There will no quar­ter given in cham­pi­onship

Irish Examiner - County - - Sport -

LIKE ev­ery­one else, Ger Lough­nane has come around to the new hurl­ing cham­pi­onship round-robin sys­tem. On the day the pro­posed for­mat went be­fore Spe­cial Con­gress last au­tumn, Lough­nane to­tally railed against it.

He said the cham­pi­onship would ef­fec­tively be “re­duced to an earl­y­sea­son tour­na­ment” so that the main part of the sum­mer “could be left free for foot­ball”.

Lough­nane’s views of­ten os­cil­late as wildly as the wind, but on the evening of the league fi­nal last month, Lough­nane had a dif­fer­ent opin­ion on ‘League Sun­day’. “We can dis­pute the timing of it,” said Lough­nane “but it’s go­ing to be a mag­i­cal cham­pi­onship.”

It cer­tainly has that po­ten­tial. And there is added in­trigue and mys­tery now with a to­tally new sys­tem.

Last year’s cham­pi­onship was a memorable one, es­pe­cially with the unique­ness of the Gal­way-Water­ford All-Ire­land fi­nal. There were some ex­cel­lent games, but as­sess­ing the whole cham­pi­onship (ex­clud­ing the round-robin in Le­in­ster be­cause full footage from those games wasn’t shown on TV), there were 14 good games.

That is a high num­ber, con­sid­er­ing it’s taken from just 22 games, but a more foren­sic anal­y­sis shows how only seven of those 14 were of real high qual­ity.

That num­ber though, is bound to rise now con­sid­er­ing the in­crease in the vol­ume of qual­ity match-ups with the new cham­pi­onship sys­tem. Water­ford and Lim­er­ick haven’t met in the cham­pi­onship since 2011.

When Clare played Tip­per­ary last year, it was their first cham­pi­onship meet­ing since the same sea­son. Nu­mer­ous other coun­ties haven’t faced off against each other in years but that will rad­i­cally change now with four round-robin games in five weeks.

Four teams will play four games in 21 days, but such a hec­tic sched­ule will be a whole new chal­lenge for all teams. Op­ti­mal per­for­mance is pri­mar­ily based on op­ti­mal train­ing and op­ti­mal re­cov­ery, but op­ti­mis­ing re­cov­ery in such an in­tense pe­riod could de­fine some teams’ cham­pi­onship. Un­der such in­tense cham­pi­onship de­mands, squad depth will also be crit­i­cal.

The new cham­pi­onship will be electric, but some of Lough­nane’s ini­tial mis­giv­ings are still lin­ger­ing in the back­ground. For a start, the sum­mer is al­most bro­ken up into two sep­a­rate sea­sons. From when the Liam MacCarthy cham­pi­onship starts on May 12 un­til the All-Ire­land quar­ter-fi­nals are played on July 15, there will be 26 games in 64 days.

Twenty of those games will be played in­side 35 days. Yet there will be just three matches played in the last 35 days of the hurl­ing sum­mer, two of which (the All-Ire­land semi­fi­nals) are con­densed into the same week­end.

The change will be mas­sive, es­pe­cially in Mun­ster. Last year, Water­ford be­gan their cham­pi­onship cam­paign on June 18. By June 17 this year though, two Mun­ster teams will be gone out of the cham­pi­onship.

Tweaks to the sys­tem will have to be made in the fu­ture be­cause flaws are al­ready ob­vi­ous in such a con­densed for­mat. Teams hav­ing to play on four suc­ces­sive weeks is un­fair. Play­ing the Le­in­ster fi­nal, Mun­ster fi­nal and Joe McDon­agh Cup fi­nal on the same day is a dis­grace, and a com­plete in­sult to hurl­ing sup­port­ers.

The new sys­tem does guar­an­tee seven more games, but hurl­ing will still be swamped by foot­ball from July on. The foot­ball Su­per 8s are def­i­nitely the ele­phant in the room. Even Water­ford foot­ball man­ager Tom McGlinchey re­ferred to as much re­cently.

“It’s all about the Su­per 8s get­ting ex­po­sure,” he said.

“We are talk­ing about run­ning off a hurl­ing round robin in five weeks, just to get to this magic ‘Su­per 8s’”.

The manic early in­ten­sity has cer­tainly made it a hard cham­pi­onship to pre­dict, es­pe­cially in Mun­ster. Six weeks ago, Tip­per­ary looked the only banker in Mun­ster, but their league fi­nal per­for­mance has prompted a re­vi­sion, es­pe­cially with their prob­lems at full-back.

Cork will fancy their chances of pro­gress­ing, but their de­fence needs to be tighter. Lim­er­ick will be hard to crack while Clare will re­ally be in the mix if their big play­ers can stay in­jury free and if they can win their two home games against Water­ford and Lim­er­ick. Water­ford are at a dis­ad­van­tage with not hav­ing any home games, but it’s not that big of an is­sue be­cause Walsh Park doesn’t suit this side any­way.

Every team will need to get off to a good start, but it will be a game of inches ev­ery­where. Clare joint-man­ager Gerry O’Con­nor said last week that he ex­pects the top three places to be de­cided ei­ther by score dif­fer­ence or head-to-head.

In Di­vi­sion 1A of this year’s league, the top four teams were sep­a­rated by score dif­fer­ence.

“A lot of maths will have to be done at the end of the four games,” said O’Con­nor.

“Why would we think that it’s go­ing to be straight­for­ward in the Mun­ster Cham­pi­onship when it wasn’t in the Na­tional League?”

That could add an­other mas­sive layer of in­trigue, es­pe­cially for Tip­per­ary, who will be des­per­ate to get the job done early. Other­wise, they could have an anx­ious wait on June 10 (their free week­end) as the other four teams bat­tle it out on the fi­nal week­end of the Round Robin.

Every team will tar­get their home games, but the home venue fac­tor is cer­tainly one of the most at­trac­tive parts of the new sys­tem. Cusack Park in En­nis will host its first Mun­ster cham­pi­onship match in 21 years, and first real big Mun­ster game since 1993. The round four clash there between Clare and Lim­er­ick could be an oc­ca­sion for the ages.

Hurl­ing peo­ple ev­ery­where though, hope it will be a hurl­ing cham­pi­onship, and es­pe­cially a Mun­ster cham­pi­onship, for the ages.

Wate­ford’s Austin Gleeson bounces through the chal­lenge of Ro­nan Ma­her of Tip­per­ary at Sem­ple Sta­dium in Thurles dur­ing the league.

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