2021 National Hurling League: Sin bins, injury risks and momentum all key as intercounty season gets underway

With the 2021 National Leagues getting underway next weekend, we discuss the main talking points.

New season, new rules

Throughout the last five fallow months in the hurling landscape, one of the most significant moments has been the clamping down on cynical fouls at the GAA’s Congress.

This weekend will be the first time where the new rules will be implemented. If a player is deemed to have brought an opponent down in a cynical manner, they will be sent to the sin-bin for 10 minutes. If the foul in question has denied a goal-scoring opportunity anywhere inside the 20-metre line or the ‘D’, there will also be a penalty awarded.

Many high-profile figures in the game had spoken out against such a move, but the GAA were keen to provide a deterrent to the increasing number of ‘professional’ tackles in recent years.

The rule will get its first run-out this weekend, and it will be interesting to see its effects.

A greater risk of injuries?

The National Hurling League is starting one week earlier than its football counterpart, and consequently the preseason is one week shorter in the small ball.

This was at the request of the top hurling counties, to allow for more game weeks in the shortened season.

“It was something suggested to us by some of the hurling counties – that they felt they would be satisfied with three weeks so we said, well let’s test the water here and see if that’s the view of the other Division 1 and 2 counties and it turned out it was,” explained GAA director of player, club, and games administration Feargal McGill last month.

“I’m not going to talk to you about sports science if there people in the backroom teams of all those counties who understand sports science a heck of a lot better than me and they were reasonably satisfied with the trade-off to get the extra game versus the lead-in time.”

Experts have argued the risk of injury increases when a preseason is shortened, and teams will be hoping to avoid any potential injuries, particularly in the opening rounds.

Given the condensed nature of the 2021 intercounty season, even a minor setback could rule a player out for a significant number of matches.

Managers reluctant to show their hand?

This year’s competition will be unusual for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, after just three weeks of training the National League may almost have a Walsh Cup/Munster Senior League-type feel for counties in their early stages of preparation.

Secondly and perhaps more significantly, the proximity of the championship means there may be a significant amount of shadow-boxing over the coming weeks.

Cork-Limerick, Dublin-Antrim and Wexford-Laois are all match-ups which will be repeated in the championship, weeks after they meet in the National League. Tipperary-Waterford and Kilkenny-Wexford could also re-occur.

Managers may be wary of showing their hands too early in the summer.

Is the League more important for those who had a 2020 to forget?

If shadow-boxing is to take place amongst the top teams, we might not learn a huge amount from Limerick, Tipperary and Co as they build towards the championship.

Cork, Wexford and Dublin will also undoubtedly be focused firmly on later in the summer, but the pain of 2020 still lingers.

Momentum will be key, and a few early league wins could flick the switch for teams going into the championship.

Dublin and Wexford will be hopeful of setting up Leinster semi-finals with top-tier opposition, but know that they may need some big performances in the coming weeks if they are to sufficiently crescendo for the championship.

Cork have not delivered their best hurling in the National League in recent years, failing to win the springtime title since 1998. If that stat is down to a style more suited to hard ground, they may enjoy greater fortune this year.

Nonetheless, with a Munster semi-final date against Limerick looming, the Rebels may need to hit the ground running.

Antrim to get a taste of the big-time

After their Joe McDonagh Cup victory in December, the Saffrons are back in the championship’s top tier. They were also promoted in the League, so will get a chance in the coming weeks to test themselves against the country’s elite.

Darren Gleeson’s team will quietly fancy their chances to challenging Dublin in the Leinster Championship opener. But the National League will be key for the Ulster side to acclimatise to the intensity of top-tier hurling.

Results-wise, anything that culminates in Antrim retaining their Division 1 and Liam MacCarthy Cup status for 2022 will be deemed a hugely successful year.

It all starts this Sunday, when Clare visit Belfast for a clash at Corrigan Park.

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