The always magnificent Malachy Clerkin summed it up best in The Irish Times after the Limerick game when he declared the 2022 incarnation of the National Hurling League is the “league-iest league” that we’ve ever seen.
The split season that has resulted in a much more crowded calendar and the return of the round robin section in the provincial championships has one and all faking to pretend. The systematic failures of the competition only exacerbate the matter, as the focus on events beginning around Easter means that what we’re watching now is a mere blur of technical infringements, indiscipline, and occasional flashes of form.
The current league format makes contests like those we saw down the Páirc on Saturday night inevitable. The competition lacks any form of genuine jeopardy for the more established teams; thus, they can pick and choose what they want from each game specifically without endangering themselves in any way whatsoever.
Of course, as mentioned last week, there’s a certain base level of performance that is essential to the modern game and that in itself will ensure that there is just enough drama to keep us interested as we try to decipher what everybody really wants out of it all.
Limerick’s current malaise is a direct result of this deep structural flaw. As the best team in the country, everybody is going to target them to try and ascertain where they stand in relation to the bigger picture. For practically everybody in Division 1A, Limerick was the game, whereas for the All-Ireland champions there has just been a series of games. With Offaly as their last encounter, there was never going to be any real sense of panic about retaining their status.
Seismic shocks are a rarity in the hurling world. Consecutive seismic shocks are impossible so Limerick have been totally free to take – and give – the hits with relative impunity as they try and strike the right balance that will further enshrine their immortality.
Cork got what they needed out of Limerick the weekend before last, and on Saturday night they got what they wanted out of the Galway game. They recorded another reasonably comfortable victory that now gives them a bit of time to breath before committing to what they really want out of the campaign.
The fact that we’ve only claimed four national senior titles of any kind in the last quarter of a century means that the chance of a league title can’t be sniffed at. However, were that quest to fall short a fortnight before the opening round of the Munster championship then the fall-out could make that already difficult task of progressing out of the group all the more precarious.
This again lays bare the inherent weakness of the secondary competition as the reward for success is counterbalanced by the potential for greater failure.
The phony nature of the league makes internal competition all the more important, and perhaps it is here, more than anywhere else, where the benefit of this campaign can be seen in Cork. At the moment, it is hard to figure out what Cork’s starting fifteen will be on Easter Sunday.
There is genuine competition for places all over the field. The best examples of this are the emergence of Ciarán Joyce and Dáire O’Leary at back while up front Shane Barret continues to impress while the successful return of Conor Lehane is another plus.
Throw in Ger Millerick’s return from injury, Darragh Fitzgibbon’s Renaissance and the U20 classes of 2020 and 2021 bubbling just under the surface and there’s a lot to be pleased about. The trip to Wexford Park now offers the ideal opportunity to further test the mettle of the squad.
Saturday night, however, was more about showing us what we know already. In The Echo Denis Hurley commented that it says a lot about the remarkability of Patrick Horgan that his contribution on Saturday night was unremarkable. We’ve become so accustomed to his genius that we’re in danger of taking it for granted. Yet there was something different about him too on the night, particularly in how he pilfered 1-1 from direct turnovers while Séamus Harnedy also put in his best performance of the league to date.
As ever, there was plenty of food for thought for the journey home, particularly the eighteen wides that Galway hit. There’s no doubt that Cork have put a lot of emphasis on shoring up the back so as to not to leave their full-back line as exposed as they were last August in Croke Park but permitting forty-plus shots on goal is a nagging worry, even though many of those chances were hit under pressure, and the game itself lacked the whiff of cordite that was present in the Gaelic Grounds.
The sight of the youngsters of Cork streaming onto the field after the game added to the overall feeling of satisfaction as the large attendance once again conveyed the deep longing for success that exists on Leeside.
What is certain is that Saturday night brought us one game closer to what we all long for, but events over the next three months will reveal how close we actually are.