Monday, February 06, 2023

Waterford senior hurling manager Davy Fitzgerald pictured among his players prior to yesterday’s throw-in at Fraher Field. 

Photo: ©INPHO/Ken Sutton

Only the League. There is no three word sentence that has annoyed me more over the course of my 24 hugely enjoyable years in the press box than that one.

Despite the changes in the Championship system, senior inter-county outings remain limited when compared on a seasonal basis with senior rugby union clubs in the All-Ireland League. Whoever emerges victorious in the AIL will have played 20 matches to win the title. Compare that to the 14 matches – excluding replays – a hurling team can play by virtue of reaching League, Provincial and All-Ireland Finals in one season.

Even allowing for the new playing calendar, that represents just over one meaningful match a month with your county over the course of an entire year. And when one considers the preparatory workload involved in winning a panel place, let alone a starting berth, we’re still talking about slim pickings.

Try telling me that yesterday’s cracking draw at Fraher Field didn’t matter to Paddy Leavey, Reuben Halloran and Kevin Mahony, along with their families and friends. The first run-out at senior level is a day loaded with meaning, the culmination of years of hard graft since the ages of six/seven, coupled with the prospect of greater days and mightier occasions ahead. So let’s hope all three enjoy lengthy senior careers and relish the days in the white and blue as much as one can whilst in the middle of it all.

The condensed season, however, has almost certainly created a caveat when it comes to a successful League campaign. Any team which reaches this year’s Final will have a fortnight between then and the start of the provincial campaign. While matches will always trump training, the prospect of key personnel picking up injuries in the latter stages of the League now renders them massive doubts for any Championship involvement whatsoever.

Limerick’s tapered preparations last year compared to Waterford’s crash and burn Munster campaign is a little too convenient as an experiment and control model of what teams ought to be doing at this time of year. The new calendar hasn’t embedded itself sufficiently for anyone to make hay with discernible patterns emerging; indeed it may take a decade with this schedule in place to draw any significant conclusions.

The immeasurable element in all of this? The complexion of each and every match as an individual entity. After 17 minutes on Sunday, Waterford appeared to be coasting to a routine victory, leading by 1-5 without reply. Between then and half-time, Dublin struck 2-7 to Waterford’s 0-5, another reminder of how hurling, even at this time of year, reaches parts other sports struggle to replicate.

The second half was an absolute belter, a ding-dong end to end affair in which Cian Boland caught the eye for the visitors while Jamie Barron reminded the 3,800-strong gate what a joy he is in full flow.

A brilliant Austin Gleeson cameo off the bench, coupled with Waterford’s admirable resolve when reduced to 13 players following the dismissals of Jack Fagan and Stephen Bennett made ‘Only the League’ talk dissolve yet again.

No-one involved in this Waterford group needs reminding of what barometer they’ll ultimately be measured by when, years from now, they’re sat in a stand urging on their successors at senior level. A county with so little success when compared to the game’s great powers will never dismiss a League or Munster title, the latter last achieved during Davy Fitzgerald’s first term. The MacCarthy Cup is what it’s all about. They know that. We who observe and support them know that.

But if a few other trinkets are picked up along the way, such as the title Waterford are currently defending, then that’s something to be celebrated too – in time. Don’t stop believing? We never have when it comes to a team we’ll be with for life, playing a sport that continues to mesmerise. Yes, even in the League.

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