THE pandemic has presented many challenges in how we go about our daily business. Things aren’t just as straight forward as they used to be with the last year being so full of unknowns. What we do know though is that the human race is a very adaptable species, capable of quickly adjusting to new normals.
Coaches and players are no different in having to adapt and like Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, those who adapt best to the new environment they find themselves in are more likely to survive and prosper.
That new environment for hurling means that we are only getting our first taste of meaningful action in the second weekend of May, a time of year when generally teams would be ramping up for championship.
Are the new arrangements likely to throw up any new serious contenders for the major honours? I fear not but a bit like the virus, who knows what is going to happen as the year progresses? With a condensed season, reduced preparation time and teams struggling to build any sort of momentum going into championship, somebody could take advantage and disrupt the recent dominance of Kilkenny, Tipperary and the very impressive Limerick.
Whilst an All-Ireland is clearly beyond Antrim as they compete in the top level, it will be good to see if they can land a few punches to show they are able to share the ring with the elite.
That won’t be easy as they face five league games in six weeks and is made even more difficult when you factor in a very short pre-season that will stretch and test the strength in depth of their panel. Doing Zoom sessions and gym work individually is very different to pitch sessions with full-on contact and injuries are going to be inevitable. The bigger teams are likely to absorb that sort of schedule a bit easier than Antrim so survival in the top division would be a success for this year.
The fixtures calendar has at least given them a home fixture to get up and running as they prepare to face Clare at the newly refurbished Corrigan Park. Darren Gleeson will know full well that Division One is a significant step up in class. Their fitness and skill levels will need to be top notch just to compete though Clare at home is not the worst draw they could have got to break them in.
It’s just a pity they will be no one there to see it but let’s hope Antrim can produce a performance to give them some confidence for what lies ahead because next week they head to Kilkenny so it certainly doesn’t get any easier.
The game of the round is definitely that of the reigning All-Ireland champions, Limerick against Tipperary. It will be really interesting to get an early sense of where teams are at following lockdown especially Limerick. They clearly raised the bar last year as they marched to success steam rolling everything that was put in front of them with consummate ease.
It’s hard to see how the chasing pack can close the gap such was their dominance but perhaps lockdown and a lack of collective preparation may slow down their rate of progress. Many will hope that but given the talent they have I am not convinced. I think the league is likely to see a fair bit of shadow boxing as managers shuffle their packs and experiment a bit to find a best 15 going into championship, which is not far away. League was never the priority for many of the top teams and I think that will be even more so the case this year.
In Division 2A, Down will be wishing travel restrictions were still in place as they face the long trek to Tralee to play Kerry, Antrim’s main challengers of last year.
Down actually find themselves in a similar situation to Antrim as they will quickly find that 2A is a serious step up in level. They couldn’t have been given a worse fixture to get up and running and Ronan Sheehan, like Darren Gleeson, will be seeing survival as a success with a view to building something for next year.
Derry’s new management of Dominic McKinley and Cormac Donnelly are also on the road with a long trip to Castlebar to face Mayo. Not an easy trip but certainly a winnable game for Derry with a number of the Sleacht Néill men on board this year. It’s a tough one for new management teams like Dominic and Cormac who have had little time to prepare and get to know their players. They will know a bit more after the weekend.
Michael McShane faces a similar challenge in his role as the new Tyrone manager but he has an extra week to prepare as Tyrone are not out until next week when they face Monaghan. Near neighbours Armagh will undoubtedly be in his sights as his biggest challengers to a promotion bid. They don’t meet until the middle of June so that gives both managements a chance to get a settled team and system in place.
In conclusion it’s great to be looking forward to hurling action albeit we can’t get to see it just yet. Even as fans we have to adapt and not being able to witness games first hand won’t stop us talking about it. We will survive with television and streaming coverage until the gates open again. Hopefully that time is not too far away.