WHEN TRAINING OFFICIALLY started back up in January, hurling’s top tier counties were divided into two distinct groups.
The evidence of that was presented in full view on Saturday evening and on into a squinting Sunday afternoon.
There were those who vowed to hit the ground running and really make a statement in the league, and there were those who would wait their turn to grasp the nettle.
In Division 1A the narrowest gap between these two camps was seven points. In none of the three games was the end result truthfully in doubt.
Division 1B was worse again, the average gap was near 11 points. Things got tighter of course in Division 2, but only because there was not enough quality on show to make a bigger difference.
Waterford are the prime example of a team unit with too many factors distracting from their on-field focus. On Saturday night they started both halves the strongest, but were utterly bewildered by Cork’s fluidity in attack and very rarely troubled the inner sanctum of the Rebel defence.
The Deise will no doubt grow stronger as the year wears on. The evergreen, Tony Browne, and John Mullane – not to mention the four late withdrawals of Noel Connors, Aiden Kearney, Shane O’Sullivan and Maurice Shanahan – will improve the side when the Munster championship begins. Right now there’s little doubt that Michael Ryan’s side looks anxious to get the league out of the way.
Cork, by contrast, are a side invigorated by the return of Jimmy Barry Murphy. Much like, the ‘other’ Reds across the water who went back to their roots with the appointment of Kenny Dalglish, Murphy has made hurling for the county of Cork look like a joyful experience again.
Not that he would like to admit it in public, seconds after the final whistle, Murphy told WLR FM: “We’re going to be very hard on the players, the second half here wasn’t great and we’ve an awful lot to improve.”
That joie de vivre on show is aided massively by the sight of Conor Lehane, the young corner forward showed much more than just flashes of brilliance under the lights.
Meanwhile, in Limerick, the home side were crumbling as Clare arrived at the Gaelic Grounds brimming with vigorous intent. Just as the Deise had taken an early lead, so too did Limerick, but it was the team who had already done the hard work in January that romped clear through the second and third quarter of the game.
With Davy Fitzgerald in charge, the Banner can be assured, that 99% will never be enough. Limerick boss, John Allen admitted that the visitors were better in every area on the field. 14 v 14 and a final gap of 14 points is testament to that.
On Sunday, Kilkenny and Tipperary naturally grabbed all the attention as a repeat of the All Ireland final, yet that result was only ever going to go one way. Particulary whent the Premier county only appeared to have one plan – a plan to hit long hopeful high balls - which didn’t work.
Having said that, nobody would have beaten Kilkenny yesterday so Tipperary are perhaps the exception to this trend. Declan Ryan was a little shellshocked post-match and felt for his men who had put in a lot of work in pre-season. Any manager would say the same.
The league champions were another casualty to raw hunger. Dublin headed west without the experience of being a name to be shot at and they were duly knocked off their perch by a Galway side making light work of life without Joe Canning.
The Tribesmen were injected with a new lease of life thanks to the appearance of 10 members of last year’s All Ireland winning under 21 squad. The energy with which they repaid Anthony Cunnigham left the Dubs looking like a team playing in slow motion.
Dublin only trailed by a point at half time when Anthony Daly was forced to withdraw Liam Rushe, but one man cannot be the excuse when the league holders lost the second hal by a score of 11 points to 5.
There’s no room for half way in the opening day of the league, those who set out to make a big statement did it in style.
The rest? Well, they’ll just have to wait.
Paul Curran and Shane Maher of Tipperary lead the pack chasing Eoin larkin and Kilkenny. Pic: INPHO/Cathal Noonan
Here are your Allianz National Hurling league results in full.
Cork 3-17 Waterford 0-18
Kilkenny 2-17 Tipperary 0-15
Galway 0-20 Dublin 0-13
Limerick 1-13 Clare 2-24
Antrim 3-18 Wexford 2-15
Offaly 1-27 Laois 0-18
Carlow 3-17 Down 1-6
Westmeath 0-19 Kerry 3-8
Wicklow 0-14 Derry 1-11
Meath 0-13 Kildare 1-12
Roscommon 1-8 Mayo 0-16
London 2-20 Armagh 0-11
Tyrone 3-18 Sligo 2-9
Monaghan 1-18 Donegal 1-11
Louth 0-12 Fingal 1-13