Wednesday 17 October 2018

John Mullane: History suggests Division 1B offers the perfect preparation for All-Ireland success

Galway captain David Burke lifts the Liam MacCarthy Cup after the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match last September. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Galway captain David Burke lifts the Liam MacCarthy Cup after the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match last September. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

John Mullane

Now that we know our two All-Ireland finalists, it's time to ask the question: 1B or not 1B?

There's compelling evidence to now question the significance of the Allianz League and where it stands in terms of future preparations.

There are pros to the league, of course, in that having a good campaign can kick-start something far greater, as Galway proved last year.

But the key point is that Galway won the All-Ireland having come from Division 1B last year, and tomorrow week's two finalists were both operating in 1B this year.

It's intriguing to note how many teams have done well and won the league from Division 1B, before going on to enjoy successful summer campaigns. Clare were the exception in 2016 but Waterford in 2015 and Galway in 2017 are cases in point.

And while neither Galway nor Limerick won the league outright in 2018, they're now ready for the biggest day of all.

Joe Canning and David Burke lift last year’s league trophy, having come through Division 1B, on the way to Galway claiming All-Ireland glory. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Joe Canning and David Burke lift last year’s league trophy, having come through Division 1B, on the way to Galway claiming All-Ireland glory. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

The beauty of Division 1B is that counties can set their stall out and get through blocks of training without too much interference and free from the spotlight of those heavy-hitting affairs in Division 1A, when points are precious.

Environment

The teams in 1B have the luxury of using their panels and trying out new things without that pressurised environment.

The four All-Ireland senior football semi-finalists are all Division 1 sides. In the big-ball code, it does seem that unless you're operating in that top tier, you won't be reaching an All-Ireland semi-final, unless you're a breakthrough team like Tipp in 2016.

Contrast this with the four hurling semi-finalists. Cork are Clare were both happy to consolidate in Division 1A, while Galway and Limerick were in the second tier.

Galway won the league title last year and it was a major momentum changer and springboard for September glory.

This time, they took a different outlook, happy enough to plod along and get through their games with minimum fuss.

Cork and their manager John Meyler beat Waterford in a relegation play-off to preserve Division 1A status, safe in the knowledge that they would be a top of-the-ground, summer hurling team.

No league title since 1998 suggests that Cork will continue along this league path.

Clare, for their part, were steadily building since that trip to Boston late last year, winning a few games early doors and then tapering off.

Galway were never on full throttle and playing Division 1B hurling was the perfect tonic following a winter of celebration.

On the back of such a gruelling few weeks - three games against Kilkenny and two with Clare - Galway might consider Division 1B hurling as their saviour if they retain the All-Ireland for the first time in 30 years.

With mental fatigue starting to creep in, you'd wonder what kind of mindset they'd find themselves in had they come into the championship off the back of a testing Division 1A campaign.

The league for Limerick, meanwhile, was all about ending that long wait for promotion back to the top flight.

The game that opened up their season and provided that feel-good factor was victory against Galway up in Salthill, where Limerick and their manager John Kiely learned a lot about themselves.

And isn't it curious and eerily similar that Salthill provided Galway with one of their biggest results of 2017, when they came from a long way back to beat Waterford in a league quarter-final.

That was the game that made Galway feel good about themselves and their chances last year.

If the All-Ireland final is in the melting pot, Limerick might just think back to Salthill this year and those battling qualities that enabled them to come from behind and get over the line.

There's recent evidence too that going hard at the league isn't necessarily a good thing when it comes to championship.

Kilkenny and Tipp met in a 2013 league final, with the Cats prevailing. Tipp went out in the championship and Kilkenny followed shortly after, in a quarter-final.

That same year, Cork and Clare contested a Division 1A relegation decider, but both counties ended up in the All-Ireland final.

Dublin also came out of Division 1B five years ago - and were close to an All-Ireland final appearance.

The flipside is the argument that Waterford not going for the league has backfired.

When we were successful in recent seasons in the championship, it usually came on the back of a strong league campaign.

And then you have Tipp, who put a lot into the last two leagues but lost both finals, which were huge psychological blows.

I could go on and on. For example, take a look at Wexford coming from Division 1B last year, beating Kilkenny in the league quarter-final and again in the summer.

Now, Davy Fitzgerald will look at 2019 and wonder if he'll go all out for the league and aim for another flying start, or keep his powder dry.

The incoming Waterford manager might also view Division 1B hurling for a season or two as just what the doctor ordered.

I have to admit that I was quick to suggest that Dublin manager Pat Gilroy might be in trouble after a disastrous league campaign but they were much improved for the summer.

A wider point is that Division 1B hurling gives you the chance to settle in with new ideas and you don't have to kill yourself to reach a league quarter-final.

The only potential downfall is financial, with county boards losing out on gate receipts against the other big counties.

That's offset, however, with the new championship system and home games.

The merits of league hurling is a discussion that will rumble long into the winter, more specifically what's the best division to play in.

One thing's for sure, this summer's results and the evidence from previous years will dilute talk of the importance of being in Division 1A. Maybe 1B is the place to be for true success.

Irish Independent

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