Into the great wide open...

Every­one is fly­ing blind as the new hec­tic sched­ule places ex­treme de­mands on play­ers ... and ref­er­ees

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Malachy Clerkin

Here is what we know. We know al­most noth­ing. No change there, says you. Yeah, well you know al­most noth­ing ei­ther, ge­nius. No­body does. Not even re­ally the teams in­volved in the hurl­ing cham­pi­onship, not their man­agers, not the ref­er­ees, not the pun­dits. The sum­mer of 2018 will be dif­fer­ent to ev­ery one that has gone be­fore it. We’re draw­ing the roadmap as we go.

“I think if we’re be­ing hon­est, every­one is fly­ing blind a lit­tle bit here,” Clare co-man­ager Gerry O’Con­nor told The Ir­ish Times at the start of the year.

That was be­fore a league cam­paign that they and every­one else treated as a petri dish. Wex­ford used 25 play­ers in the spring, Gal­way used 33 – all the other con­tenders were at dif­fer­ent points on the spectrum in be­tween.

Some­body is right, some­body isn’t. Do we know which is which? We do not.

We can’t. Sit­ting here at the be­gin­ning of May, the cham­pi­onship is like one of those in­ter­minable Terms Of Use pages you click through without think­ing en route to what­ever web­site you’re after.

You sign up and sign in without a sec­ond thought and you trust that ev­ery­thing is in or­der. But do you take the time to read through it all and tease out the pit­falls and pos­si­bil­i­ties? Does any­one?

Yet the de­mands about to be placed on play­ers are gen­uinely ex­treme com­pared to what has gone be­fore.

Tough sched­ule

Wex­ford played four matches in last year’s cham­pi­onship over a span of 56 days. They will play their first four in 2018 in the space of just 20 days. Every­one else has their own ver­sion of that sched­ule change to deal with.

For two teams in Le­in­ster – and at least one in Mun­ster – the first four will be the last four. Cham­pi­onship over be­fore the sol­stice.

So how do they go about it? Re­cov­ery will be the buzz­word of the early sum­mer. At least one county has been over to a Premier League club to pick their brains.

Oth­ers have plugged into the main­frame of the pro­vin­cial rugby sides for ideas. One man­ager says pri­vately that he can see his play­ers tak­ing ev­ery Mon­day off work dur­ing the group stages.

For once, there is no tem­plate. No suc­cess­ful neigh­bours to shame­lessly copy. The time-worn GAA tra­di­tion of tak­ing what last year’s win­ners did and mak­ing that your god doesn’t – can’t – ap­ply here. You turn up your cards at the cor­ners, make your best guess as to what the oth­ers are hold­ing and push your chips into the mid­dle.

“Every­one has to have a plan,” says Derek McGrath. “Even if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean the plan was wrong.”

Feel free to mock our clue­less­ness. In our de­fence, we would know more if you could set­tle on a con­crete idea of where any of the teams are at. But with the league hav­ing been such a hotch­potch, it’s hard to be dog­matic.

Gal­way haven’t won a game of con­se­quence since last Septem­ber and still they’re joint-favourites for the All-Ire­land. Kilkenny were toast in early Fe­bru­ary and toasted by early April. Cork were a com­ing force in Jan­uary but needed to squeak through a rel­e­ga­tion play-off by the end of March. Tipp were Tipp and are Tipp – with all the good and bad that im­plies.

The Mun­ster Cham­pi­onship has never looked more like a cir­cu­lar fir­ing squad. Could you trust any of the five to win on a given day? Could you trust any of them to lose? There is the usual ex­is­ten­tial angst around the place about the prospect of dead rub­bers in the fi­nal round of games but for that to hap­pen you gen­er­ally need teams go on win­ning streaks or los­ing streaks.

Tip­per­ary are the short-priced favourites for Mun­ster but you won’t get any­one pre­dict­ing they’re go­ing to plun­der four from four. Clare are the 6/1 out­siders of the group but no­body se­ri­ously imag­ines they’re not go­ing to win their share of games. Water­ford have to travel for each of their matches – whether that’s a bless­ing or a curse will only be­come ap­par­ent as the weeks roll by.

More straight­for­ward

In Le­in­ster, it looks al­to­gether more straight­for­ward. Some com­bi­na­tion of Gal­way, Kilkenny and Wex­ford are likely to fill the top three spots in the ta­ble, with who­ever fin­ishes third hav­ing to leapfrog a team from the Joe McDonagh Cup a month later to get into an All-Ire­land quar­ter-fi­nal.

In an un­cer­tain year, it would still qual­ify as a gen­uine shock if all three weren’t still stand­ing when those quar­ter-fi­nals come around on July 15th. We might not know much but we know that, at least.

Some other bits and bobs. The thick and fast na­ture of the early weeks won’t just af­fect the play­ers and man­age­ment. Eight games a week­end from mid-May to early June means 64 ref­er­ees/lines­men/ um­pires needed in the high­est-pro­file games. That’s reach­ing deeper into the pool more of­ten than ever be­fore. It would be un­rea­son­able to ex­pect all de­ci­sions to be flaw­less – there will need to be more un­der­stand­ing than usual. Some hope.

Al­pha­bet soup

How will the al­pha­bet soup of the dis­ci­plinary sys­tem work with six- and seven-day turn­arounds the norm? Civil­i­sa­tions have risen and fallen in the time it usu­ally takes to wend your way through CCCC, CHC, CAC and DRA. There could be some sleep­less Fri­day nights.

How likely is it that a sin­gle named XV in a match pro­gramme will cor­re­spond to the one that takes the an­them? Well okay, we know that one.

Ul­ti­mately, the un­pre­dictabil­ity of it all is the best part. And the fresh­ness. Long over­due Le­in­ster cham­pi­onship games com­ing to Pearse Park for the first time. The rock­ing sum­mer town of En­nis, which has seen a grand to­tal of five hurl­ing cham­pi­onship matches this decade, sud­denly host­ing two in three weeks.

Dublin, from whom even Pat Gil­roy must be cu­ri­ous as to what to ex­pect, bring­ing Kilkenny to Par­nell Park next Sun­day – and then more im­por­tantly, bring­ing Of­faly there next month in a pos­si­ble rel­e­ga­tion de­cider.

Come July, ev­ery­thing slows down a lit­tle. Every­one can breathe and gather them­selves for the ul­ti­mate push. By then, we will know more than we do now and we can re­assess ac­cord­ingly. Just don’t let any­one tell you they know what to ex­pect be­fore then.

In this of all years, it feels okay just to not know. Free your­self. Revel in the cham­pi­onship as it presents it­self. The chance won’t come again.

The de­mands about to be placed on play­ers are gen­uinely ex­treme com­pared to what has gone be­fore. Wex­ford played four matches in last year’s cham­pi­onship over a span of 56 days. They will play their first four in 2018 in the space of just 20 days

PHO­TO­GRAPH: RYAN BYRNE/INPHO

Left: Gal­way’s Joe Can­ning cel­e­brates with the Liam MacCarthy Cup after last Septem­ber’s fi­nal win over Water­ford.

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