Could this be the best hurling championship in years?

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Yeah, we know. There you’ve been extolling the virtues of the hurling league so far. There you’ve been, gazing at the game, dreaming of all sorts of possibilities, like a Limerick Wexford league final, and at the end of it, it’s the old firm who end up together again. Like the 2002 World Cup, which was the so called “tournament of the underdog” and yet finished with a final of Brazil and Germany, you can’t keep the old order under wraps. The underdogs gave it their best shot, but the empire has struck back again. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

And yet….and yet….anybody who has watched any league hurling over the past 10 weeks, will know that the composition of the final pairing does not really tell the full story, of what kind of spring campaign this has been. Sure, Wexford and Limerick were beaten at the weekend, but they’ve contributed massively to what has been one of the most enjoyable leagues I can remember.

Despite their most recent loss, Limerick have been the team of the Spring. Their initial four games were pummellings. Laois, Antrim, Offaly and Dublin faced up to them to give their best shot , but really, the Treaty were just sharpening their blades for what was to be the real showdown against Galway in Pearse Stadium. And they managed to produce one of the all time great League comebacks when overturning an 8 point deficit in the first half to squeak home at the death.

If you thought that game was dramatic though then things were just getting started. Because whatever about coming back from 8 points behind to win away against Galway, their clash against Clare on the St Patrick’s Day Bank holiday defied all logic. The teams were so evenly matched that they couldn’t be seperated after 2 periods of extra time and it was only the highly unusual, and lets be honest, deeply ridiculous free-taking competition, that decided the issue.

After those 2 unbelievable clashes you’d imagine their semi-final against Tipperary would never fall along the same lines. And yet, almost incredulously, it very nearly did so, with the sides only being separated after 90 pulsating minutes, and a scarcely believable, 65 scores. John Kiely may not have won any silverware this Spring, but from an exceptionally low base, the supporters have now found a team to believe in.

That was only one plotline that simmered during the spring though. Clare will be disappointed about how their campaign finished against Limerick but they showed more than enough in their first 3 games to indicate they will be a force to be reckoned with come summer time. Davy Fitzgerald will be bitterly disappointed about how Wexford folded in their final league game against Kilkenny, but they were highly impressive in their first six games, winning 4. Tipperary and Kilkenny may have reached the final, but neither were particularly comfortable in any of their games and rarely won by double figures. Indeed the whole division was so finely balanced that the top side in it-Tipperary-could only manage 3 wins from their 5 fixtures.

Cork and Waterford both seemed to be suffering collective hangovers from their extended runs in the championship last year, but in Division 1B there was an uprising occurring in Offaly. Kevin Martin’s side probably had the biggest shock win of the campaign on the opening night against Pat Gilroy’s new look Dublin side, and though they shipped a couple of heavy defeats in games afterwards, they nearly produced an even bigger upset in their quarter final, when, in front of a highly charged crowd in Tullamore, they were barely ousted by their old nemesis Kilkenny.

Also in that division Antrim played some of their best hurling in years to defeat Offaly away in the last round of the original fixtures, and were only barely beaten by Galway, Dublin and Laois (twice) in the others. Dublin had a pretty abysmal campaign admittedly, but there was the boon at the end of it of knowing that their foremost club side, Cuala, were crowned All-Ireland champions, and they still have plenty of players to integrate into their squad from there.

And that’s without even mentioning Galway, who sauntered through the campaign with the handbrake on. Sure, the All-Ireland champions will be disappointed not to have attained promotion to the top tier and being overcome by Wexford in the quarter-final, but the animal that will be facing into championship action in the summer is bound to be very different from the spring one.

And what a summer that will be. Obviously, there was a bit of negativity about the new championship format when it was introduced, with one Waterford delegate in particular in the congress denouncing that it could “ruin the GAA” but now that it’s approaching, you can see an awful lot of merits to the system. 9 teams (with the exception of Waterford) will have the benefits of having 2 home championship games each for the first time in their history, that will create a buzz in provincial venues we will have not seen before.

Certainly the Munster group is as competitive as it’s ever been, and it may just be that the two sides who travelled furthest last year (Cork and Waterford) will find it most difficult to qualify from the group this time. In Leinster, there seems to be a more defined hierarchy, but even at that, if Offaly can improve at the rate they are going, and Dublin can harness some of the potential they undoubtedly have, there may just be a shock or two awaiting. And the 6 team group featuring Laois, Carlow, Westmeath, Kerry, Antrim and Meath promises to be highly competitive with a load of evenly matched teams battling for a chance to face one of the big boys and qualify for an All-Ireland quarter final.

When any of the top 8, or perhaps even 10 counties face off against each other, the result is in doubt. And when you compare that to the procession that is the English Premier League or the “can anyone lay a glove on Dublin?” nature of the football championship, that’s a very healthy state to be in. So roll on the league final next week and, in particular, the first round of the championship on May 13th. Because I, for one, cannot wait.

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