final and maybe one promoted. But the system now needs very little to put it right.
"We will get as good games in it as that are there at the moment. The two big hitters are going to be Dublin and Limerick in the last two rounds but we have to try to get to there by beating Carlow, Offaly and Antrim and there is no point looking that far ahead. It's like being in a fog and putting on the headlights – we won't see where we are going – we need the dims on for now.
"We have prepared well. We got a great run in the Walsh Cup, four good games in a row, and we played Waterford (in a challenge) last week. We are ready for the league. Last year we steadied the ship – that is the only way I could describe it. We have changed a lot of things in the last 12 months. All through the league last year I played 20 players in each game, used all the subs. I would be looking at a different approach this year. Paul Roche is gone, Darren Stamp retired, Matthew O'Hanlon is gone for the year. Stephen Banville retired. When we are finished in the Gaelic Grounds in the last round (March 31), we will know where we are."
While Dublin had ample experience of Division 1A, Wexford's experience is more limited. In 2010, they defeated Clare in the Division 1B final to win promotion, and got a draw in the last round of Division 1A in 2011 in Thurles to secure survival at the expense of Offaly. But a rejig of structures, the reduction of the top two tiers to six counties, meant Wexford were demoted and Limerick had to stay in 1B despite winning promotion.
Limerick peddled the prospect of withdrawing from the league in protest but eventually went with the reform.
"The intensity of the game, that is what Wexford find all the time when we play Dublin, and Waterford last week, you can see the difference with teams playing in Division 1A, their movement," states Dunne. "But I've asked the players for 100 per cent commitment and I'm getting that. It's a league I'm looking forward to."
Rory Hanniffy has been hurling with Offaly since 2001, enough time to remember his county's once cavalier attitude towards the league. "You would have to say it is a very competitive league now," he says.
"When we won promotion from Division 2 in 2005, we were not up to the pace when we played championship that summer. I suppose ten years ago Kilkenny started winning leagues and bringing it on to the championship and it changed everyone's mindset about the league; up to that nobody worried about who won the league and Kilkenny changed that mentality.
"We are going in to play Kilkenny in the first round of the championship this year. Obviously they will have an advantage playing in Division 1A but I don't see it as a major disadvantage for us playing in 1B.
"You are hoping you are going to be in that Division 1B final but you are keeping one eye on the championship. It is a massive and exciting challenge to play Kilkenny. If you have any kind of competitive bone in your body at all you are really going to look forward to that match."
Offaly were relegated in 2011, having won another promotion from the old Division 2 in 2009 in a play-off final against Wexford. When Offaly bound out of Division 2 in 2005, they couldn't raise a leg against Kilkenny in the championship, losing by 31 points. "It was like playing a different game," Hanniffy recalls.
Kilkenny are still a force to be reckoned with but the margins between the top two tiers in hurling have been tightened and the distinctions made more subtle.