The 2024 National Hurling League Division 1 Final between Clare and Kilkenny will be played at FBD Semple Stadium on Saturday 6th April at 7.15pm

KILLINAN END - The future of League Finals

Last October, Ireland went into the World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand with justifiably high hopes. It finished 28-24 with Ireland giving as good as they got, in fact probably shading the general play in the game. The elephant in the room of course was the 13-0 lead New Zealand enjoyed early in the game. Any team that can give New Zealand a thirteen-point lead and turn it around is a very good one indeed. It was always a Himalayan prospect and so it proved.

In the more modest surroundings of O’Moore Park at the weekend something similar happened. Tipp, for the first time to this memory at least, were 0-8 to nil behind. Basic maths told you that the game was probably up even at that stage – all Clare needed to do was keep things ticking over which given the way Tipp were fouling would not be too difficult. Jake Morris’s good goal hardly got the breathing space to exist before one was conceded at the other end as the price was paid for not attacking the ball.

The surge Tipp made in the second half was both pleasing and a little worrying. It was good to see that energy levels could be lifted but equally concerning that it seemed to betray a lack of effort and intensity in the first half. Sometimes we hear about teams not being overly concerned with winning a League semi-final. Indeed, in some quarters it seems to be the mark of an ambitious team to dodge winning this trophy at all costs. Perhaps this is what half-hearted looks like? But it makes you wonder about the point of it all. Portlaoise attracted a fine crowd expecting a serious tussle, which in fairness they got in parts, but only after the actual outcome had been decided early on.

Limerick also looked like they were allergic to the prospect of a League Final appearance. Mind you, with a reputed trip to Portugal for a week’s training right now, perhaps the League Final genuinely did not suit. Whatever their mindset, their performance was lethargic and apathetic. Kilkenny, as ever, hurled the match on its merits and won well in the end. Can you ever imagine Kilkenny going 0-8 to nil behind Clare in a League semi-final?

A concern for Clare might be the utter inability of Tipperary to convert frees and what that says about Clare’s winning margin. Tipp managed just two points in the last 29 minutes of playing time and could hardly buy a score from a free at that stage, yet Clare won by just eight points. Kilkenny would have beaten Clare on those frees alone as they would score 8/9 of 10.

The League Final now takes on the form of a game Clare need to prove to themselves they can win. By many measures from the last couple of seasons the Banner County should not be falling to Kilkenny in All-Ireland semi-finals and certainly not in the submissive way that happened in 2022. To fall to another defeat two weeks ahead of the first-round game against Limerick would not be good at all for a team that has so far failed every big test put in front of it between Munster Finals and All-Ireland semi-finals.

League semi-finals (and finals) have become a curious target in the GAA calendar war. Anthony Daly has often expressed the view that the League should a ‘league’ – that is to say a round-robin where all the teams play each other. The winner in this view should be the team with the most points with no knockout element. This would reduce the League to a pre-season tournament, or a set of organised challenge matches given the months it’s played in. It’s unclear who exactly benefits. The crowd in O’Moore Park shows the thirst for knockout hurling. For all the hullabaloo about the Munster championship it does not contain an individual knockout game. Is there any harm in finishing the League with a flag-ship game at an accessible venue?

Back in 2000 a pair of League semi-finals in Thurles: Tipp v Limerick & Galway v Waterford, brought over 40,000 to Semple Stadium. Was this a problem? It is only fair to acknowledge that there was plenty of codology around the League back then too not least from Clare who became convinced it was injurious to their championship prospects. In 2001 Tipp beat Clare narrowly in the League Final with Brendan Cummins giving a match-winning performance. Just four weeks later, the teams met in the championship again with much the same outcome. The League knockout stages are perfectly fine if they can get some breathing space from the championship which hardly needs to be played as early. In the meantime, of course, if Clare are still above winning a League Final or it’s an inconvenience to them or they think there’s some hoodoo associated with winning it, there’s no better crowd to take it from them than Kilkenny.