Hurling league's imbalance isn't promoting the game
Flawed system means relegation has disastrous impact
OFFICIALLY, it's a Round 5 game in Division 1 of the Allianz Hurling League, but unofficially, next Sunday's Offaly v Wexford clash is a relegation showdown.
In terms of importance, unofficial beats official all the way this time. The losers will be cut adrift at the bottom, pointless after five games and further burdened by a large scoring difference, which currently stands at Wexford -37pts; Offaly -42pts.
It's difficult to envisage much joy for Offaly (v Waterford, Kilkenny) and Wexford (v Cork, Tipperary) in their final two fixtures, so Sunday is a defining day for them, not just in this league but for 2012 and possibly beyond too.
The current promotion/relegation system is one-up/one-down in hurling, so the margins are tight for whichever county drops to Division 2. Clare were relegated two years ago, only to find the one available seat on the return boat last season occupied by Wexford, who themselves missed out to Offaly in similar circumstances in 2009.
Clare are again in contention for promotion this year but will probably lose out to Limerick, a cuckoo in the Division 2 nest. They dropped down with a second-string team last year, only to resolve their difficulties and return with a full-strength team for this campaign.
It's an anomaly, but at least the circumstances which created it were unusual, unlike the distortions which arise in the NHL structures -- in the top two divisions at least.
Leagues, by their nature, are based on promotion/relegation but they should be shaped in a way that gives maximum opportunity to everybody. That's not happening in hurling.
Division 1 is hugely competitive; so is the top part of Division 2, but it then tends to tail off.
As for promotion to Division 1, the final pairing is usually very predictable, leaving one strong county stuck in Division 2 -- there are usually two stand-out teams in Division 2 but only one lifeboat.
And since life in Division 2 is no real preparation for the championship, the system militates against counties who are too good for the second tier but not good enough to remain in the top flight on a consistent basis.
Of course, there's a counter argument which holds that it's up to teams to ensure that they survive in Division 1 and, besides, there are no complaints with the same system in football.
It's not that simple. Even if every hurling team were as good as Tipp and Kilkenny, one would still be relegated each year.
As for the football comparison, it simply doesn't stand up because the variation in standards across the divisions isn't nearly as marked as in hurling. Also, if both codes are to be treated alike, why are two teams promoted/relegated in football but only one in hurling?
Because of the wide standards differential, hurling has specific requirements which do not apply to football. That's recognised down the line in hurling where the three lower divisions work differently to football.
Groups of eight all the way through the divisions suit football but not hurling, even for the top 16. The All-Ireland hurling championship will involve 13 counties this year, so would it not be wiser to involve most of them in Division 1?
That system applied before with six teams in Divisions 1A and 1B. It was scrapped a few years ago and replaced with the current format. Granted, the two groups of six did produce some lop-sided games but there's evidence to suggest the standard in the 10 to 15 rankings has improved in the meantime.
The current eight in Division 1, plus Limerick and Clare, are an automatic fit for the top 10, leaving Laois, Carlow and Antrim as the main contenders for the remaining two positions in a two-sixes format
Croke Park is understandably reluctant to keep interfering with league structures, but better that than retaining a clearly flawed system.
And when two traditionally strong forces like Wexford and Offaly find themselves in a relegation battle in Round 5, which will have a negative impact impact on the losers for at least two years, it's impossible to argue cogently in defence of the present format.
Competitions are there to foster and promote sports but, sadly, the current NHL set-up fails that test.
Curious case of the cats . . .not being favourites
IT'S five years since Kilkenny hurlers weren't favourites for the All-Ireland hurling title at this time of the season.
Tipperary are top fancies at 6/4 with the Cats just behind them at 13/8. All rather curious since Kilkenny were favourites throughout the winter and have won three of four league games to Tipp's two (they also beat Tipp quite handsomely in the opening round).
Are the betting classes reading something into the 18-point turnaround in the Galway-Kilkenny game? And did the O'Loughlin Gaels collapse against Clarinbridge in the All-Ireland club final further weaken Kilkenny sentiment?
I'd wait for more significant pointers than those.
Perhaps Brian Cody will apply a spiritual appraisal to the conundrum when he appears on 'The Meaning of Life' on RTE next Sunday night.
Dublin's goal-fest can't hide failure elsewhere
Appearances can be deceptive. Dublin's goal-fest (12 in five games), plus some other high-scoring shoot-outs in Croke Park and elsewhere, may create the impression that Division 1 of the Allianz Football League is more productive than usual but that's not the case.
In fact, the total score is 4-2 down overall on last year's equivalent after five games.
Still, happy days for Dublin who are 5-14 (almost 1-3 per game) ahead of 2010; Kerry are +3pts, Cork -1, while Mayo have scored exactly the same as last year
The big losers in Division 1 are Galway, down 27 points, and Monaghan, down 16 points.
Galway have managed just one goal, the joint worst record with London in the entire league (Kilkenny may have conceded 18 goals but have scored five).
Galway's return is a truly shocking return for a county with a reputation for inventive attacking play. What's more, their only goal (v Down) came from half-back Gary O'Donnell.
Galway failed to score a goal in their last two championship games against Sligo and Wexford last summer, which means no forward has hit the net in eight hours 10 minutes of competitive action. Any wonder supporters keep asking about the return of Padraic Joyce and Michael Meehan?