Nobody likes to lose, even in a national hurling league campaign that is serving as little more than a warm-up for the championship, but we can’t imagine that Limerick’s defeat to Galway last weekend was a cause for too much concern.

Not since the 2019 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kilkenny had the Shannonsiders been defeated in a competitive game, and in the interim they had swept all before them. The interrupted 2020 season didn’t have any notable impact on their momentum as the Co-op SuperStores Munster Hurling League was won in January and they had five Allianz League wins from five before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

When things picked up again, Limerick were just as rampant, beating Clare in a Munster quarter-final that doubled up as a league final and then seeing off Tipperary, Waterford, Galway and Waterford again to cap a perfect season – 13 games played, 13 games won.

While the winning run came to an end with a draw against Tipperary in the opening league game this year, Limerick nevertheless remained unbeaten and the team to beat. It’s difficult to have that mantle and to go out and live up to it in every game though, and last Sunday saw Galway pierce the armour slightly as they inflicted a loss on John Kiely’s men.

On the one hand, the result gives some hope to the chasing pack that Limerick are indeed human and the 2021 campaign won’t be another green procession; on the other, Limerick no longer have the ‘unbeaten’ millstone to worry about, while Kiely has a weapon to try to minimise any complacency within the camp. Come the championship and their Munster semi-final against Cork, it’s quite likely that they will be as primed as ever.

The Galway victory was under-pinned by 14 pointed frees from Evan Niland and it was interesting to note a tweet from the @gaa_insights account after the weekend’s games – from 2018 up to now (the period analysed by the account), three of the eight games with the highest number of shots from frees or penalties came from the weekend just gone.

Galway-Limerick is eighth with 28, while Laois v Dublin is fourth with 31 and the Waterford-Westmeath match is tied at the top with the Limerick-Cork league clash from 2020 on 33.

Overall the 12 league games so far this season have averaged 23.9 shots from frees per game.

We’re loathe to dwell too much on the rule changes as that has become such a hardy annual at the outset of each GAA season, but the superficial takeaway is that the changing of the advantage rule has led to the awarding of more frees where previously the referees would have allowed play to continue.

One would suspect that the reason for the change was that, in some cases, the advantage was effectively becoming a safety-net – too often, there were instances where play carried on and a player put a very scoreable shot wide, with the referee then giving the free. In atoning for that unfair double-chance, though, the authorities have now given rise to a more stop-start game, with the instruction to the refs to only award advantage if it looks like a goalscoring opportunity will accrue.

Football structure

While the hurling top flight is the same format as it would be in ‘normal’ time, with two groups of six, the football equivalent is much changed, with each division now split into sections of four. And, just to show that we’re not pedantic for the sake of pedantry, we won’t take issue with the fact that Roscommon and Dublin are in Division 1 ‘South’ – the fact that there are four Ulster sides in the top tier skews things.

The reduction of the number of games from the usual seven to three gives a sense of jeopardy from the off and any counties that lost their opening games last weekend will now be under pressure to pull out a result this time around in order to stay in the hunt.

And, like Limerick having to re-establish their veneer of invincibility, the managers of those teams mightn’t be too put out by the need to win so early in the year – anything that can get close to emulating championship conditions is to be welcomed.

Hitting the road to Croker

While it’s not yet known if and when GAA fans will be back inside Croke Park this year, Glenville GAA Club in Cork is urging people to make a virtual journey to Jones’ Road.

The north Cork outfit’s new fundraiser, the Glenville to Croke Park Challenge, began last week. Participants aim to cover the 252km from Glenville to Dublin 3 and club PRO Johnny O’Connor, whose brainchild it was, is delighted with the uptake.

“I went back running in February to try to get fit,” he says.

“Sonia O’Sullivan put up a 10km virtual race so I entered that and I saw there were other places doing different kinds of things like 5km or 10km, but there was no GAA club doing anything, especially over the summer.

“I felt that, to coincide with the national football league starting last weekend and the All-Ireland final in August, it would be a good idea to do a virtual run from Glenville to Croke Park. It averages out at about 10 or 15 kilometres a week, but people could easily walk it.

“There are over 70 people already signed up, which is a great start.

“After 12 and a half kilometres, you get a virtual Cork badge, then the next milestone is Tipperary, after that it’s Kilkenny, Laois, Kildare and Dublin.”

Pleasingly for Glenville, word is spreading outside the club, too.

“We’ve had people from all over, some with no connection to the club, which is what I was hoping for, to be honest,” O’Connor says.

“The design of the medal is the map of Ireland – in the hope of hitting the American or Australian markets. You can do it anywhere so we want to try to push it in as many places as we can.

One of the people doing it is John Murphy, chairman of the European GAA board – he’s from Glenville originally but he posted a picture from Brussels.”

And, while there’s no way of verifying if people have done the mileage they claim, anyone who does massage their figures would be engaging in self-deception.

“There’s no prize for winning it,” O’Connor says, “we have some prizes but they’re going to be spot-prizes.

“They can put in whatever time they want, but they’re only fooling themselves.

“You can put up proof of it if you want, the time on your watch or whatever, but it’s a challenge rather than a race.”