We were on a break

As we come into the final stages of the league, a common sentiment amongst fans of teams who are already knocked emerges, as it does every year: This break can’t be good for them.

After spending the spring playing at least one match every one or two weeks, many teams will now have to wait almost two months before their next game. The gaps are even harsher once teams are knocked out of the All-Ireland; a team knocked out in the qualifier rounds will have to wait 7 months before the league restarts!

Yes, there are club games, and there are other inter-county matches outside of the two main competitions, such as the Munster league, the Ulster championship or the Walsh cup. However, there’s a big difference playing in matches featuring full, familiar panels of well conditioned  players in the All-Ireland, versus playing an experimental lineup, still full of Christmas dinner, in muddy pre-season games.

One consolation many teams can have is knowing that their opponent is usually equally, or more, rusty by the time they meet. Indeed, there are teams who have made the most of coming through the backdoor in the Liam McCarthy, and made use of their added experience to surprise their provincial champion opponents in the semi-final, such as Clare in 2013 or Kilkenny the year before.

On the other hand, there are teams who may find too many matches, too close together, draining. These teams may relish the opportunity to continue improving on the training pitch, hidden from opposing teams trying to figure out their style, before making a big splash in their following game.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the hurling teams currently set to compete in this year’s All-Ireland, and see how they’ve responded to the challenge of irregular schedules in the past.

Methodology

All league and championship games were recorded for the relevant teams from 2012 until the present day. Using the site’s rating system, the difference between how each team actually performed (in terms of winning, losing or drawing) and how they were predicted to perform was taken. It was then checked how many days were between each match and the previous league or championship match. It should be noted that data gained from this study may be negatively impacted by the relatively small sample size of matches with large gaps compared to matches with small gaps, as well as issues with the rating system failing to accurately assess a team’s true ability.

Results

For the majority of the teams studied, the layoff made surprisingly little difference: there are simply too many other factors which can play into a team winning or losing on a given day, and so it was impossible to determine any trend from the noise in the data. It’s possible that these teams do have a preference for more or less frequent games, relative to other teams, but no definite claims can be made; there’s too much variance regardless of the gap between matches, and the improvement between one group and the other is simply too marginal. Teams which fit into this category are Cork, Dublin, Laois, Limerick, Meath, Tipperary and Wexford.

Outside of these teams, we discovered two groups: the ‘Momentum’ teams, who need to string together a few matches to really get things together, and the ‘Training Pitch’ teams, who can maintain their form longer and hold off rust better than their opponents.

Momentum

The momentum group comprises Clare, Kilkenny, Offaly and Westmeath.

Westmeath were a borderline case between having no preference, and being considered a ‘momentum’ team. It appears that their results may have been heavily influenced by their performance over the last year; after winning every match in the 2016 Leinster Championship round-robin, and winning division 2A of the league reasonably comfortably, Westmeath appeared to be a team on the rise. The winter was unkind to them, however, as division 2A proved more competitive this year. Losing their opening two matches, it took a bit of real-world experience against other counties before they started winning again. Though they won their remaining three games, this was insufficient to reach the division final.

Offaly certainly took their time in finding their feet after the winter this year. Losing their four matches before finally winning their fifth, they did at least come closer to winning in their later losses than when they started. Similarly, in last year’s championship, they lost their opener in the Leinster round-robin, before winning their next two games and their Leinster quarter final match against Laois.

Within the time-frame of the matches studied, Clare won a league and a championship. Both of these wins have a similar pattern: In the championship win, Clare failed to even win the Munster semi-final. However, they built up steam through the qualifier rounds, worked out the kinks in their game, and went on to win the All-Ireland final… on their second attempt at the final. Even at the end, they benefited from having just extra match to figure things out. In the league win, Clare came up from division 1B, gaining practice against weaker teams before they were in more challenging matches. Though maybe shaky in those openers, their easier schedule allowed them the space to learn from those mistakes, and put them in a good position to win once they reached the knockout stages.

Despite being known for their consistency, Kilkenny appear to be the team most negatively affected by long gaps between matches. However, breaking it down, it’s not necessarily surprising: Other than Clare, they’re the only ‘backdoor’ team to win an All-Ireland in the time-frame studied. They have had numerous matches that went to replays in the All-Ireland, such as last year’s semi-final against Waterford, the Leinster semi-final in 2014, or the All-Ireland final in 2012. In these replay situations, Kilkenny rarely allow the team that gave them a scare the last time the same margin of error in the replay. Kilkenny over the last number of years are not a team known to have many weaknesses, but perhaps that is because they’re so vigilant about working on any that emerge in their matches. They also appear to learn a lot about their opponent’s own failings, and seem to benefit more from being able to get an accurate gauge of who they’re playing. All of this results in them being the team most positively impacted by playing regularly and frequently.

Training Pitch

The ‘training pitch’ teams include Galway, Kerry and Waterford.

Waterford are famous, or possibly infamous at this stage, for their ‘system’ which they’ve implemented over the last number of years. They have commanded many matches by playing their own highly defensive style, preventing opposing players from getting the space they need for easy shots or passes, though at the potential sacrifice of Waterford’s own flow and scoring. This style of play has brought Waterford back from being definitively relegated to 1B in 2014 to winning a league in 2015, reaching another final in 2016, and reaching Munster finals in both these years too. They displayed one of the quickest improvements over the last few years of any team, and surprised many opponents who had underrated them. However, there seems to be a ceiling that they’ve hit, despite coming so close: They were beaten by a huge margin in last year’s Munster championship, and were sent out of this year’s league in only the quarter final by Galway. It appears that, given enough familiarity with this style of play, sufficiently skilled teams begin to learn to counter it. Perhaps Waterford will use their longer gap between the league and championship this year to develop a few new surprises.

Kerry are still relative newcomers to the top division of hurling, and unfortunately for them they’ve found themselves sent back down to division 2A again next year. However, there’s a trend to the scraps of success they have earned over the last few years: They’ve made a habit of winning their opening game. Many teams still don’t anticipate much of a battle from Kerry, a county well known for GAA success in a sport other than hurling. Kerry have made use of their own low expectations, as well as the relatively lacking conditioning of their opponent following the break, and haven’t lost a league or championship (either All-Ireland or Christy Ring) opener since 2012. Of course, as other teams with higher ceilings build their fitness levels, and learn to treat Kerry with more respect, these wins become harder to come by. Nevertheless, Kerry have won some hard-earned victories, even as they’ve faced the extremely tough transition from Christy Ring and Division 2A to the All-Ireland and Division 1B.

Finally, the team with the best relative performance after a long break is Galway. Perhaps it’s a lingering attitude from when they had automatically qualified for the All-Ireland semi-final, while others were still fighting it out in Leinster and Munster, and so they learned how to heat up in a hurry after a long break. Perhaps it’s due to some truth in their reputation for infighting, leaving players sick of one another when they don’t get enough time apart. Whatever the reason, Galway are a team that can play very well without much of a warm-up, and are not a team you want to meet in the first round of the Leinster championship. In the time-frame examined, from 2012 until the present, they have won every opening match by an average of 10 points (excluding the drawn first match against Dublin in 2015, but including when they won in the replay by 13 points). They’ve also won every league opener in the time-frame, by an average of 9 points. However, as the matches progressed, their dominance waned: They never reached a league final within that time, instead finding themselves in the 1B promotion match twice, one of which they lost. They also failed to gain promotion after going down to 1B, following a shock defeat to a resurgent Wexford. Their championship performance has obviously been better, winning a Leinster championship and twice reaching the All-Ireland final, but it does appear that Galway have struggled to deliver on their true potential at times. Perhaps, as in 2012, another provincial final would do them good, giving them an automatic semi-final spot and time away from other teams to work on their game, and produce a few surprises.

Conclusions

Many players and managers over the years have complained about the long gaps between matches which can occur in the GAA. While it’s absolutely difficult to schedule two different sports, both of which some players represent their county or club in, the regularity of the GAA schedule has certainly left something to be desired. Certainly, from the results above, the people making these complaints have grounds for them: it’s a factor in how teams perform, and it can impact some teams more than others. However, it’s also worth remembering that it’s disadvantages or advantages are also overshadowed by a myriad of other factors, and most of the time both teams are operating under the same, non-ideal, situation. As we can see, there are also teams that work the flaws in the structure to their advantage: Clare, using the backdoor to build their experience in 2013, or Kerry using the element of surprise, as well as the lowered gap in fitness between both teams following breaks, to steal wins they weren’t expected to have. This variety in the structure of the schedule can help give the sport an extra element of surprises, unpredictability and excitement.

However, speaking as a fan, I think we might prefer having more regular matches, thereby avoiding the unpredictability and excitement of having to cancel weekend plans so I can drive across the country to see my team lose a match they were originally expected to play several weeks before.