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Wednesday 13 December 2017

League is making a laughing stock of ruling classes

THIS is not an early April Fool's column, so readers are now advised to fasten seatbelts while the earth lurches into a sudden 360-degree spin. Here goes, then... The GAA kingpins are in disarray and we'll have shiny new pretenders crowned as All-Ireland hurling and football champions this year. All that intro is missing is an exclamation mark -- so let's correct that pronto!

Having sucked you in, we should now clarify that Roche's Point is not entirely convinced by the proposition that Kilkenny drapers will be forced into a fire sale of worthless 'five in a row' T-shirts next September, or that Kerry and Tyrone's seven-year stranglehold on Sam Maguire is set to be prised open.

But we can say this: the ruling powers are showing more National League vulnerability than at any point since the early noughties. A sign of summer struggles to come? Who knows, but at least it throws open the prospect that Sam or Liam or both will be festooned in unfamiliar ribbons this year.

Here is the case for the prosecution, starting with the small ball: Kilkenny have now lost three of their opening five NHL matches, and they haven't suffered such an alarming spring slippage since Cody knows when.

Barring an outlandish sequence of results, Kilkenny will not be contesting the league final. This is not a unique state of affairs under Cody but it is unusual. They have won five of the last eight NHL titles (2002, '03, '05, '06 and last year); they also lost a final in '07 and a semi-final in '08.

Ergo, the last time Kilkenny didn't reach the knockout stages was 2004, when the league was run on a convoluted two-phase basis and they failed to make the 'Group One' cut from which the eventual winners would emerge. Back then they had lost their first two games but actually won the next six -- so their record this spring is even worse.

It's a moot point whether those '04 league travails had any bearing, but that proved a chastening summer for the three in a row-chasing Cats who failed to win Leinster for the only time in the last decade -- sucker-punched by Wexford in a provincial semi-final -- before being overwhelmed by Cork in the All-Ireland final.



TRAPDOOR

The case for the Black and Amber defence can now be summarised as follows: they've been without a glut of star names who will be back when it matters. And they are Kilkenny.

By comparison, Kerry and Tyrone have endured even more pain, each suffering four defeats and winning just twice, and either side could yet slip through the relegation trapdoor on April 11. Kerry have the excuse of high-profile retirements and AFL defections but this still represents their worst league since the foot and mouth-disrupted campaign of 2001, when they lost five and won just two games en route to relegation from Division 1A.

That summer ended in their most embarrassing SFC defeat in living memory, the semi-final meltdown to Meath. Since then Kerry have won three Division One titles ('04, '06 and '09), while losing the '08 final.

Tyrone's league form in the early noughties was ultra-consistent -- winning back-to-back titles in '02 and '03, losing semi-finals in ''04 and '05 -- but this is their fourth consecutive stuttering campaign.

Yet, whereas they finished with identical records of won three, lost three, drawn one in '07, '08 and'09, they have now lost four and face a last-day survival battle at home to Dublin.

By way of closing argument, m'lud, the gap is closing on football's big two, but they haven't gone away, you know. Not quite yet.

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