Tuesday 23 January 2018

'Freakish' leagues produce plenty of All-Ireland posers

Ronan Curran has his hurl broken during a challenge by Tipperary'’s Lar Corbett during Cork's National Hurling League victory in Pairc Ui Chaoimh on Sunday MATT BROWNE/SPORTSFILE
Ronan Curran has his hurl broken during a challenge by Tipperary'’s Lar Corbett during Cork's National Hurling League victory in Pairc Ui Chaoimh on Sunday MATT BROWNE/SPORTSFILE
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

RULE No 1 in the championship prediction business is not to overvalue league results because they don't always provide a reliable guide. Rule No 2 is not to totally disregard league results because they can be more informative than they're given credit for.

A contradiction? Absolutely not. It's about striking a judgment balance, based on trends rather than the specifics of particular games.

For instance, Cork beat Kerry, Mayo beat Galway and Meath beat Laois in the NFL, but none of those results will have any bearing if, as is quite possible, all four have championship rematches later on.

Similarly, the demeanour of Tipperary hurlers after losing to Cork by a point last Sunday didn't suggest they felt they had handed their rivals any significant edge for the championship showdown on May 30.

However, on the reverse side, Kerry, Tyrone and Derry footballers can't be happy with a league campaign where they have won just five of 18 games between them. Three of the wins were against each other.

Monaghan are embedded in the relegation row, too, but then they were favourites for the drop from the start, so surviving in Division 1 would be an encouraging conclusion.

Then there are the contrasting cases of Tipperary and Westmeath, both of whom will be relegated from Division 2. It's about all they have in common these days. Westmeath have lost 13 successive league ties by an average of nine points per game as they spiral from Division 1 to Division 3.

Tipperary are also on their way to Division 3, but are unlucky that the fixture list matched them with Westmeath in the final game rather than earlier on. Kildare, Meath and Laois are all on six points having picked up two each against Westmeath.


Tipperary, who lost to Laois by two points and to Donegal by one, are on three points, but have yet to play Westmeath. Change the programme and it's likely that Tipperary would be on five points whereas Kildare, Meath or Laois would be on four points going into the last round. Tipperary might still end up relegated, but at least they would have a chance of survival right up to the final game.

Besides, Tipp drew away with leaders Down and beat Meath, which was encouraging. Also, they came up from Division 4 to Division 2 in successive seasons and won the Munster U-21 title for the first time, so their confidence is a lot higher than Westmeath's.

Nobody would have anticipated the relegation dogs snapping at Kerry and Tyrone heels heading into the last games - no more than Fermanagh's drop from Division 1 to Division 4 in four seasons could be envisaged.

Despite that, Kerry and Tyrone remain clear All-Ireland favourites alongside Cork. That's based on trends throughout the last decade, but, nonetheless, Jack O'Connor and Mickey Harte must have niggling little worries.

However deep their talent pool, Kerry have lost star acts in virtually every line, while Harte, who promised changes this year, would have expected far more consistency. Kerry and Tyrone ran solid league campaigns through most of the last decade and while winning the title may not have been a top priority this year, they certainly didn't expect four defeats from six games against their names.

The NFL has been accurate in mirroring Leinster's championship form. Dublin are well ahead of the rest of Leinster in the league, but elsewhere it's been a poor return. Kildare, Meath and Laois are out of the promotion race from Division 2, while Westmeath are relegated; only Wexford have a real chance of promotion from Division 3, while Wicklow, Carlow and Longford were left trailing Waterford, Clare and Limerick in Division 4.

The big surprise in the NHL is a 50pc return by Kilkenny and Tipperary from 12 games. Some are interpreting that as a sign that Kilkenny are slipping and that Tipperary aren't advancing; others claim it's just one of those freakish seasons that threw up strange results. As always, only time will tell.

However, there's no doubt that the leagues have done the championships a huge favour by questioning established perceptions. It may be no more than that, but once questions are asked, you never know what answers might turn up in summer.

Irish Independent

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