Killinan End: The League hasn’t changed perceptions
As ever, despite the changed times, the 2021 National Hurling League was a rollercoaster. Time was when a few games were played before Christmas and the competition established itself as the winter competition which gave indications about what might happen in the summer ahead, just not too many. The more successful teams in championship tended to dominate the league, not necessarily because they targeted the competition specifically, but because their natural strength found a way to come through. Even good league performers that didn’t quite make it in the championship – Clare 1977/78 and Limerick 1983/85 come to mind - left it all on the pitch come summertime when the living wasn’t easy.
The shifting of the league to a strictly calendar year affair changed the dynamics. Suddenly every weekend was sifted for meaning. The knowledge that the championship was if not around the next corner exactly, not far down the road, concentrated minds and efforts. It cemented the relationship between League fortunes and championship prospects. Tipp’s post-2008 altitude had its runway in the 2008 league success. Kilkenny’s myriad successes in September were as often as not foreshadowed by Springtimes of glory. Dublin’s sole Leinster title since 1961 came a year after league success, while Cork’s period without autumn gold has been matched by the absence of a silver Spring. Correlation is clear and we can expect league fortunes to be reflected broadly in summer.
Quite what exactly this means is another matter as we have had conflicting messages. Should, for example, Limerick burn the hurleys now and get out while they are ahead since they won only two of their five matches? They will surely hold off early retirement when they consider that the same can be said of Tipperary and Cork. Meanwhile the absurdity of it all is clear when you consider that Wexford, who had a league which wavered been poor and middling for the most part, ended quite happy with three wins. Only Kilkenny and Galway were more successful. Likewise, Clare, who had moments of impending crisis throughout the league will have reconvened this week in Cusack Park with enhanced fire in the belly. Beating Kilkenny in the manner they did coming late and strong makes them dangerous just at the right time. They can even revise their loss to Antrim with the knowledge that they were not the only team to run into problems against that opposition – so did every team.
And what of Wexford whose championship prospects were questioned here very recently? You would have to concede that they too finished strong and vigorous. You would wonder in retrospect about the authenticity of their performance against Kilkenny. Was there a measure of keeping cards close to the chest? Maybe. They will play Laois very shortly and defeat is unthinkable for them given their ambitions. But Laois gave a real account of themselves in the League too. If Wexford are primed well during these weeks a joust with Laois would be an ideal opening game if they don’t slip up. You would have to be made of iron not to salivate at the prospect of Kilkenny-Wexford if the Model county are ready.
The reaction to Cork during the league swung between the view that they were the next big thing and the sobering reality that maybe they, with their age-profile, are several years away from really short-odds. If they are capable of taking on the Panzer division that will hit them in Thurles in the Munster semi-final we might ignore their league form, but at face value it suggests they will be a mixed bag.
Tipp might be seen as the other end of that spectrum with some key men in the autumn of their careers, yet there was some infusion of new blood during the league. The experience of the last round with the pace of Waterford and power of Galway will have tempered expectation in both Tipperary and Cork.
The market-leaders, it is generally held, are Limerick and Galway. Little happened during the league to change that view. Galway, if anything, looked stronger than in last year’s championship with new energy and less reliance on the usual suspects. Limerick look as if they cruised through the league and will be happy enough that they will be their usual formidable selves in July. They are maybe the one team for which the League was not significant. All others will have looked at it for signs of improvement and development, including Waterford who be happy to have consolidated last year’s progress.
What the league does above all else is to whet the appetite for what might be ahead in the coming weeks. We might even have a league final if Kilkenny-Galway is the Leinster final pairing. Surely the league deserves better. Even allowing for the “but everyone knew this from the start” excuses it remains a disappointing end to what was a decent and entertaining competition.