Odds stacked against Tribesmen retaining crown
Fancy Galway to add the Allianz League title to their All-Ireland crown?
Their 2017 form - eight straight victories and three titles from early April to early September- obviously puts them in the front row of the grid but other realities suggest it might be wise to look elsewhere for winners of the March 24 final.
Here's why. Of the last 50 All-Ireland winners, only six have followed up with a League success in the next season.
Surprise, surprise, Kilkenny did it five times - four in the last 16 years - with Galway in 1989 being the only other county to complete the autumn/spring double.
Kilkenny are the only county to have won successive League titles, with an All-Ireland in between over the last 50 years.
Does that change your view of Galway's prospects of taking the League for the 11th time?
Statistically, it doesn't look good for them, especially in an era when there's little enough between the top eight teams.
In terms of reaching the quarter-finals, Micheál Donoghue's men are in a privileged position by comparison with the six Divsuion 1A counties, where the standard is higher and more even.
That's not the case in 1B, where Galway, Limerick and Dublin will finish ahead of Offaly, Laois and Antrim.
Despite the difference in standards, four counties will reach the quarter-finals from each group.
One win (over Kerry) in 1B was enough for Offaly to qualify last year, whereas Clare missed out in 1A, despite having beaten Kilkenny and Dublin.
Encouraging teams is all very fine but it should not come at the expense of fairness, which is undoubtedly the case with the current format where a team ranked 10th remains in contention for the title, whereas the fifth and sixth finishers are eliminated.
A curious dimension has recently entered the equation, with the last three winners, Galway, Clare and Waterford all emerging from 1B.
It is coincidence or an indication that the top 1B teams are actually better prepared for the knock-out stages than those in 1A?
That might appear contradictory, on the basis that playing better sides should leave teams really sharp.
Alternatively, it may be that five high-powered challenges in fairly quick succession in 1A drains teams, whereas the more leisurely entry to the knock-out stages by the top 1B sides leaves them well-primed for the step-up.
Galway (1B) beat Waterford (1A) in last year's quarter-final while Limerick (1B) beat Cork (1A) before losing the semi-final to the Tribesmen. It's also worth noting that no team that topped 1A went on to win the title since Kilkenny in 2012.
There's a whole lot of fascinating action to enjoy before the last eight are decided on March 4.
The absence of the All-Ireland champions is a loss to 1A but it will still be mighty competitive in a group where Tipp are favourites for the top spot.
They will be very anxious to start the season on a high and with three of their five games (v Waterford, Wexford, Cork) in Semple Stadium, they have an advantage over Clare, Cork and Wexford, who have three 'away' games. Kilkenny and Waterford have three 'home' games.
It's an important campaign for Cork, who need to build quickly on the form that took them to Munster glory last year.
Remarkably, they have not won the League title for 20 years - a period in which Kilkenny have won eight times, Galway and Tipperary four each, Dublin, Waterford and Clare once each.
Winning the title this year would be the ideal way for new Cork manager, John Meyler to put down an early marker.
It's ten year since Tipperary last won the title and, in the interim, they have lost four finals. They too could benefit from a success, especially after losing heavily to Galway in last year's final.
There are plenty of people prepared to classify Kilkenny as a fading force, but those with longer memories won't join that band.
With three games in Nowlan Park, it would be a surprise if they didn't each the knock-out stages.
The big question is 1B is who takes the promotion slot? Galway are 2/5 favourites, with Limerick next on 11/4 and Dublin on 13/2. It's nothing like as certain as that.
Galway missed out last year after losing at home to Wexford, who went on to win all five games.
Limerick, who haven't been in the top flight since 2010, look the biggest threat to the dual champions.
John Kiely's ambitious squad need to make a big statement soon and will be targeting top spot in 1B as the start of a progressive process. Their clash with Galway in Pearse Stadium on March 4 will probably be a promotion showdown.
Martin Breheny runs the rule over all the Allianz HL divisions
Cork, Clare, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford .
FIVE-YEAR LEAGUE FORM
Kilkenny completed a title treble in 2014 but had to survive a relegation play-off with Clare in 2015. Tipperary lost finals in 2013-14-17. Wexford spent the last six seasons in 1B before being promoted last spring. Cork, Clare and Waterford also spent a season each in 1B before coming straight back. The latter pair won the title outright from 1B. Cork lost the 2015 final to Waterford.
The only change is in Cork, where John Meyler, senior selector and U-21 manager last year, takes over from Kieran Kingston. Brian Cody is in his 20th season with Kilkenny; Derek McGrath is in year four with Waterford; Michael Ryan starts his third season with Tipperary; Donal Moloney/ Gerry O’Connor and Davy Fitzgerald are in their second seasons with Clare and Wexford respectively.
LAST LEAGUE TITLE
Clare 2016; Waterford 2015; Kilkenny 2014; Tipperary 2008; Cork 1998; Wexford 1973.
WHO NEEDS TO WIN IT MOST?
Cork, Clare. It’s 20 years since Cork last won the League title, their longest unsuccessful run in the 92-year history of the competition. It’s only two years since Clare won the title but that was under Davy Fitzgerald so it would be significant for the Moloney/Connor model if they steered it to a title after having to survive a relegation play-off against Dublin last year.
CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?
Not since 2012 (Kilkenny) has the team that finished top of 1A gone on to win the title.
Four points (from a possible ten) is usually the dividing line between qualifying for the quarterfinal and facing a relegation play-off. Even then, it often comes down to scoring difference.
To top group: Tipperary 9/4; Cork 7/2; Waterford, Kilkenny 4/1; Clare 11/2; Wexford 14/1. To win title: Tipperary 7/2; Waterford, Kilkenny 5/1; Cork 11/2; Clare 9/1; Wexford 25/1.
Antrim, Dublin, Galway, Laois, Limerick, Offaly.
FIVE-YEAR LEAGUE FORM
Having dropped into 1B in 2016, Galway won the title from there last year but lost out to Wexford in the promotion race. Dublin dropped out of 1A last year, losing the relegation playoff to Clare. Limerick and Offaly have been permanent residents in this group for several seasons; Laois dropped into 2A at the end of 2012 but were promoted in the following season. Antrim are back in 1B after two seasons in 2A.
Pat Gilroy (Dublin) and Kevin Martin (Offaly) are the newcomers. Gilroy previously spent four seasons (2009-12) as Dublin football manager, steering them to the All-Ireland title in 2011. Micheal Donoghue is in his third season with Galway. ’Sambo’ McNaughton/Dominic McKinley (Antrim), John Kiely (Limerick) and Eamonn Kelly (Laois) are all in their second seasons.
LAST LEAGUE TITLE
Galway 2017; Dublin 2011; Limerick 1997; Offaly 1991; Antrim and Laois have no Division 1 titles.
WHO NEEDS PROMOTION THE MOST
Galway and Limerick. Galway’s failure to win promotion last year made no difference when they went on to win the League/Leinster/ All-Ireland treble but it would be an early setback if they failed to escape 1B for a second successive season. Limerick haven’t been in the top tier since 2010, the year they were forced to field a second string due to a players’ strike.
CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?
The outright winners have all come from 1B in the last three seasons (Waterford 2015, Clare 2016, Galway 2017).
Four points were enough to qualify for the quarter-finals in 2014-15-16 while two points were enough for Offaly last year.
To top group: Galway 2/ 5; Limerick 11/4; Dublin 13/2; Laois, Offaly 66/1; Antrim 100/1. To win title: Galway 10/3; Limerick 12/1; Dublin 20/1;
Laois, Offaly 250/1; Antrim 500/1
Carlow, Kerry, Kildare, London, Meath, Westmeath. Carlow topped the table last year but lost the final (and the promotion slot) to Antrim. Carlow later avenged that defeat, beating Antrim in the Christy Ring Cup final. Carlow also lost the 2016 2A final. Kerry have dropped down from 1B after losing a relegation play-off to Laois in extra-time. Meath come up from 2B. Kildare, Westmeath and London finished third, fourth and fifth respectively last year. Carlow, Meath, Kerry and Westmeath will later enter the Joe McDonagh Cup with Laois and Antrim.
Armagh, Derry, Donegal, Down, Mayo, Wicklow. Armagh have dropped down from 2A while Donegal have come up from 3A. Wicklow finished second to Meath last year but lost the final, which carried a promotion slot. Down, Derry and Mayo finished third, fourth and fifth respectively. Mayo avoided relegation after beating Roscommon in a play-off.
Longford, Louth, Monaghan, Roscommon, Tyrone, Warwickshire. This group has been increased from four to six teams, with Longford and Warwickshire coming up from 3B and Roscommon dropping down from 2B.
Cavan, Fermanagh, Lancashire, Leitrim, Sligo. Cavan and Lancashire feature this year, bringing the total number of teams across the six divisions to 35.
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