It would be fair to say the switch to competitive hurling in January a couple of years ago was not widely welcomed.

A fast and furious game that thrives on firm summer soil should not have to suffer the indignity of  boggy winter pitches, sniffed the purists.

Though whether you embrace or deny climate change it has been a warmer than average opening month, with the weather for last week's club finals more agreeable than many a recent St Patrick's Day.

More importantly, the compression of the GAA calendar means it has been 161 days since Tipperary beat Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final. That's a long time without a meaningful match, assuming you don't count the likes of the Walsh Cup and Munster League.

So we are ready for hurling, even of the appetiser variety. Because, make no mistake, that's exactly what it is.

The League has always been the secondary competition, mostly useful for developing fitness and finding new players, but now that the Championship is also a league of sorts and every county is guaranteed a minimum number of games, the focus is more than ever on the intense May-June period.

Brian Cody has led Kilkenny to nine league victories

In the past 20 years, only three of the eight counties (Kilkenny x 6, Tipperary in 2001 and Galway in 2017) that claimed the Division 1 title have subsequently gone on to win Liam MacCarthy that year.

Wexford boss Davy Fitzgerald was even moved to contemptuously dismiss the "rubbish" notion he was "mad to win the League" last year, pointing out that he was more concerned with giving players game time.

At the danger of confusing things as much as the rules of football maybe they should reverse things altogether: make the 'League' a cup and scrap the pre-season run outs altogether?

The change from a tiered 1A and 1B to two equal divisions and the ditching of eight-team quarter-finals is welcome. The fact that the team finishing fourth in 1B could win the competition outright while fifth and sixth in the 1A couldn't was bizarre to say the least.

Every player and manager talked about wanting the theoretically more intense competition of being in the top tier but then Waterford, Clare and Galway all won it outright from 1B anyway.

The structure this year is a simpler one: two groups of six, chosen by last year's finishing sports, with the top  two teams in each group meeting the winners of crossover quarter-finals between second and third. It should all be wrapped up by 22 March.

Division 1
Group A: Cork, Galway, Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford,Westmeath.

New Galway manager Shane O'Neill

So who will be targeting the confidence victory brings and who will be keeping their powder dry, to combine the two most commonly used clichés of League analysis?

Group A has four teams with new managers, all of whom will presumably be keener to start well.

Former Na Piarsaigh boss Shane O'Neill's first game in charge of Galway is a winnable tie at home to Westmeath.

Galway used the 2017 League final demolition of Tipp as a springboard to All-Ireland success but the new man might be happy enough with any kind of mid-table finish if Joe Canning can avoid picking up another serious injury.

Last year's 2A winners, who have promoted last year's selector and former Dublin camogie boss Shane O'Brien to the hotseat, would surely be delighted to win the relegation play-off. Given the competition in Group A, that looks their most likely destination.

Limerick should be in a good place following a 2019 when they won the league and were just pipped in the All-Ireland semi-final by Kilkenny but the panel might feel they have something to prove after grabbing the headlines for the wrong reasons before Christmas.

They travel to Semple Stadium in the opening game of the campaign on Saturday evening and will hope that Tipperary play like men recently back from holiday, which they are.

Boris-Ileigh duo Brendan Maher and Dan McCormack will surely be rested in the early rounds after reaching the All-Ireland club final though their young clubmates Jerry Kelly and James Devaney could be in line for a taste of senior action this spring after impressing in that run.

Incoming Déise boss Liam Cahill, who won successive U21/20 titles with his native Tipp, has made a big call in dropping Noel Connors and Maurice Shanahan and could do with a couple of early wins to ease any disquiet among supporters. 

However, he will also have noticed that getting to the League final last year did little to prevent Paraic Fanning taking the fall for a disastrous subsequent Championship.

Waterford host Cork, who have Kieran Kingston back in charge. The Rebels lost the Munster League final to Limerick by 15 points but Kingston will have been encouraged by the display of last year's U20 Sean Twomey, who scored 0-03 from play in that game.

Group B: Carlow, Clare, Dublin, Laois, Wexford, Kilkenny.

Clare manager Brian Lohan

Davy might not give a four-letter word about winning the league but he surely wouldn't want to start with defeat at Laois either.

It will be interesting to see whether Kevin O'Grady and Michael Furlong get much game time having left Paul Galvin's football panel and appeared in the recent Walsh Cup win over Kilkenny.

Eddie Brennan's men will expect to at least avoid a relegation play-off after a breakthrough Championship season but he has expressed frustration that that surprise run to the quarter-finals after winning the Joe McDonagh Cup hasn't enticed more players to commit for 2020.

Brian Lohan is the only first-season manager in the division, becoming the latest of the All-Ireland winning class of '95 and '97 to take the Banner reins.

The four-time All-Star will be aiming to revive the fortunes of a Clare team that dipped last year after impressing in 2018 and who expressed their displeasure at the drawn-out process that saw Donal Moloney and Louis Mulqueen walk away before Lohan was appointed. Former All-Star Peter Duggan is taking a year out and is a big loss.

Lohan starts out at home to a Carlow team that drew with Galway and Laois in the League last year but will likely be scrapping to avoid the drop.

Manager Cormac Bonner expressed concern over their failure to manage a single goal in the three Walsh Cup games that ended in defeat.

Kilkenny will welcome Dublin to Nowlan Park in a meeting of two teams anxious to forget how last season finished.

The Cats are coming from comfortably the better place though, having exceeded the expectations of many by reaching the All-Ireland final.

Colin Fennelly said that Kilkenny clubs clean sweep of the All-Ireland club titles showed that "Kilkenny hurling is on the way back", if anyone ever doubted that it had left.

The stats above show that Brian Cody tends to prize winning the League as much as experimentation but Dublin might be catching Kilkenny at a good time, assuming Fennelly, TJ Reid, Joey Holden and Adrian Mullen are all rested after Ballyhale's senior club triumph. 

Dublin surprised Galway to make it out of Leinster last summer but were then stunned by Laois in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Now captained by former All-Star Danny Sutcliffe, the Dubs topped Division 1B last year and beat Tipperary in the quarters before falling to eventual winners Limerick.

They will be targeting another knock-out place after the progress made in Mattie Kenny's first season in charge.

In Divison 2A, expect a three-way fight between Antrim, Kerry and now Christy Ring Cup team Offaly for the single automatic promotion place on offer to the final winners.

It will be intriguing to see whether Kilkenny legend Michael Fennelly can arrest a long slide and reverse defeats to both teams in Championship last summer.