National Hurling League Division 1B Waterford v Offaly
(Semple Stadium, Sunday, 2pm)
Brian Flannery Reports
This Sunday sees Waterford open their National Hurling League campaign against Offaly at Semple Stadium.
Our hurlers are being forced to play this ‘home’ game at a neutral venue having been found guilty of transgressing rules in 2018 where Waterford undertook a training camp at Fota Island outside the allowed timeframe. Having played ‘home’ games in the Munster Hurling Championship at both the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick and Thurles last season, this ‘punishment’ is unlikely to unsettle the boys in white and blue. Interestingly, Laois footballers’ punishment for the same offense is to play their opening football league game against Louth at Croke Park. It’s and ill wind and all that.
The home venue is a subject that is likely to feature in debates aplenty over the coming weeks. As of yet we still have no certainty as to where Waterford will play their scheduled ‘home’ Munster championship games against Clare and Limerick this year: TBC (to be confirmed) is the letters cited on the Munster GAA’s official website as venue for both games. New Waterford manager Paraic Fanning recently reaffirmed his belief that come hell or high water these two crucial games have to be played at a Waterford venue.
Munster Council CEO Kieran Leddy has effectively dismissed Waterford County Chair Paddy Joe Ryan’s “Fraher Field or nowhere” campaign leaving the only viable option being Walsh Park. Without any firm update on the plans to redevelop Walsh Park it is very unclear whether the Keane’s Road venue will be available or passed suitable to hold the games later this year.We may well see Waterford return to Thurles for these ‘home’ games in the Championship if a solution to the Waterford is not forthcoming. Sadly, it would appear that poor decision making on the county ground issue has indeed come home to roost.
Of the 10 counties competing in the Liam MacCarthy Cup, Waterford remains the only county without the certainty of knowing where they will play their games. Last season was disappointing on a number of different fronts for Waterford hurling. League relegation, no win in four senior Munster Championship games for the seniors with similarly early exits for both the Minor and Under-21 hurlers. Truly an ‘annus horribilis’.
Division 1B may well be the ideal place for Waterford to begin a new era and get back to winning ways.
The fixture list is kind early on with games against Offaly, Laois and Carlow followed by a trip to Dublin and what already looks like a deciding game against Galway in the final round. With the top four sides qualifying for the League quarter-finals, there’s plenty to look forward to.
There are already proposals to re-jig the hurling league in 2020 which is likely to make finishing top of Division 1B less important this year. Currently the top six teams occupy Division 1A with the next six teams in Division 1B. Proposals flagged by new GAA President John Horan will see two equal Groups of six teams and relegation would be between the bottom sides in each Group.This should take some of the pressure off Paraic Fanning and offer the ideal opportunity to test the strength of the panel in advance of this year’s Championship. Shane Lowry’s win on the European Tour in the Abu Dhabi last Saturday certainly gave Offaly (and indeed all Irish) people plenty to shout about however their hurling prospects remain low.
Finishing bottom in Leinster last year means that Kevin Martin’s men fall back into the Christy Ring Cup with Carlow taking their place in the provincial title race. The Faithful County last qualified for a Leinster Final back in 2004 and have been in decline for a long number of years. A small county both geographically and by population which punched above its weight during the 80s and 90s looks a good bit off the top hurling counties currently.Unfortunately with such counties out of the limelight so much we know little about their side. If you stopped someone in the street I doubt they will be able to name one of their players. Without quality players emerging from underage it’s always difficult to progress.
A recent ERSI report cited 31 hours as the average amount time each week an inter-county player dedicates to their amateur past time so for a player in a county where the chances of success appear so remote it’s not surprising so many decide not to commit. Laois manager Eddie Brennan expressed shock given the number of players that declined his offer of a place on the Laois panel. Life as a Laois (or Offaly) hurler is no way comparable to that of a player coming from a county like Kilkenny. The same level of dedication is expected with zero chance of success or any of the trappings that come with success. You won’t see any Offaly/Laois or Carlow player fronting a new advertising campaign for ‘Sky Sports’ or featuring at the launch of a new leisurewear line of clothing. Hurling is still as marginal as ever with the chasm between the best and the rest wider than ever.
Kevin Moran may have passed the captaincy torch to Noel Connors but the De La Salle player remains crucial to Waterford’s success. Moran is likely to start at half-back this Sunday and his continuing leadership is an important as ever to a fledgling new side. Stephen Bennett and Thomas Ryan too showed good early season form in the Munster league while Jack Prendergast’s impressive performance for WIT last Sunday is unlikely to have gone unnoticed. New Year, new manager, new team. Waterford to win.