Hurling and camogie

Omens good for magical hurling Championship

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody.:Picture: Seamus Loughran.

In his post-match interview on TG4 immediately after last month's league final, Mícheál Ó Domhnaill asked TJ Reid if he thought, after losing their first two matches against Cork and Clare, that winning a league title was a possibility.

Reid instantly turned the question on its head by framing it in a completely different context, the context by which Kilkenny viewed their predicament at that point of the campaign.

"We lost to Cork by three points," said Reid.

"We lost to Clare too by only three points, and we were missing six or seven players as well. We won the league final today and still have three or four starting players to come back. There is great belief here."

A winning culture, and one that demands nothing only success, will always make Kilkenny see things differently to everyone else.

And another league title success further underlined that, while the names and the faces may change, the culture under Cody never will.

It was his 20th national senior title as a manager (11 All-Irelands, nine leagues) but it was surely one of Cody's sweetest considering Kilkenny's starting point in 2018.

After the hammering from Tipperary in the 2016 All-Ireland final, and Kilkenny's earliest exit from the championship under Cody last year, the rebuilding project clearly needed to be accelerated this spring.

That phase was heavily reconstructed with last year's U-21 panel, 15 of whom were initially assembled together as part of a training squad of 50.

Cody used 29 players in the 2017 league but a whole new roster was rolled out this spring.

Cody used 36 players, many of whom were rookies, and still managed to win the league.

Six of the starting team which defeated Tipperary in the league final have yet to play championship hurling. Seven of the players used played in last year's All-Ireland U-21 final defat to Limerick.

Two of those who started the league final - Alan Murphy and Martin Keoghan - didn't even start in that U-21 final. Murphy was third-choice goalkeeper (and a back up forward) with the senior team last year while Keoghan was still in school, having played for St Kieran's in the 2017 All-Ireland Colleges final.

Kilkenny were never going to go away but another league title, and a strengthening of their status as real All-Ireland contenders again, has added more spice to the mix of a championship already loaded with contenders.

And there is added intrigue and mystery now with a totally new championship system.

Last year's championship was a memorable one.

It was nowhere near as good as the brilliant and electric summer of 2013, but it still did contain traces of that electricity.

The novel final pairing of Galway and Waterford added to the uniqueness of the occasion but it was also a neat metaphor for so many other breakthrough and different elements of the hurling season; Wexford beat Kilkenny in the championship for the first time in 13 years; Cork had been Munster champions in 2014 but their provincial title was one of their most glorious of the modern era because it was so unexpected, beating Tipperary, Waterford and Clare along the way.

After soulless Munster finals in 2015 and 2016, the provincial decider in early July was a hark back to the halcyon days of Thurles bursting at the seams with excitement and vibrant colour.

Wexford's renaissance under Davy Fitzgerald drew the biggest crowd to a Leinster final in history.

The breathless Kilkenny-Waterford qualifier in 2013 was one of the standout memories of that championship and the two counties produced another exhilarating qualifier contest again last July, which was also decided after extra time.

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 (Offaly, Wexford, Tipperary and Waterford) 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 system will be crackling with electricity but it is also almost broken up into two separate seasons.

From when the Liam MacCarthy championship starts on May 12th until the All-Ireland quarter-finals are played on July 15th, 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 semi-finals) are condensed into the same weekend.

The change will be massive.

Last year, Waterford began their championship campaign on June 18th. By June 17th this year though, four teams (two in Munster, two in Leinster) will be gone out of the championship.

For the past two decades, almost every Munster championship game has been shown live on TV.

With such a packed schedule this year though, a host of big games will go un-seen on TV. Clare-Waterford in Round 2 hasn't made the cut. In fact, only one of Waterford's four matches (against Tipperary) is guaranteed to be shown live.

That certainly isn't appealing for a set of supporters who don't have any home games.

Tweaks to the system will have to be made in the future because flaws are already obvious in such a condensed format.

Playing the Leinster final, Munster final and Joe McDonagh Cup final (which is a curtain raiser to the Leinster final) on the same day is a disgrace, and a complete insult to hurling supporters. The GAA's reasoning was two-fold; to avoid a '6 day turnaround' in the football championship; the GAA didn't envisage the same issues of playing both games on the same day arising as might have in previous years, given the huge number of high profile hurling games staged in the provinces.

That still doesn't justify the decision to stage two of hurling's five biggest matches of the season on the same day.

It shows scant regard for all those neutral hurling supporters, many of whom make a pilgrimage from Ulster to both events each year.

The new system does guarantee far more games but hurling will still be swamped by football from July on.

The football Super 8s are definitely the elephant in the room.

That system deserves a chance to prove its merit this summer but clearing the calendar for those games should not be at the expense of hurling.

There is no doubting the huge excitement and energy that the new hurling championship will bring but their early and condensed scheduling still feels like a transaction designed to clear a pathway for Super 8s football.

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 of a hurling round robin in five weeks, just to get to this magic 'Super 8s'".

It will be a hugely exciting time for hurling but the scheduling has still made many within the hurling community feel like the game could become an afterthought to football in high summer.

The manic early intensity has certainly made it a hard championship to predict. On the night that the draws were made live on TV in October, Cyril Farrell was asked which game stood out for him.

"Clare-Limerick," said Farrell. "A tense local derby, with Cusack Park packed to the rafters."

It has the potential to be a classic but, coming in Round 4, it could also be a dead-rubber if both teams are already gone from the championship, which is possible. On the other hand, both teams could just as easily reach the Munster final.

Six weeks ago, Tipperary would have been considered the only banker to come out of Munster but their league final performance has prompted a revision. Their full-back line, especially the full-back position, remains a huge headache. They have players to return but, while their panel is one of the strongest in the country, it may not be as strong as originally envisaged.

Leinster will provide plenty of battles but it still looks more straightforward, with Galway, Wexford and Kilkenny expected to make the top three.

On the otherhand, the Dublin-Offaly game could be the biggest match in the province because the bottom team will be relegated from the Leinster championship in 2019.

Dublin had a disastrous league campaign in Division 1B but they could have a say yet in this championship if they can beat Offaly, and turn Parnell Park into the fortress it used to be. Between March 2011 and March 2017, Dublin never lost a league or championship match at the venue.

That 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. Galway-Kilkenny in Pearse Stadium (only the second hurling championship game to be played in the Stadium) could be an occasion for the ages. Both teams will be pumped beyond belief that afternoon to make a statement.

With so many intense matches, and the impact injuries may have, it's difficult to select winners but Galway and Tipperary look the frontrunners.

It will be a game of inches everywhere but especially in Munster.

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 - Tipperary, Kilkenny, Wexford, and Clare - 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?"

Despite the timing, and intense scheduling, a new championship will definitely be novel and exciting.

Ger Loughnane said on TV on the night of the league final that it is set to be "a magical championship".

It should be.

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