It's only the league

The national hurling league can be difficult to predict. Teams are often experimenting with new lineups or management after the offseason, players are rusty, and many of the games are played in cold and wet conditions. Combine this with the small number of matches, where a single unlucky loss against the wrong team can end your chances of reaching the quarterfinals, and you end up with some very inconsistent results. This year’s league alone is a perfect example of that, with three 1B teams in the semi-finals, last year’s champions narrowly avoiding relegation, and Wexford overcoming both Galway and Limerick to gain promotion to 1A.

A common refrain during the league, typically repeated by fans of the losing side, is that ‘It’s only the league. They won’t really be trying to win until the championship’. In this article, we’ll be investigating whether or not there’s truth to this. Are teams more ready to give up in the less glorious league matches, or is this an impression given by the aforementioned unpredictability of the league? We’ll be comparing each team’s winning records in the league and championship, and figuring out which teams perform better in each case.

The Investigation

For the purpose of the article, and in order to include the lower tier teams, championship matches include not only those in the Munster, Leinster and All-Ireland series, but also the Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher championships. All league divisions, their knockout stages, their division finals and their relegation/promotion matches were considered part of the league. The problem of how to determine how well teams performed in the championship versus the league was addressed through several different lenses. First of all, the raw win/draw/loss percentages were taken from the database, which currently runs from the present back as far as the start of 2012, and the values for league and championship games were compared. Secondly, using the site’s rating system, it was estimated how much above or below ‘expectation’ teams played in the league versus the championship. In other words, a team wouldn’t be punished as much for a loss against a team considered much better than them, but also wouldn’t be rewarded as much for beating a team they were expected to beat.

Finally, we looked at points scored and conceded in each tournament: since the idea behind this investigation is whether or not teams really exert themselves as much in the league, it was felt that this could be a good indication of ‘effort’. While a team might have a losing record, if they’re keeping losses to within a few points, it’s hard to say that they’re not trying. Similarly, a team blowing opponents out of the water with double-digit scoring margins obviously aren’t just settling for a win, but are out to prove a point.

Overall Winning Percentage

Below is a summary of each of the Division 1 team’s winning percentage in both the league and the championship:

Based on winning percentage alone, some trends appear which certainly match up to expectation for certain teams. Waterford, league finalists two years in a row, appear to perform considerably better in their league matches than in the championship. Clare also find themselves doing better in the league, again unsurprising considering their league win in 2016, combined with several early exits from the championship following their 2013 win. On the other side of things, Galway and Cork have both underperformed in the league in recent times, but rarely found themselves out of the championship before the quarter finals. And of course, masters of consistency, winning roughly 7 out of 10 of matches in each case, Kilkenny find themselves right in the middle, with only a marginal improvement from the league to the All-Ireland.

Versus Expectation

While looking at the percentage of wins for each team is informative, it can only tell us so much, as many teams do not face the same quality of opponents in the league and the championship. Offaly, for example, did much better in the league based on win-percentage, but this would be expected based on them usually having at least a couple of games against weaker teams in the league, versus the stiff competition in the Leinster championship and All-Ireland qualifier rounds. You can also see an outlier in Kerry; Kerry are an unusual team, however, as they spent the majority of the time studied in both Division 2A and in the Christy Ring championship, rather than in the upper tiers they found themselves in from 2016 onwards. It’s possible that their results have been skewed by the league games that have already taken place in 2017, where at time of writing they’re at risk of demotion to 2A, while they have yet to participate in the 2017 All-Ireland at time of writing. By every metric, they have the greatest improvement in the league versus the championship of any team. However, they are also a team which has had to compete in the All-Ireland most years, while they’ve typically been in division 2 in the league. Using the rating system’s history, the difference between how teams were expected to perform (based on the odds of victory produced by the rating system) was compared to how they actually performed.

Above we have a table of each team’s performance against expectation in both the league and the championship. Immediately, some of the results appear more in line with what we might expect from certain teams: Kilkenny’s outstanding All-Ireland success totally overshadows their merely-excellent league performances. Clare, though they’ve won both a league title and an All-Ireland within the years studied, have definitely underperformed more often in the All-Ireland, particularly in Munster. As such, they are rated as one of the top league teams. Closer to the centre are teams like Limerick and Cork, who always manage to pick up a few wins in each competition, but have rarely threatened to win either competition in recent years. Offaly and Kerry, though not great teams, are at either extreme of the table, moreso due to performing well below expectation in one competition or the other.

Score Difference

Finally, though maybe less scientific than the other metrics, we took a look at score difference, the reasoning being that a team is less likely to ease off towards the end of a match, whether winning or losing, if they care more about the result.

This has some similarities to the other results; Kilkenny like to extend their leads in the championship, Waterford’s greater success in the league is also represented, and Limerick, Cork and Dublin seem to perform about the same regardless. However, you again get some outliers from teams like Offaly and Kerry, whose results are more from doing less-badly in one than the other. All in all, this metric can produce some interesting results, and appears to support some hypotheses about how some teams perform, but it can definitely suffer from greater errors; a team could win nine games by a point, then lose one game by nine points, and their scoring difference would make them look very average, rather than a team with a 90% win rate.

Notes on lower division teams

The above table shows the greatest outliers across teams in all divisions, with some notable results from some of the lower tier teams. Here we find some interesting, and possibly overlooked trends. Carlow, for example, appear to love the league, as can be seen again in their performance this year, where they were Division 2A’s runners up. On the other side of things, Donegal seem to genuinely prefer the championship (in their case, typically the Nicky Rackard cup) over the league. Though they appear to be placed in a competitive situation in their tier in both the league and the championship, they’ve had much greater success in the latter, making a habit of reaching at least the semi-finals. Finally, as any listeners to the site's podcast already know, the truest mark of consistency can be found in Warwickshire hurling, who have a nearly identical winning percentage in both tournaments.

Conclusions

So, do teams simply not try in the league? Well, it depends, but by and large, there’s rarely a massive difference. Though the league is less glamorous, and teams may not be at their best in terms of conditioning, the effort is still there for most. Taking both competitions team by team, there do appear to be a handful which perform significantly better in one or the other, once other factors have been removed, such as strength of opposition or unlucky draws in the championship. Perhaps the origin of the idea of teams not trying is simply that inconsistencies are more apparent in the league: a team can be gone after only one or two losses in the championship, whereas teams can go from winning to losing multiple times over the course of the league. Maybe it’s that teams are just slower in the league, which can be as much a result of the muddier pitches as anything else. All in all, in any sport, and regardless of the situation, there’s one constant amongst true competitors: Nobody likes to lose.