Eimear Ryan: The league needs a rebrand or a repurpose

A venerable competition that will mark its centenary in just a couple of years, the league has spent much of this century apologising for its very existence. 

It’s become somewhat passé to actively try to win it, or to admit that you care about it. I enjoy and appreciate the excellent coverage on Allianz League Sunday to cap off a weekend, but still, you half-expect a scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen that reads IT’S STILL ONLY FEBRUARY / DO NOT GET TOO EXCITED / IT’S ONLY THE LEAGUE / IT’S EARLY DAYS YET.

It’s fair to say that the league is in the midst of an identity crisis. In some ways, our casual dismissal of the relevance of the league is unusual, especially when compared with soccer, where league format – the ability to be grindingly consistent – is esteemed over knockout competitions. 

And when most counties are only guaranteed four championship games, further opportunities to play are valuable. The league has something to offer, certainly; it’s not quite obsolete yet.

It does mean something: at least, to the counties in need of a confidence boost. There are new managers in Dublin, Kilkenny, Cork, Waterford and Tipp – all experienced, some All Ireland-winning, but all new in the job nonetheless. The only manager in the championship with nothing to prove is John Kiely. 

It’s different for counties who find themselves in need of a win – and right now, Tipperary and Cork are two such teams.

It may only be the league, but still: there’s a lot to be excited about in Cork’s form so far this year. There have been a number of big character moments: turning over Tipp’s big lead in the Munster league final, edging out Limerick two weekends ago (no easy feat, #EvenInTheLeague), and their goalfest against Galway on Sunday. 

The young lads (Declan Dalton, 0-6 from play) are expressing themselves; the veterans (Conor Lehane, 2-3) are in flying form. You wouldn’t want to get too excited – have I mentioned it’s the league? You certainly wouldn’t want to peak too soon, as Waterford demonstrated in last year’s cautionary tale. But this is an exciting Cork to watch, and the supporters think so too. I was struck by the home crowd’s support at both the Munster league final in Páirc Uí Rinn, and the Limerick match in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, but they were out in force in Salthill too.

It may only be the league™, but Tipperary will never not take heart from beating Kilkenny. While the arrival of Derek Lyng at the helm has signalled the start of a new era, and maybe taken a little bit of the sting out of the rivalry, there’s still a lot of heartache tied up with this opposition for Tipp, not least in Nowlan Park. 

Indeed, it’s 15 years since Tipp beat Kilkenny in their own backyard – only Seamie Callanan, now back from injury and figuring out his elder statesman role, was present on that day in 2008.

We expect a lot from this pairing, but Sunday’s game took a while to get going, with a stop-start rhythm to proceedings. Tipp lost two key players to injury early on, with Paddy Cadell and Cathal Barrett both departing in the first quarter. (Strike one against the league: injury risk.) However, Tipp gradually came into their own. 

The lads who’ve been around a while still have that Eamon O’Shea telepathy, with Callanan and McGrath interchanging to win a crucial early free. And Callanan’s tap to put Forde through in the 26th minute was a marvel of vision and efficiency.

Tipp’s workrate, especially among the forwards, has intensified. They were visibly celebrating turnovers, whacking each other on the back. 

Conor Bowe and Alan Tynan bring a certain swagger and physicality from their other sporting vocations. And Jason Forde – who crashed into the collective consciousness all the way back in the drawn 2014 All-Ireland final – appears to be in the form of his life, gleefully poaching points from play, frees and sidelines. That he finished with 60% of Tipp’s overall score to his name is an individual triumph and a team concern.

But still – and I cannot stress this enough – it’s only the league. You can get away with things like hitting 17 wides. Having been dominant in the first half, Tipp were outscored by six points in the second. Kilkenny, who had looked a bit self-conscious and uncharacteristically unsure of themselves in the first half, threw the shackles off and pushed Tipp hard. 

Towards the end, Noel McGrath and David Blanchfield seemed to remember who their opposition was, and gifted us with a small bit of argy-bargy to remind us of the history between these two teams, league context notwithstanding. 

John Donnelly forced a good save from Barry Hogan in the 54th minute, and soon after Martin Keoghan fired home after Alan Murphy knocked it into his path. A strong finish, and the Ballyhale lads are still on sabbatical: no panic.

Perhaps the league needs a rebranding. Maybe ‘repurposing’ is a more accurate term. How does the league relate to the championship? Sport is about narrative; if the league is always just going to be the prologue to the main event, maybe it can be a more impactful one, the way a provincial title still sparks fierce pride. 

The fare provided so far by this year’s league has been highly entertaining, and it’s certainly useful in terms of getting quality games and allowing management to test players. But it always peters out in the end. 

As Dalo recently pointed out, the final comes too close to the beginning of championship, which drains it of tension; teams can’t afford to go hell for leather. We love to tinker with format in the GAA; surely there’s an easy fix here.

But then again, it’s only the league.

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