Two-horse race not healthy for hurling
Kilkenny and Tipperary rubber-stamped their managerial arrangements this week as they seek to continue their dominance of the All-Ireland hurling scene. The big question is, can anyone challenge them in 2011 or indeed beyond? Or are they set to remain the big beasts of the small-ball game for a long time into the future?
LAST Monday night, Kilkenny repeated what they have done every November for the past 12 years by appointing Brian Cody to preside over the county's attempt to have the black-and-amber flag fluttering on hurling's summit again next year.
On Tuesday night, Tipperary turned to newcomer Declan Ryan and handed him the brief of maintaining the highest peak as blue-and-gold territory. The appointments tied up hurling managements' remaining loose ends for 2011, leaving all contenders great and small preparing to put their campaigns in place once they are allowed to return to official training on January 1.
It comes at a time when Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary have completed their longest ever spell of dominance. Liam MacCarthy has wintered in 'Big Three' country for 12 successive seasons, easily beating previous sequences.
Also, the last decade was the first where the 'Big Three' won all 10 titles. Cork ended the 1990s with a win and Tipperary have started this decade as champions, so the sequence goes on.
The prospect of returning to a three-state hurling kingdom seemed remote during the 1980s-1990s, when the spread widened to a degree where it was assumed the days of dominance by Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary were over.
Six counties won All-Ireland senior titles in the 1990s, one more than in the previous decade. Between 1980 and 1996, seven counties won the All-Ireland.
In terms of breakthroughs and variety, it was hurling's golden age, but the scene changed after Offaly became the first county to win the title via the back door in 1998. Twelve seasons on, the big question centres on whether there's anybody out there who can break the dominance of the 'Big Three'.
Despite their 10-point win over Tipp in this year's Munster quarter-final, Cork have slipped back and are, at most, ranked fifth best in the land at present, but they have still won three All-Irelands in 11 years, a good return by any standards.
It may take them some time to win their next, a theory supported by their lack of progress at underage level, where they haven't won an U-21 All-Ireland title for 12 years or a minor final for nine. Clearly, that's an issue in Cork, who have to be concerned that the raw material is not anywhere nearly as strong as it should be.
Not that underage success is a guarantee of anything. Galway have been producing excellent U-21 and minor teams for years, yet they haven't been able to transfer those achievements onto the senior stage. Of all the major hurling counties, Galway have been the most disappointing. Every year they are voted most likely to break the dominance of the 'Big Three' and, every year since 1988, they have failed.
Championship wins over Kilkenny in 2001 and 2005 and over Tipperary in 2000 and 2005, plus close calls against Waterford and Tipperary over the last two seasons, tend to be highlighted in any analysis of Galway but the reality of their position since the back door was opened in 1997 tells a different and more alarming story.
Galway have reached the All-Ireland semi-final only three times in the last 14 seasons and one of those was through a win over Derry (2001) which wasn't exactly a major test.
They lost quarter-finals in 1997, '98, '99, 2002, '06, '07, '09 and '10 and didn't even get that far in 2003, '04 or '08. Contrast that with the 1980 to 1993 period when they reached eight All-Ireland finals, winning three.
Given Galway's success at underage level, their senior return is abysmal and while the county took great heart from running Tipperary so close this year, history suggests it would be unwise for the supporters to overvalue what was, after all, a defeat.
The real risk for hurling is that the All-Ireland scene will effectively become a two-county state, with Kilkenny and Tipperary vying for top spot. It's very difficult to spot any contender who is capable of beating Kilkenny and Tipperary in the one season.
The change of management will be a distraction for Tipperary but, with the underlying fundamentals so sound, it's not one that should cause any major fault line. Just how good this Tipperary squad becomes is down to themselves, as they have shown over the past two seasons that they are well equipped for the longer haul. So as long as they ensure their ambitions are retained and properly directed, they will be a major force over the next few years.
So too, of course, will Kilkenny. One defeat in five years does nothing to devalue their stock, especially since it came on a day when possibly the greatest hurler of all time could make no real contribution.
Their determination to regain the All-Ireland controls next year will be driven by levels of determination similar to 2006, when they recovered from two disappointing campaigns to embark on a four-in-a-row run.
Waterford continue to be a top-four side who just can't force their way into the top two. As with Galway, it's difficult to see them beating Kilkenny and Tipperary in the same year, certainly not unless they succeed in locating a few new forwards. On the plus side, they have made progress at underage level so they will remain competitive but may still come up short on the really big days.
The same goes for Clare, Limerick, Dublin and Offaly, while Wexford's decline has been quite alarming. The days when they were capable of upsetting Kilkenny on a given day are gone and, with Galway now set to remain in the Leinster championship, the best Wexford can aspire to is third place.
Wexford's inability to win a Leinster minor title for 25 years or an All-Ireland minor crown for 42 years underscores the scale of the problem. They badly need to show tangible progress by winning some silverware. Irrespective of what angle it's viewed from, the signs are that Tipp and Kilkenny will dominate the scene for the next few years.
History shows that great empires sometimes look at their strongest just before they collapse, but it really is stretching things to suggest that Tipperary and Kilkenny are headed for anything other than a tightening of their grip on the big prizes.
Indeed, at this stage the big question is: by how far will the All-Ireland sequence by the 'Big Three' extend? It has already reached 12 for the first time in GAA history and there are few indication that it's about to end.