Erratic Tipp are still Munster's likely lads
No real outsiders in southern battle with all bar Clare having been champions in last five years
Published 16/05/2015 | 01:00
It says something for the flaring democracy of Munster hurling that only Clare, the 2013 All-Ireland champions, have failed to be crowned provincial champions in the last five summers.
When you consider that those old oligarchs, Tipperary and Cork, completely monopolised the prize between 1982 and '94, it just shows how profoundly the southern landscape was changed by what became known as the Revolution Years. Since those 'noughties', Waterford (2010), Tipp (2011 and 2012), Limerick (2013) and Cork (2014) have all lifted the Munster Cup and, if Clare's last win ('98) now seems a small eternity back, they can hardly be considered a peripheral presence in this Championship.
True, the draw means they must go the long route, starting against Limerick in Semple Stadium on May 24, for the right to face Tipp in a Munster semi-final. And, given they have just been relegated from Division 1A of the National League, Clare's immediate credentials to bridge that 17-year gap may seem questionable.
But there have been reported sightings of Banner muscle being flexed of late, most especially in a behind-closed-doors challenge against Wexford in which they scored a small hatful of goals.
Now, the challenge circuit is a notoriously poor barometer of Championship readiness but, at a largely neglected 7/1, Clare would appear to represent the value bet in this Munster chase.
That said, they will have plenty to do against a Limerick team that has, admittedly, shown little in the area of self-recommendation since last year's epic All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny in that Croker monsoon. Losing to Offaly at home blew a gaping hole in Limerick's Division 1B campaign and their subsequent tepid quarter-final loss to Dublin stopped just short of stewards' enquiry status.
So, just which version is the real Limerick then? That Little Lord Fauntleroy exhibit of March or the men who pushed Kilkenny through the very floorboards of their resolve last August?
Tipp will await the winners, burdened by the favourites' tag and an understanding that, in this new world, matters like tradition and shirt colour no longer give them a psychological head-start.
Eamon O'Shea's men did have one hand on the Liam MacCarthy Cup last September, only Hawk Eye denying them their 27th senior All-Ireland title by judging 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer's monster free wide by the width of a cigarette paper.
They had a decent League campaign, but the manner of its conclusion at Waterford's hands re-ignited quibbles about the capacity of Tipp's forwards to cope in crowded spaces.
Seamus Callanan has, it's true, grown into an authoritative presence, but Noel McGrath's early-Championship absence deprives them that quarter-back vision that has been so important to their inside line. Tipp's over-reliance on 'Bonner' Maher's ball-winning capabilities could come back to haunt them this year too and, for now, it is a moot point as to who will guard their square.
Almost by accident, they ended up with James Barry at No 3 last summer, but, in Barry's absence throughout the League, they seemed to settle again on Conor O'Mahony for the role, the now retired Paul Curran having started in the position against Dublin and Galway.
For O'Shea, there is an even broader issue to attend to, however.
He has yet to oversee a Tipp victory in Munster after successive-year losses to Limerick and, whoever the opposition on June 21, they will be playing in the Gaelic Grounds, a venue that has not hosted a Tipp Championship win over the home team since 2005.
The other side of the draw throws up a reprise of the National League final in which Derek McGrath's remarkably fast-advancing young Waterford team so spectacularly devoured Cork. That game was largely framed in subsequent media commentary as a victory for tactic over old-school convention.
Waterford's fitness levels allowed them drop numbers back to supplement an already formidable defence, but also to attack in menacing phalanxes that had Cork struggling to rope down the ball-carrier. Jimmy Barry-Murphy makes no secret of his view that hurling is being over-intellectualised in some quarters with a high tactical emphasis losing sight of certain fundamentals.
Getting tanked in a League final by 10 points certainly armed his critics with fresh gunpowder, the popular cry being that Cork were being out-flanked by more innovative minds. This precinct does not share that view.
Cork, remember, are the reigning Munster champions. On the evening of July 13 last, they bid farewell to the crumbling old Pairc Ui Chaoimh with a performance that had many believing they would win the Liam MacCarthy. But they then forgot to get off the bus for the All-Ireland semi-final against Tipp and that, the small matter of forgetfulness, now marks them with a branding-iron.
No team in hurling seems more prone to drifting inexplicably out of games (well Galway maybe come close).
Most damningly, Cork wasted a 12-point lead with 17 minutes remaining against Tipp at Pairc Ui Rinn in March to lose by one and, for all the kudos that fell their way for coming from 12 down to beat Dublin in the semi-final, who could sensibly ignore the odd lethargy that presented that predicament in the first place?
Dublin, essentially, bullied Cork for 50 minutes in Nowlan Park that day just as Tipp, essentially, bullied them in Croke Park last August.
The addition of Mark Landers to Barry-Murphy's backroom team was seen as an effort to inject more steel into this group, yet there was no evidence of it as Waterford put them to the sword on May 3. That, surely, is the fundamental issue for Cork today, an issue of fortitude, not tactic.
Waterford, mind, will be justifiably wary of meeting them again so soon, given the obvious ammunition Barry-Murphy now has with which to concentrate his players' minds.
True, it is probably overly-simplistic to suggest that something as basic as pride could help them bridge the chasm that separated them from McGrath's young team in the League final.
But no team goes into this Munster Championship less trusted and more derided than the defending champions, which, in itself, is quite remarkable.
Waterford look to be developing into an authentic force, yet the hunch here is that Cork will be keyed to a very different intensity when they meet again.
We, thus, see the Rebels making the provincial final on July 12 with Tipperary maybe coming through from the other side. And the champions of the south?
A tremulous vote for Tipp.