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Goal glut may point to summer of thrills

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Galway manager Anthony Cunningham

Galway manager Anthony Cunningham

Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Galway manager Anthony Cunningham

GALWAY boss Anthony Cunningham seemed to voice everyone's fears in Division 1A of the Allianz National Hurling League when reflecting on his side's loss to Waterford on Sunday.

"We're down in Kilkenny in two weeks' time, have Tipp in Salthill the week after and then we're in Clare. It doesn't get any easier," he said. "We were hoping today that teams that won the last day would kick on and win again, but it's 'even Steven' for us all."

The three Division 1A teams who won first time out – Clare, Tipperary and Galway – lost in the second round, leaving things delicately balanced ahead of the third round on March 9.

That underlines, yet again, just how competitive hurling's premier division has become since it switched to a six-team format two years ago.

Unlike last season, when the top team from 1B came up and joined the top three in Division 1 semi-finals, there is more breathing room for those with title aspirations as the top four from 1A and 1B will meet in the quarters.

But there are still relegation play-offs, so the bottom two in 1A will be fighting it out to avoid the drop. The first two weeks certainly hint that things could be as suffocatingly tight as last year.

That 10-goal showstopper between Kilkenny and Tipp has also sent expectations through the roof, but Sunday's goal-fest at Nowlan Park may prove to be a one-off that doesn't have any particular resonance for the rest of 2014. The Cats tend to bring out the best in Tipp, who scored four goals against them in the 2010 All-Ireland final. Tipp fans should also reel in their expectations after studying their league results last year.

Eamonn O'Shea's team racked up three big league scores in 2013 (4-22 against Galway, 3-19 against Clare and 4-20 against Dublin) yet, despite reaching the league final (which they lost 2-17 to 0-20 to Kilkenny), their summer was a washout.

The notion that 1A will be as tight as last year's – when Clare and Cork played in a relegation play-off that went to extra-time – also gained currency when Clare pipped Kilkenny by a point and Tipp beat Waterford by a goal margin in the first round.

The only exception was Galway's 13-point trouncing of Dublin, but Anthony Daly's side bounced back by beating his native Clare by six points.

The dramatic scoreline on Noreside played into the narrative that we are in a golden era of hurling that has never before been as free-scoring, but has it? Thirteen goals and 103 points was a considerable tally from three games, but two years ago the third round of 1A produced even more startling statistics: 17 goals and 104 points, including 11 goals in Kilkenny's 5-16 to 6-12 victory over Dublin and two goals from everyone else except Tipp.

Nine goals and 111 points were also racked up in 1A's third round last year and, two seasons ago, the second round produced 11 goals and 109 points.

The average point-scoring in 2012 was higher than last year – 100 points or more in four of the five rounds – and there was a spread of scoring, with all six teams getting goals: Cork 2-18 Dublin 2-17, Kilkenny 2-21 Waterford 1-15, Tipperary 2-20 Galway 2-18.

Reducing hurling's top league to six teams was a contentious move in 2012 that prompted serious opposition from counties like Limerick and Wexford, who felt entitled to sup at the top table.

The current format leaves little room for error and has arguably made the league more competitive than ever. It is worth noting that in 2011 (an eight-team competition) big scores and one-point games were also common. The penultimate round in 2011 produced 14 goals and 134 points.

Sunday's 10-34 thriller between the Cats and Tipp eclipsed Dublin and Kilkenny's 11-goaler in 2012 and has certainly whetted the appetite, but, as the statistics for the last two leagues show, it is far too early to regard it as a pointer of what is to come.

The most relevant and telling statistic so far is that every 1A team is on two points apiece with everything to play for.

Irish Independent