Sport

Christy O'Connor: Intense Leinster SHC schedule is pushing Antrim hurlers to the limits

Antrim's Seaan Elliott in action against Dublin's Danny Sutcliffe at Corrigan Park. Picture Seamus Loughran
Antrim's Seaan Elliott in action against Dublin's Danny Sutcliffe at Corrigan Park. Picture Seamus Loughran Antrim's Seaan Elliott in action against Dublin's Danny Sutcliffe at Corrigan Park. Picture Seamus Loughran

IN the middle of the championship, Antrim hurling boss Darren Gleeson naturally had to keep his emotions in check, and his wider frustrations under wraps, but there comes a tipping point in everything, especially when it comes to emotion. And particularly when there is so much at stake.

After getting hammered by Galway last weekend, Gleeson was bound to be pent-up with anger when his side were without nine players for that game through injury or illness from a relentless schedule.

"We played three games in 13 days (in the first three rounds), a 'microwave championship' was used, and then you have other teams in the same competition and they get three weeks' preparation for it," said Gleeson.

"We need to look at it. We are trying to ram our best product in the GAA into a small window. And for what? We are giving away our jewel in the crown and the space that we had for that."

Antrim's Nigel Elliott takes on Daire Gray of Dublin in their Lenister SHC opener. Picture Seamus Loughran
Antrim's Nigel Elliott takes on Daire Gray of Dublin in their Lenister SHC opener. Picture Seamus Loughran Antrim's Nigel Elliott takes on Daire Gray of Dublin in their Lenister SHC opener. Picture Seamus Loughran

The short window is tied into the split season debate and how that is affecting the promotion and exposure of the hurling championship. Are the GAA maximising such a brilliant product?

After Sunday's final round of games in Munster and Leinster, there will be just nine matches left in the Championship. And we're not even into June yet.

This was always going to be a very challenging Championship for Gleeson's side, where playing five games in 35 days, with just one free weekend, was bound to put stress on a squad not used to this level of intensity in such a short timeframe.

Injuries were inevitable. So is fatigue and attrition, both on the body and mind. Every squad is going to suffer but at least every other panel in Munster and Leinster, bar Antrim, have had plenty of experience in dealing with those challenges.

This has been Antrim's first exposure to the round robin format. This is where they want to be. The Leinster Championship is where Antrim desperately want to stay, to learn, develop and progress. But it is also a brutal arena.

In hurling, there has always been a tension in the trade-off between elite competition and inclusion, and trying to find that proper balance between competition and development. Different models have been tried over the years. Some worked, to a point. Others failed miserably, but the GAA kept trying to strike the right balance.

Teams can only improve by playing at a higher standard but restricting the Liam MacCarthy to 10 teams in the past also fostered a highly competitive platform in that chasing group ranked 11-16.

The pathway was more defined for the Joe McDonagh teams but any team promoted from the Joe McDonagh was desperate to remain in the Leinster championship.

When Leinster was a five-team province in 2019 (which was the first year the Joe McDonagh champions were promoted) how ambitious could those counties really be going forward?

"At the moment I believe Carlow are about 8-14 points behind the teams we played," said Paul Coady after Carlow's relegation from Leinster in 2019, just a year after being promoted from the Joe McDonagh. "But how do we ever get this gap closer if, in a best-case scenario, we just yo-yo up and down from Joe Mac?"

So what was the next step? It had long been a matter for discussion as to whether the GAA would expand Leinster to six teams, which would give the Joe McDonagh winners the opportunity to consolidate and develop in an expanded Leinster Championship.

That happened sooner than expected when the Joe McDonagh Cup winners (Antrim) were promoted in 2020 and no team was relegated in Leinster (there was no round robin that year), which meant that there have been six teams in the Leinster hurling championship over the last three years.

That flipside is that a six-team group has also placed incredible demands on those teams trying to consolidate and progress at the same time.

It's easy to understand Gleeson's frustration when his side were playing so often and the All-Ireland champions, Limerick, were on a three week-break.

Antrim's Neil McManus battles with Dublin's Chris O'Leary, Cian Boland, and Paddy Smyth. Picture Seamus Loughran
Antrim's Neil McManus battles with Dublin's Chris O'Leary, Cian Boland, and Paddy Smyth. Picture Seamus Loughran Antrim's Neil McManus battles with Dublin's Chris O'Leary, Cian Boland, and Paddy Smyth. Picture Seamus Loughran

Yet that is just the way the format rolled for Limerick this year as every team has had a three-week break in the Munster round robin at some stage since 2019. Clare had it that year, Waterford had it last year, while Cork will have that three-week break next season.

Clare did have a two-week break in this Munster championship but their schedule was still relentless. After losing to Tipperary in the first round, they had to go to Limerick six days later with their season on the line, before having to play Waterford and Cork (with their season still on the line) within the space of eight days.

Having one less team in Munster still allows for more scheduling leeway than in Leinster, especially when both competitions start and finish at the same time.

Gleeson did say last week that Antrim should have had their business done earlier, which would have prevented the straight shoot-out now on Sunday against Westmeath to stay in the province.

Antrim should have beaten Dublin. If they had, they'd still need something from Sunday's match. But it would be less stressful than having to go to Cusack Park and beat a team on a high after taking out Wexford last weekend.

Westmeath also have hardened experience of this terrain, having beaten Laois in their last round robin game last year to retain their place in Leinster.

However, this is not exactly the straight relegation survival game everyone expected it to be at the outset of the Championship. If Antrim win and Wexford lose to Kilkenny, Wexford will be relegated.

Westmeath need to win or draw to be sure of survival but last week's incredible win has shown how much a Joe McDonagh team has been able to consolidate their position in Leinster.

Can Antrim do the same now? They have to win. If they do, and Kilkenny also win, Wexford will be relegated.

For a side with such a deep historical and emotional connection to the Leinster Championship, how brutal and unforgiving will that be for Wexford?