TWO DOWN, THREE to go in the group stages of the Allianz Hurling League.
It’s still early days as the various divisions take shape but we’ve already been provided with some early-season clues as to how counties are shaping up.
Tipperary are the Division 1A pace-setters with two wins from two and in Division 1B, Davy Fitzgerald’s Wexford lead the way after seeing off promotion rivals Limerick and Galway.
In Division 2A, Joe Quaid’s Kildare are also going great guns and protecting a 100 per cent record.
For others, it’s been a difficult start, with Kilkenny in Division 1A, Offaly in 1B and Westmeath in 2A yet to get off the mark.
Here, we take a look at the winners and losers from the first 2 rounds of the League campaign….
Tipperary manager Michael Ryan has publicly stated his ambition to launch an assault on the Allianz Hurling League title and his charges are certainly going the right way about it.
In a competitive six-team pool, the reigning All-Ireland champions are the only team sitting pretty on maximum points from the first two rounds of fixtures.
In defeating the Déise, Tipp also laid down a significant psychological marker, winning against last year’s Munster final opponents while lining out with just six players who began last year’s All-Ireland final in the starting 15.
Tipperary have captured more League titles (19) than any other county but haven’t won the competition since 2008.
Indeed, Tipp’s last League and championship double was achieved back in 2001 and repeating that feat is a target for Ryan a
Davy Fitzgerald is already working his magic with Wexford.
After two rounds of Division 1B, the Slaneysiders are sitting pretty at the head of affairs and, barring a major collapse, they’ll be playing top-flight hurling next year.
If two teams are locked together at the top of the table after five group games, the head-to-head rule will apply and even if Wexford happen to slip up in one of their remaining pool games, against Kerry, Offaly and Laois, they still have the upper hand on Limerick and Galway.
Wexford have Kerry and Laois to come at home and with either Limerick or Galway set to drop points when they meet each other on 26 March, that should remove the prospect of three teams finishing level on points at the top, thus leaving the path clear for Wexford to take their place amongst the League’s elite.
Kildare are leading the promotion race from Division 2A after recording impressive victories in their opening two games.
Against Armagh first time out, former Kilkenny player John Mulhall marked his League debut for the Lilywhites with a six-point haul, as they scored a 1-18 to 1-15 win.
Another of manager Joe Quaid’s Kildare imports, Limerick man David Reidy, collected also collected six points (three frees) as Jack Sheridan scored the crucial goal for the visitors.
Kildare followed that up with an impressive win against Liam MacCarthy Cup outfit Westmeath yesterday.
Mulhall found the net in a 1-16 to 0-14 win that leaves daylight between Kildare and the rest.
If they finish the group stages in a top two position, Quaid’s men will have a great chance to gain promotion, with the GAA confirming that the promotion-relegation playoffs have been dispensed with.
What that means is that the winners of the Division 2A final will go up automatically, and do not have to play off against the losers of a Division 1B play-off for second tier status.
Testing times for Kilkenny boss Brian Cody, who watched his side fall to their biggest competitive defeat during his tenure at the helm, against Clare yesterday.
Former Cats star Eoin Larkin, a James Stephens clubmate of Cody’s, has already had his say, and performances must improve if the Noresiders want to avoid a second relegation play-off in three seasons.
Kilkenny’s defensive deficiencies were ruthlessly exposed by Clare at Cusack Park and up front, they’re also struggling for attacking inspiration.
That task may be bigger than he had anticipated but after signing on for a 19th season at the helm, and taking his previous record into account, Cody is surely the man to oversee this latest period of transition.
The Offaly hurlers have been setting records for all the wrong reasons in recent times.
On Saturday evening in Portlaoise, they fell to their biggest defeat against hosts Laois since 1961.
What will have stuck in Offaly’s craw even more was the fact that masterminding their weekend downfall was the man who presided over their fortunes last year, current Laois manager Eamonn Kelly.
Alarm bells should have been ringing in Offaly when Galway put 6-23 past them in Tullamore in round 1, with the hosts collecting just 1-12.
But it was widely acknowledged that Offaly needed to pick up points against teams in and around them towards the lower reaches of the table – and that’s why losing to Laois was a more damaging setback.
It doesn’t get any easier for Offaly as they travel to Limerick next time out, before facing promotion favourites Wexford at home and Kerry away.
With no point from two games, it’s difficult to see Offaly avoiding the bottom two, which would see them plunged into a relegation play-off to retain Division 1B status.
Limerick are operating in Division 1B for a seventh successive season and with Wexford on the promotion charge, the Shannonsiders look destined for an eighth.
Manager John Kiely insists there’s still plenty to play for and that’s an admirable message from a man still finding his feet at senior inter-county level.
Limerick were in a winning position in their opening game against Wexford before Davy Fitz’s men came roaring back to claim maximum points.
As Limerick have found out to their cost in recent seasons, any slip-up in this Division can prove fatal to promotion hopes but Limerick will make the top four and with that comes a chance to pit their wits against Division 1A opponents at the quarter-final stage.
Limerick began the year by progressing to the Co-Op Superstores.ie Munster senior hurling League final but promotion was the big goal.
That appears to be gone now and Limerick still have defensive issues to address if they’re to emerge as a genuine summer force.
Padraig Boyle profited against a suspect full-back line on Sunday, with the Kingdom’s full-forward scoring three goals.
Joe Canning is back and that’s good news for Galway but Wexford’s victory at Pearse Stadium yesterday looks to have scuppered the Tribesmen’s promotion hopes.
Galway could still emerge as the biggest threat to All-Ireland champions Tipperary come the summer but manager Micheál Donoghue would have targeted an immediate return to the top flight, following last year’s relegation.
That their challenge looks spent after two rounds of group games won’t set alarm bells ringing in Galway when it comes to their long-term prospects, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.
The bigger picture for Galway is a tilt at a first All-Ireland senior crown since 1988 and they’ll still get good pre-championship preparation in the form of a League quarter-final, and potentially more.
Still, it goes without saying that a demanding Galway public stung by last year’s drop to Division 1B would have demanded promotion.
And with the memories of the controversial heave against Anthony Cunningham still relatively fresh in the minds of supporters, public support is what Donoghue and his players could do with.
Westmeath tore it up in Division 2A last year, winning four of their fives games under Michael Ryan’s stewardship.
But it’s a much different story for the Lake County this time, following two defeats in as many games.
Westmeath won the 2016 Division 2A final, defeating Carlow, but were denied Division 1B hurling after losing to Laois in the promotion-relegation playoff.
This time, they’ll need to find results, and fast, to avoid being sucked into a relegation dogfight.
But Westmeath have winnable games against Armagh and London to come at home, before they face into a tricky trip to Antrim.
Westmeath shocked Kilkenny in the Bord Gáis Energy Leinster U21 championship last year – and topped their senior round-robin group in the province – but performances, and results, need to improve to ensure that the county’s hurling fortunes continue on an upward curve.
This piece has been updated following clarification from the GAA that the promotion-relegation playoffs have been removed, to condense the League season.
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