The hurling league had been going through a golden age since 2012. With the nine counties regularly feasting at hurling’s top table jousting for the six spots in Division 1A and the final three teams in 1B engaging in a mini battle for the final quarter final spot, meaningless games were virtually eliminated. However, with Galway and Limerick launching All-Ireland winning campaigns from the previously feared 1B backwater, the significance of maintaining a presence in the top division had begun to wane. In years to come, this golden age may be seen as the leagues last hurrah as a truly relevant competition.
The advent of the round robin championship system means the league will over the next few years become increasingly irrelevant. The restructuring of next year’s league competition means that the top nine established outfits will be allowed the room to use the league primarily as a testing ground for up and coming players and experimenting with varied game plans safe in the knowledge that relegation is an impossibility. The primary victims of this new system will be the teams ranked 10-12 (Westmeath, Carlow and Laois presently) for whom the concept of taking part in a competitive league will no longer exist.
Each year, we may see a new manager or a manager coming off the back of a poor championship season focus on the League and try and gain or regain favour with supporters through positive early season results but in many cases this is really just a form of managerial self-promotion and self-preservation. In reality, any of the top nine teams that target the league in the coming years will enjoy significantly positive results but these results will bear little relevance to their championship performances as the majority of others will be preparing with summer in mind. Wexford, under Davy Fitzgerald, are a clear example of this. Before the league, we looked at how this league presented Wexford with an ideal opportunity to experiment with alternative set ups and while they have used a greater number of players this season than last and inserted Kevin Foley into the sweeper role, much of the opportunity they had for experimentation has been spurned in pursuit of spring triumphs that may ring hollow come summers end.
Propaganda is amazing. People can be led to believe anything. – Alice Walker
It has been much trumpeted in the last week that during Fitzgerald’s tenure, Wexford have beaten all of the top nine teams in hurling in the League. Their win rate against these teams in league hurling stands at an impressive 63%. It is clear that Wexford’s league results over the last three seasons have been a marked improvement on what they had produced previously this decade but success in any top level hurling county (especially one building their team around a three in a row winning Leinster U-21 team) will be judged on their performances in championship. What has been less well publicised in terms of Wexford’s results under Davy is that in the same period in championship, they have managed just two wins against the top nine with a win rate of 29% in matches against this opposition. Wexford have come into the League in each of Davy’s campaigns with a championship mentality but by the time summer rolls round and other teams begin to perform at a similar pitch, Wexford have been unable to transpose their league results to championship at a comparable rate. In fact despite the perception of Davy being Wexford’s saviour purported by much of the media and having a group of successful underage players coming to fruition, their championship win rate against comparable opposition has not significantly deviated from Liam Dunne’s final three years in charge (30%). Davy may be the Wexford county boards saviour in terms of gate receipts generated from lucrative 1A games but his effect on the team has been overemphasised.
The fact that their successful U-21 players have all moved into their mid-twenties without producing material championship gains should be deeply concerning to Wexford people but in many ways this stagnation is masked by the positivity projected from what in the bigger picture are relatively unimportant League gains. Wexford meet Galway this weekend at Pearse Stadium in a league quarter final with a subsequent championship trip to the same venue in their books for May. Their current record against the Tribesmen since Fitzgerald’s appointment stands at 2/2 in League and 0/2 in championship which is a clear manifestation of how difficult it is to place a value on league successes.
Wexford’s approach bears some similarity to Galway’s own approach to the League back in the nineties when they reached five league finals in seven years from 1994 to 2000 but managed a solitary championship victory against top tier opposition in the same period. Galway’s high intensity approach to early season competition at the time was necessitated by the absence of any provincial competition for them. Presently, teams like Wexford have no such excuse and any wins they achieve against teams whose focus is elsewhere is impossible to quantify.
With the league now restructured to allow the elite to operate in a safe environment, this will increasingly be the case in the years to come.
Tribesman and columnist for GAAWrap.ie