The National Leagues are the most paradoxical competitions in our national sporting calendar. By definition, they provide counties with one of only two chances to secure national silverware each year. Yet, many years and for many teams, their league season is operated on a system of diminishing returns. Teams begin the season with all guns blazing as players and managements who have been side-lined from competition for up to eight months relish the opportunity to get back into a competitive environment.
As managers find or feel they have found whatever it is they are looking for from the league, teams are reigned in and the intensity can drop. Focus turns to championship and the emphasis on the league diminishes. The further teams progress, Waterford in 2017 and Wexford last year for example, the more many of them pull back. As with the examples mentioned, this policy has the potential to backfire and with the new championship format in hurling still in its infancy, managers are still struggling to find the correct balance for their approach to the leagues latter stages with the championship being just around the corner. Both Waterford and Tipperary got the balance wrong in 2018 with disastrous consequences later that summer. From this situation, there is the potential to learn as much from a league weekend in January or February as there is from a weekend of knockout games in March.
Clare and Cork are the two hurling teams who would have spent the winter period nursing the deepest regrets. Both were denied places in last year Liam MacCarthy decider by extraordinary moments. For Cork, it was Nicky Quaid’s precision flick to deny Seamus Harnedy a goal. For Clare, Aron Shanagher’s reactionary strike that somehow came back off the Galway woodwork.
These are sliding door moments.
Had Harnedy’s or Shanagher’s shots hit the net, both would have felt ultimate glory was within their grasp. Notwithstanding a decade of failures against the Tribesmen in championship games, Cork’s sense of ‘Corkness’ would have provided them with an ample supply of confidence to take on Galway in the final while Clare would have relished a final crack at their near neighbours Limerick infused with the confidence that dethroning the All-Ireland champions would have given them. So, in a parallel world, either could be taking their first steps into the 2019 season as All-Ireland champions.
But they’re not.
To be so close to the top of a mountain and not scale that summit is excruciating. Ask the Waterford hurlers from 2017 who only now, almost 18 months on from their All Ireland defeat, seem to be overcoming their particular hangover. Clare and Cork had ascended to a point where they could see the summit and were poised to plant their county flags at the top of the hurling world when suddenly they found themselves descending slowly back to base camp to join all the others again back at the start line.
Yet both Cork and Clare began their league campaigns in insipid fashion. Neither team’s season will be defined by league results and they are probably the two Liam MacCarthy teams who’s style of play and personnel are least suited to winter conditions but both will need to use the league to try and add the missing ingredients to their games that will allow them to scale the championship summit when it comes into view again.
Cork will hope that the returning Aidan Walsh and the emergence of Declan Dalton will both enable them to mix a more direct style with their current shorter style of play and also allow them to build a squad depth sadly lacking when it was called upon in last years All Ireland semi-final.
For Clare, their management showed a willingness to experiment last Saturday night that we have not always seen from this duo. The removal of relegation from Division 1A will allow teams to do this right throughout the competition. Clare are gifted with an extravagantly talented forward division with the emergence of Peter Duggan and Aaron Shanagher helping to lessen the load of hard labour that had fallen on John Conlon’s shoulders for too many years. However, issues, evident for a number of years now, are still in existence with their rear-guard. Simply, Clare need to find or at least try to find a suitable full back so they can release David McInerney from his purgatory guarding the square. This is easier said than done.
A few years ago, it was suggested, in the wake of yet another harrowing All-Ireland defeat, that over the winter, Mayo needed a find a ‘Bernard Brogan’ to get them over the line. It was, and it remains, unlikely that a Bernard Brogan doppelganger was hiding under a rock in Westport or Belmullet and similarly Clare are unlikely to find a ready-made Daithi Burke hiding out somewhere in the Burren.
So, while they may not solve the issue, they should, starting with Kilkenny in Cusack Park this Sunday, at least try. Within the panel, Jack Browne or Pat O’ Connor would appear to be the alternatives and the confidence Browne is likely to have after his excellent 2018 season may help him in bedding into the position. He may struggle physically on the edge of the square against forwards like Walter Walsh or Johnny Glynn but then all full backs are going to be at some degree of a disadvantage in the physical stakes in contests with these two. The league is the time to allow him to develop the game to minimise the impact of these deficiencies. Also, think of the impact McInerney could make as an attacking wing back and how transformative that could be to Clare’s game.
Both Cork and Clare have the potential to go those extra steps in 2019 but so too do many more as hurling enjoys a truly democratic period. With both returning to the unforgiving world of the Munster round robin series in May, where two must go, they will have to use the league wisely to ensure they do not fall into the pit which engulfed the Waterford and Tipperary teams last year having fallen just short themselves in the 2017 championships.
Tribesman and columnist for GAAWrap.ie