The Major League Baseball season traditionally starts in Cincinnati, and a little tradition seems to be developing in our own National Football League where Dublin get the season underway under floodlights in Croke Park. No such frivolity exists yet in the National Hurling League so Waterford’s match against Cork on Saturday night in the cosy surroundings of Páirc Uí Rinn is just another game.
Except it isn’t, because the game has the horrible look of a four-pointer for Waterford (the same is obviously true for Cork, but who cares what they get up to). Being in Division 1 of the National League, hurling or football, shares more than just a word with the English League Cup. Like that trophy, it doesn’t count until you can’t have it. So Liverpool could cheerfully treat that competition with contempt, much like Arsenal did for years, only to find it suddenly matters a great deal when it’s there to be won. Losing to Birmingham last season was a frightful kick in the family jewels for the Gunners, and God knows what fallout there will be for Liverpool should we become the first team in 21 years to lose to lower-league opposition in an English soccer final.
‘Lower-league’ is not something you could call Waterford since 1997, a title that at the time we were able to share with Cork, and we’ve gotten comfortable with being able to play the heavy-hitters each spring. Waterford are a far better hurling county now than we were then – in 1997 we had gone five years without winning a single Championship match – so part of our long stay has been down to simply being good enough, but the systems employed since then have assisted in keeping us in Division 1. The 1A/B format meant that you could play around with matches confident that you’d be able to whip Derry/Down/Meath and maintain your presence in the top flight. And in the eight-team divisions of recent years, there would always be a top-order county like Offaly, Limerick or Wexford who would be in sufficiently dire straits to give us that get-out-of-jail-free card.
No longer though. None of the rest of the top six look vulnerable. Cork are about the best bet, and should we lose on Saturday we could soon be looking at games against Galway away or a resurgent Dublin as places where we need to pick up a win. This isn’t a commentary on Waterford’s dire performance against Clare Sunday week last, although that didn’t help the nerves. Even at our best this would be a brown-trousers division. But you can be sure everyone else is looking around Division 1 and seeing us as the two points that will preserve top-flight status for 2013. I hate to say an individual game is must-win, but Saturday’s game looks must-win. And as for Sunday . . .