Monday 17 December 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: New order brings new problems for summer hopefuls

Jason Flynn celebrates scoring a goal against Tipperary in last year’s Allianz Hurling League final. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Jason Flynn celebrates scoring a goal against Tipperary in last year’s Allianz Hurling League final. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Jamesie O'Connor

Twenty-one years ago, on an unseasonably warm Easter Sunday at the end of March, Clare defeated Offaly in a packed Cusack Park in Ennis in round three of the National Hurling League.

Seven days earlier we had gone toe to toe, literally, with our bitter rivals Limerick. That bruising affair ended in stalemate, which meant the win over Offaly put us second in the table, a point behind leaders Kilkenny who had opened with three successive victories.

A fortnight later, it was standing room only in Athenry for another derby, this time away to Galway. Early goals - we shipped five in total - left us with a lot to do, and while we clawed our way back, we couldn't avoid our first defeat of the campaign.

Huge crowds, big game atmospheres. The problem was, by mid-April I felt like I'd already played three championship matches such had been the pace and intensity of the games. Injured and standing on the sidelines, I said as much to Ger Loughnane at training later that week. A conversation ensued and I expressed the opinion that we were expending an awful lot of energy very early in the season. Loughnane always made up his own mind on such matters, but it didn't mean he wasn't listening. Looking back, I definitely think he realised that the path we were on was unsustainable and that's why he made the decision to row back. There was no point waging further wars in April and May when he needed us fresh and with an appetite for the real battles to come in June and July.

We didn't win another game and had the league format not been redrawn, we would have been relegated. Who cared? He got it right, because by September, we had Munster and All-Ireland medals.

We are just six days from the start of the Allianz Hurling League. In Croke Park next Saturday at 5.0, Pat Gilroy's Dublin square off with Kevin Martin's Offaly. Two hours later, Cork are at home under the lights at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, where with Colin Fennelly and Paul Murphy on military duty overseas and Michael Fennelly retired, they take on what appears to be a depleted Kilkenny.

The next day, Clare v Tipperary, and Waterford v Wexford form a pair of attractive derbies, while in Division 1B, Galway and Limerick at home to Antrim and Laois respectively, will be heavily fancied to start with wins.

The league has been seriously competitive over the last decade but can it hold the same attraction for inter-county managers and players given the early start and the unprecedented changes to the calendar?

Over the last decade, the competition has stretched out over an 11 or 12-week period with no more than two rounds played in February. This year, it's condensed into nine. Teams will have four games played by the end of February and whatever pairing makes the final will have played in eight of those nine weeks. That's a punishing schedule. Then there's the added complication of the Fitzgibbon Cup. Factor in the exceptionally inclement weather, which means ground conditions can't be conducive to good hurling, and managing the first quarter of 2018 is not going to be easy.

It doesn't stop there. The revamped calendar which has cleared April for club activity complicates matters further. There won't be any club championship matches played in Clare during that month. But that's not the case elsewhere. Tipperary and Limerick, for example, plan to get at least a couple of rounds completed.

Then there's football. John and Noel McGrath have dual commitments with their club, and potentially three or four championship games to play in April as a result. That must have Michael Ryan and his strength and conditioning staff tearing their hair out wondering how they're going to manage the training load and have these guys fresh for the big games that could decide their season in May and June.

In Limerick, assuming Na Piarsaigh take care of Slaughtneil in the All-Ireland club semi-final, John Kiely won't have a considerable chunk of his panel available until after St Patrick's Day. Then, with several rounds of the club championship scheduled, he mightn't see some of those players until the end of April.

So have we gone from not enough, to too many games, especially so early in the season? And what impact is that likely to have on the league? Will it hold the same appeal? Can it be as relevant anymore, seeing as it's over and done with by March 24?

In many ways, we won't know the answers to those questions until later in the season, but its importance has to be diluted. That said, none of the counties in Division 1A will want to relinquish that status. But unlike Division 1B there are no gimmies, and big rivalries abound.

The second tier contains the All-Ireland champions, a Dublin side out to prove themselves under fascinating new management, along with Limerick, who after six unsuccessful attempts, have to be desperate to finally escape the division. But at least there is breathing room there. Galway, and Micheál Donoghue especially, won't mind the space that Antrim, Laois and Offaly in the first three rounds affords them.

The last three winners have come out of 1B, and three of the last six league champions, including Galway a year ago, have gone on to do the double and claim the Liam MacCarthy in September. Make what you will out of those statistics. Either way, much like Loughnane 21 years ago, having your key players fresh, rested and ready to hit the ground running when the championship begins in May remains the priority. The calendar doesn't make it easy and not everyone is going to get it right. There's plenty of food for thought between now and then and I'm really looking forward to it.

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