Has the National Hurling League structure been justified?

It seems a long time ago now but I wrote an article in defence of the National Hurling League structure prior to the league final between Tipperary and Kilkenny.

It was receiving a lot of criticism from different areas but I always felt that the system would prove to be beneficial. I did mention that I admired the system from the point of view as a fan as opposed to that of an intercounty player or manager and therefore I felt it was appropriate to see how the championship unfolded before voicing another opinion.

What has unfolded in the championship has totally favoured the current National Hurling League structure. We have seen the best hurling championship for many years and it has a lot of similarities with seasons that gripped the public during the 1990’s. That period of hurling was so well received that a book was even written and one wonders if it is possible that we are about to embark on a similar era. The new names involved in the business end of the championship are a breath of fresh air. Excellent weather and an excellent hurling championship has really led to a great Irish summer so far.

The winners of the two provincial titles in Munster and Leinster came from the so-called ‘hell’ that is Division 1B. Limerick and Dublin both came through their provincial championship and the draw certainly was not favourable to either. Limerick had to beat Tipperary and Cork while Dublin had to beat Wexford and Kilkenny, both after replays, before defeating Galway in the final. I don’t know if it was a case of both teams developing a winning mentality and momentum from playing in Division 1B but whatever happened has worked.

The majority of the hurling public would not have given either team any chance of prevailing in Munster or Leinster but they proved everybody wrong. Personally I was very surprised by Dublin but the fortunes of Limerick didn’t surprise me at all. I also fully defended Cork’s relegation saying it was by no means as negative as the majority of people were making out and the performances of Limerick had Dublin have backed this up. In an ideal world a team would like to be plying their trade at the top level but games are games and a team can learn efficiently from competitive games if they are approached in the correct way.

Another defence of the current structure can be argued in the fact that the two teams that faced each other in the Division 1A relegation play-off, Cork and Clare, will face Dublin and Limerick respectively in the All-Ireland semi-final’s. So in theory, if you look at the league, the four worst teams statically in the top tier are now the last four teams left in the championship, so how does that not complement the league structure. There is no doubt in my mind that regardless of winning, losing or drawing, it’s an ideal environment for a team to prepare for championship.

If teams are in Division 1B they can establish momentum and a winning mentality. On the other hand, teams in Division 1A have very competitive games therefore learning an awful lot about their team and players. The reality is that every game in the National Hurling League now involves teams having something to play for. Two tiers of six teams provides five very tough games. Any more teams in a league would lead to potential ‘dead rubber’ games that would be of no benefit to any team. The pace and intensity of these games was as close to championship pace as I have ever seen in the league and it can only be ideal preparation for the championship.

One big argument from management teams was that there weren’t enough competitive games this year but I argue if more games at that level of intensity are really a possibility. The small amount of teams in each tier meant that there was something at stake in every game. More teams can’t guarantee this. The sort of games that would occur would be the equivalent of challenge games. Managers should use the challenge games, outside of the league, for their experimentation and the league should remain competitive as it was this season. It was great viewing and it seems to have created a much more level playing field across the game.

It has been a great hurling season and I definitely think that the league structure has contributed a lot to the quality and excitement. There is a strong chance that the All-Ireland final could contain two teams that will play in Division 1B in 2014. I think the structure is fine for the moment and as the age old phrase goes ‘if it aint broke, don’t fix it’. Hurling finally seems to be back to a stage where various teams are competing at a similar standard and the powers that be need to keep working hard to make sure this continues.

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