Marquee teams and box-office finals don't hide fact that the club game is a shadow of its former self
Last year's All-Ireland club hurling semi-final line-up had the biggest box-office appeal since the 2000 pairings.
Portumna, Ballyhale Shamrocks and Newtownshandrum had shared five of the previous six All-Ireland club titles, while Dunloy's record in All-Ireland semi-finals gave them a status in that company.
At face value, it looked like club hurling had reached a peak, and was almost reflective of the inter-county scene. Especially when the previous September's All-Ireland final between Kilkenny and Tipperary was one of the games of the decade.
There's no doubting that Portumna and Ballyhale would rate with any of the great club hurling sides of the past 40 years. But their domestic dominance had skewed the perception of club hurling's overall health.
Over the last decade, nobody can deny that the standard has slipped in certain counties -- Antrim, Cork, Clare, Galway, Offaly, Limerick and Wexford. Some of those counties have produced really good sides; Adare won three-in-a-row in Limerick, while Oulart-The Ballagh have recently had the Wexford championship in a headlock.
On the other hand, there have been a couple of notable reverse trends. The Kilkenny club hurling championship is certainly stronger now than it was a decade ago, which is primarily due to the success that the inter-county teams have enjoyed and how that excellence has percolated down to all levels. Even the standard of junior club hurling in Kilkenny would nearly exceed that at intermediate level in most top counties.
Although Mount Sion and Ballygunner produced some excellent teams, and the clubs shared every county title between 1994 and 2006, the Waterford championship has probably never been more competitive. That increased spread, with new teams emerging, has also been very evident in Clare, Cork and Offaly.
"It's all very well to say that the standard has dropped dramatically in some counties just because the big traditional teams aren't winning county titles any more," says Stephen Frampton, who won seven Waterford county titles with Ballygunner.
"The standard may have dropped but I'd be more inclined to say that there are a lot more teams in certain counties that can win championships. I think some people are clouding their viewpoint because the big clubs aren't dominating anymore."
The Clare club championship is the most salient example. Between 1995 and 2000, Clare clubs won six successive Munster club titles. No Clare club has won a Munster title since and the county championship has gone from being a closed shop of four or five outstanding teams, to one where any one of 12 clubs can win it. Nine different clubs have won the championship since 2001.
It could also be argued that only for Portumna's excellence over the last six years, the Galway championship would have been just as competitive. Loughrea and Clarinbridge, who contested last year's county final, are the two teams that have given Portumna the most problems in Galway in that time span. Clarinbridge, who play De La Salle in tomorrow's All-Ireland semi-final, were lucky to draw with Beagh in a crucial group game last July. A defeat would have knocked them out.
Yet the general consensus is that the Kilkenny and Waterford models are isolated examples and the overall standard at club level has slipped. "Without question, the standard of club hurling has dropped big-time," says Pat Nally, who managed Athenry to three All-Ireland club titles between 1997 and 2001.
"I think the Celtic Tiger has a lot to answer for in relation to that problem. People got selfish and they didn't allow themselves to put the time back into their clubs. The Celtic Tiger almost destroyed what we had. People forgot about the basics and it's a story that can be applied to so many other aspects of modern life."
Between 1997 and 2003, Athenry and Birr dominated the All-Ireland club championship, sharing six titles between them during that period. Although Birr owned the Offaly championship for a decade, there was a time in the mid to late 1990s when there were plenty of sharks swimming in their waters. Similarly, when Athenry were winning Galway titles, it was the most cut-throat club championship in the country.
Former Offaly player Daithi Regan won two All-Ireland club medals with Birr, and he was involved with the Birr senior management last year. He doesn't pull any punches with how he feels the standard of club hurling has dropped in the county.
"There was a time not so long ago when you had exceptional clubs coming to the fore and you had brilliant championships in Offaly," he says. "It was dog-eat-dog. But that's all gone now and the club games are just desperate to look at.
"There's no cutting in it anymore and players are too nice to one another on the field. Some of them are good pals off the field, and that's fine. But when you went at it on the pitch, it was unbelievable stuff and you just gave everything you had to win for your club. That's completely gone now and I can see it in my own club.
"Guys nowadays have a different mentality to the sport. Too many players are relying on crutches. If they don't win, it's not their fault and they blame the manager. It is one of the big issues I have now; a lot of players that I have witnessed are not the same men as were there before."
There is a whole other strand to this debate, however. There is definitely a correlation between the demise in club standards in some counties and the increased number of qualifier games (both hurling and football), and how the inter-county game is subsequently squeezing the clubs.
Hurling is a summer game, but trying to run club championship matches during the summer months is often only a process of managing chaos.
"It has become ridiculously elitist, in that everything is based around the inter-county player," says Frampton. "Young lads are no longer willing to put up with hanging around all summer until the county team is finished. Maybe that's where the club scene has deteriorated. I think the pride in the jersey is gone a bit and guys are not willing to be numbers 20 and 21 anymore. They have other things to be at."
Clubs all over the country have to deal with that problem, especially when their season is at the mercy of the county team. After the great Limerick corner-back Steve McDonagh retired from inter-county hurling, he said that he learned more in his first two years back with Bruree than he had in 12 years with Limerick. The experience and struggles he discovered at club level really opened his eyes and his observation could reflect what is happening at many clubs around the country.
"Young lads now are affluent and it's not reasonable to expect them to do what lads did 10 years ago," said McDonagh after Bruree won their first county title under their own name in 2006. "In the ideal world, you wouldn't want to bend the rules, but we don't have any choice in rural Ireland when you depend on everybody. It would be very easy to fall out with fellas. You can't really crack the whip anymore."
The downturn in the economy may alter that reality and subsequently generate greater commitment levels. Some clubs are more vibrant now than ever before, but the flipside to that coin is that many rural clubs are on the verge of being wiped out through emigration.
The club scene has never faced a bigger challenge and unless the whole inter-county championship apparatus is restructured in the near future, standards across the board could face a real slump. And that would inevitably lead to a drop at inter-county level.
"You don't want to be over-negative, but the club hurling standard in most counties used to be a hell of a lot better than it is now," says Regan. "The concern I would have is that if we don't get very competitive club championships back in some counties, that's where the possible difficulties may occur.
"The only thing I will say is that these things do tend to come in cycles and there are always good people involved in clubs and schools promoting the game. I do think the overall standard will improve again. But I really think it needs to."