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GAA Editor @BrianGBarry
National Hurling League report cards: The counties assessed
Last Updated: 20/03/20 4:06pm
With the National Hurling League paused with no conclusion in sight, we review the campaign that was and look at what went right and wrong for each county.
Division 1, Group A table
The reigning champions came into the season, eager to put the disappointment of last year’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kilkenny firmly behind them.
John Kiely looked to once again add to the team’s depth, and to that end it was a fruitful campaign. The Treaty rotated the squad, without yielding any competitive edge as they won all five games.
One striking aspect of their performances thus far in the year is their physicality and work-rate. The manner in which they were outfought by the Cats last summer will not have sat well with Kiely. It’s clearly been addressed.
The Treaty know they weren’t far off the required standard in 2020, and showed once again in this National League, as if anybody needed reminding, that 2018 was far from a one-off.
The first five matches for Liam Cahill were largely positive. The main aim of the springtime competition would have been to raise spirits, and they did that by finishing in the top three of what was essentially a Munster Championship field (swapping Galway for Clare).
Firstly, wins over Cork and the Tribesmen will have provided a much-needed boost to morale, after a dreadful 2019 summer campaign.
However, more pertinently Tipp native Cahill imposed a new style on the side. The Déise played the league with more abandon, and had a real purpose to how they set up.
The new boss managed to greatly incorporate Peter Hogan, Dessie Hutchinson, Neil Montgomory and Mikey Kearney into the side, meaning there is a new look to Waterford this year.
Even in defeats to Tipperary and Limerick, there were several positives. Crucially they’ve built momentum ahead of the summer.
The Tribesmen’s trajectory makes for pretty reading, as they finished with eye-catching wins over Cork and Tipperary to secure a top-three finish.
What’s more, they did so without some of the big names, as Joe Canning sat out much of the action and Daithí Burke was given time off after his club run with Corofin.
In their absence, others stepped up. Brian Concannon assumed greater responsibility, Evan Niland impressed from placed balls, while Tadhg Haran appears to have a new lease of life under Shane O’Neill.
The new manager also played Gearóid McInerney at fullback for much of the campaign, and it will be intriguing to see if he sticks with this policy upon Burke’s return.
A hard-fought win at home to Tipperary in a shootout was as good as it got for Cork, as they suffered defeats to Waterford, Limerick and Galway.
When the going got tough, some old failings came to the fore. The Rebels still can be found relying too greatly on Patrick Horgan for scores, while fullback and centre-back remain problem positions in the side.
Indeed, Westmeath felt they could have gotten a result out of the Lee-siders’ trip to Mullingar.
Not that Cork should be written off. During Kieran Kingston’s last tenure, the Rebels lived up to their famous ‘mushrooms sprouting up overnight’ comparison, winning the 2017 Munster Championship out of virtually nowhere.
For Liam Sheedy, the springtime campaign was never going to be about silverware, but rather building on his options.
To that end, it was relatively successful. Jake Morris, Mark Kehoe, Paddy Caddell and Jerome Cahill were among those to enjoy increased game-time, while Dillon Quirke seized his opportunity with a man of the match display against Waterford.
However, results weren’t wholly positive. The Premier suffered defeats to both Limerick and Cork from winning positions, and failed to make it out of the group with a final-day defeat to Galway in Salthill.
Nonetheless, the management of the All-Ireland champions won’t be too concerned. 12 months ago, results didn’t got their way in the league, and things turned out just fine during the summer.
Shane O’Brien was given a baptism of fire in his first campaign at the helm, facing into Group A against five of hurling’s big guns.
The 2020 National League was always going to be judged on whether they maintained their top tier status, and they achieved just that with an impressive 1-17 to 2-8 win over Carlow in the relegation play-off.
However, the Lake County will also take huge heart from their performances throughout the group stage, at home to Cork and away to Limerick in particular.
In all, it was an impressive league for Westmeath.
Division 1, Group B table
The Banner were a team under the microscope ahead of the National League, with Brian Lohan taking charge after a disappointing 2019.
Although expected to come through Group B, not many could have imagined just how impressive they would be in doing so.
An away draw with Kilkenny was the sole occasion where they dropped points, as they won their other four games by a combined scoring difference of 36.
Lohan appears to be getting the best out of the Banner’s protagonists, with Tony Kelly, Shane O’Donnell and Aron Shanagher all flourishing in the new regime. Meanwhile, the return of Aaron Cunningham comes as a boost.
So far, so good.
The narrative of Wexford’s National League campaign was one of heart and determination, as they dug deep in their wins over Kilkenny and Dublin.
The home defeat to Clare was a setback, but they put it behind them with three consecutive wins.
Indeed, they did so without some of their biggest names in full flow, with Lee Chin and Matthew O’Hanlon sitting out large parts of the campaign.
After going so close in 2019, the Model County will be major players in the upcoming championship,
The Cats’ results must be put in the context of their considerable list of absentees. The majority of the Ballyhale Shamrocks contingent say out the entirety of Group B, while other protagonists were also missing.
The opening day defeat of Dublin will have pleased Brian Cody, but they suffered a narrow defeat to the Yellowbellies, and were held to a draw by Clare – meaning they are now winless in their last five matches against the Banner.
As always, Cody will review 2020 on the merits of how the championship plays out.
This wouldn’t have been what Mattie Kenny had in mind. The Sky Blues suffered three defeats to Kilkenny, Wexford and Clare.
Of those three defeats, they were only truly competitive against the Yellowbellies in a game that they arguably threw away.
The positives are that they recorded dominant wins over Carlow and Laois, and the Sky Blues would have wanted to offer a timely reminder to the O’Moore County of their standing ahead of the summer.
So what did Kenny learn?
Arguably not a lot. Eamon Dillon was at his brilliant best throughout the league, while Mark Schutte and Donal Burke were given much-needed consistent intercounty game-time.
However, injury to Chris Crummey ahead of the summer will have come as a major disappointment.
The goal at the start of the league for Eddie Brennan’s charges was likely to stay up, and remain as competitive as possible along the way.
In that regard, it wasn’t the worst innings.
They overcame Carlow in difficult conditions to seal the fifth-place finish in Group B, and asked questions of Clare in Ennis.
However, their scoring difference of -34 suggests a gap remains behind the top teams.
The Barrowsiders’ relegation comes as a major setback, in a campaign in which they lost six games by a combined 74 points.
Colm Bonnar’s side failed to trouble any of the big guns in the group, and lost a nail-biter away to Laois which condemned them to the relegation play-off