Monday 11 December 2017

Open season: Has Galway’s shock League win paved way for most unpredictable championship in years?

Has Galway's triumph and other upsets from a real roller-coaster league campaign made the 2017 hurling championship the most unpredictable in years? There are signs of levelling standards among the top counties.

Galway captain David Burke celebrates the Allianz National Hurling League final victory over Tipperary with some delighted supporters. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Galway captain David Burke celebrates the Allianz National Hurling League final victory over Tipperary with some delighted supporters. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Tipperary's implosion in the Allianz Hurling League final has left the markets for the All-Ireland championships at their most volatile for years.

The clearest illustration of that features in Kilkenny's drift to third favourites behind Tipperary and Galway, territory not experienced in black-and-amber country since Brian Cody's first season as manager in 1999.

Events in the Gaelic Grounds on Sunday heightened the sense that hurling's leading pack are now very tightly bunched, which augurs well for an All-Ireland series already underway in Leinster where Laois, Westmeath Kerry and Meath are vying for two quarter-final places.

The margin of Galway's win over Tipperary has shocked the hurling world but, in light of history's informed contribution, it would be unwise to overvalue a result which may turn out to have had a rogue element.

A 16-point defeat for All-Ireland champions has to be seen for what it is - a one-off collapse that bears no reality to Tipperary's true status.

Galway were the first to acknowledge that, understanding that they didn't have to do anything special to record their most comprehensive ever win in a major final.

Tipperary know it too, although that in no way eased the immediate pain after being demolished in circumstances that nobody could have foreseen.

"I've played in games like that and it's not nice. It'll hurt nobody more than our players. That's not this team. It's the flattest performance we've ever produced. It's very disappointing that it comes on the day of a national final," said manager Michael Ryan.

Debris

It's unlikely that Ryan will spend much time picking through the debris from last Sunday, preferring instead to focus on what Tipperary have constructed in recent years and using it to plan for the championship, starting against Cork three weeks next Sunday.

He knows from first hand experience that one-off results cannot be taken as longer-term indicators.

He was a selector during Liam Sheedy's managerial reign when Kilkenny beat Tipperary by 17 points in a Division 1 League game in 2009. It was a dismal day for the Premier drawing heavy criticism within the county, yet six weeks later they forced Kilkenny into extra-time in the final before losing by three points.

Four months on, Tipperary regarded themselves as unlucky to lose to Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final and, a year later, won the title despite having lost the Munster quarter-final to Cork by 10 points.

Kilkenny lost the 2011 League final to Dublin by 12 points and since it had come in the year after they had been well-beaten by Tipperary in the All-Ireland final, it led to immediate predictions of a Cat-kill.

Two months later, Kilkenny beat Dublin by 11 points in the Leinster final and went on to win four of the next five All-Ireland titles.

In an age of predictable reactions, Tipperary are now experiencing just how volatile public and pundit opinion can be.

They were feted as an exceptional squad after winning last year's All-Ireland title, growing in stature as they proceeded through this season's League. Despite the fact that they beat Galway by just one point in the All-Ireland semi-final and were in no way as dominant as the nine-point win over Kilkenny in the final suggested, they were flagged as likely to be the dominant force for the next few years at least.

Throughout the League the talk was of how Ryan was giving his extended squad valuable experience, while still operating off a core plan.

Now that they have suffered a black-out against Galway in the League final, their pedigree is being questioned, with faults which infected them last Sunday exaggerated into something they are not.

Meanwhile, Galway are being hoisted onto a pedestal just two months after being widely criticised for allowing a big lead to slip against Wexford, prompting a defeat which cost them promotion from Division 1B.

And if their supporters in Pearse Stadium were asked for a quick opinion when Waterford opened a 10-point lead in the League quarter-final, it's unlikely that many would be printable.

The truth is that standards among the nine top counties are more even than for several years, which is a major boost for the championship.

Galway's win on Sunday will have sent Cork pulses racing, ahead of the Tribesmen's visit to Semple Stadium next month, especially since they also beat Tipperary in the League.

Waterford will be wondering if they would now be League champions if they had remained stable for even 10 minutes after opening up a big lead against Galway in the quarter-final.

Limerick had two disappointing days against Galway but beat Cork in between and while Clare had to survive a relegation play-off to stay in 1A, the margins are so fine in a five-game series that it would be silly to read too much into them.

Stigma

Dublin dropped into 1B, but as the last three Leagues have shown, it can be the ideal location for regaining confidence before entering the knock-out stages. Indeed, given recent trends relegation is rapidly losing its stigma.

Despite the Davy Fitzgerald suspension distraction, Wexford are heading into the championship in the most upbeat mood for years after winning promotion to 1A, beating Kilkenny in the quarter-final and matching Tipperary for an hour in the semi-final before being hit by a goal barrage.

Kilkenny will, no doubt, be surprised at their rating as third All-Ireland favourites, having had such a superior record to the other main contenders for so long.

There appears to be a view that they wont be able to regain sufficient altitude this year, but then that was also claimed at the start of the 2011 championship and proved to be totally unreliable.

Galway have been unable to beat Kilkenny in the championship since hitting them with a first-half blitz in the 2012 Leinster final. And while Tipperary beat Kilkenny in finals in 2010 and last year, they lost four championship games to Cody's men in between.

All-Ireland title odds: Tipperary 13/8; Galway 7/2; Kilkenny 4/1; Waterford 13/2; Clare 9/1; Limerick 16/1; Cork 20/1; Wexford 25/1; Dublin 33/1; Offaly 500/1.

Munster: Tipperary 11/10; Waterford 7/2; Clare 4/1; Limerick 11/2; Cork 10/1.

Leinster: Galway 5/4; Kilkenny 5/4; Wexford 13/2; Dublin 9/1; Offaly 66/1.

10 key facts from League final shock

1 Galway's 16-point win was the biggest margin in a League final since 1979 when Tipperary beat Galway by the same margin (3-15 to 0-8).

2 It was Tipperary's biggest ever defeat in an All-Ireland or National League final.

3 It was Galway's biggest ever win in an All-Ireland or National League final.

4 It was the first time in 14 League and Championship matches that Tipperary failed to score a goal against Galway.

5 Tipperary's defeat means Kilkenny remain the only county to win the League title as reigning All-Ireland champions since Galway in 1989.

6 Galway's 3-21 was their biggest ever total against Tipperary in a major game.

7 Despite winning the League title outright, Galway will still be in Division 1B next year, having lost out to Wexford for promotion.

8 Other than Kilkenny, no county has won All-Ireland and League titles in the same year since Tipp in 2001.

9 It's the third successive year that 1B teams won the League title. 1B teams Galway, Wexford and Limerick also had four wins between them over 1A opposition in the knock-out stages.

10 Other than Kilkenny in 2007 and 2011 no county has gone on to win the All-Ireland title after losing the League final since Clare in 1995.

Irish Independent

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