Why this could be the best-ever Munster hurling championship
Take your pick between Clare, Cork, Limerick and Tipp – all with real claims to the All-Ireland title
If the Munster Hurling Championship took on human form, it wouldn't sleep a wink tonight.
Never in its decorated history has so much been expected of the great southern carnival, which begins tomorrow when Cork and Waterford line up in Semple Stadium (4.0). The reason for the excitement is simple.
For the first time, the province hosts the reigning All-Ireland champions (Clare), runners-up (Cork) and Munster champions (Limerick) in a three-way division of power that few would have anticipated this time last year.
It also features Allianz League Division 1 runners-up Tipperary, who took Kilkenny to extra-time in the final three weeks ago. If Waterford, currently ranked fifth of five in Munster, weren't such doughty battlers, they might feel completely out of their depth in such exalted company but their resilient nature, plus their record, suggests that it will actually inspire them.
They will need that extra pep because, as luck would have it, they are in a transition phase while all the others are well settled. It presents Waterford with a huge challenge, especially since they are drawn in the quarter-final.
Still, they have shown often enough in the past – and especially since launching a new, confident phase in their history after winning the 2002 Munster final – that they are always receptive to a rising tide around them. It's certainly swelling in Munster at present as Clare, Tipperary and Cork fill three of the top four favourites' slots with Kilkenny in the All-Ireland odds.
So could it be the best Munster championship in the 127-year history of the competition? The ingredients are certainly there, packed tightly into the blender, awaiting switch-on.
Three contenders from the Leinster championship – Kilkenny, Dublin and Galway – would all fancy themselves against Munster's best. And while Wexford appear to be behind the top seven across both provinces, they will point to last year's All-Ireland qualifier with Clare as an example of the heights they can reach on a given day.
The finals scoreline (Clare 3-24 Wexford 1-20) looks cold and stark in the record books but it overlooks the reality that the game went to extra-time. And while Clare drove on over those 20 minutes, they were lucky not to have been caught at the end of normal time.
Memories of the brave fightback which forced extra-time will be very prominent in Liam Dunne's mindset as he looks ahead to this year's campaign.
Back in Munster, Waterford are the only contenders who can probably be written off as eventual winners. Handicapped by injuries and with quite a few rookies working their way into the team, it's highly unlikely they will beat Cork, Clare and Tipperary or Limerick.
However, when Waterford are removed from the equation, it still leaves four top-class contenders with a realistic chance of success. That includes Limerick, even if there's a tendency to regard them as one-hit provincial wonders that won't be back on the winners' podium for quite some time.
An erratic league, punctuated with the careless loss of promotion from 1B and a heavy defeat by Galway in the quarter-final, was followed by the controversial departure of Donal O'Grady in bizarre circumstances. It all fed into the notion that Limerick are ripe for a plucking by Tipperary tomorrow week, after which it might be difficult to relaunch in the All-Ireland qualifiers.
That overlooks the facts from their last two championship clashes with Tipperary. Two years ago, Limerick led Tipperary by seven points after 48 minutes before being reeled in. Last year it was Limerick who did the reeling, recovering from a four-point deficit after 50 minutes to beat Tipperary by three points before ousting Cork in the Munster final.
All of which makes Limerick's 5/2 odds to beat Tipperary look very attractive, especially since Tipperary came so very close to facing a relegation battle with Waterford in late March. Indeed, if Dublin had scored one more point in their clash with Tipperary, Eamonn O'Shea's men would have been sucked into the relegation play-off.
Instead, Tipperary exploited the narrow escape and made it all the way to the final. That will have boosted their confidence but it won't have totally wiped out the memory of their sloppy performances against Kilkenny, Clare and Galway, all of whom ripped their defence apart.
O'Shea insisted all along that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with either the game plan or the personnel and, in fairness, he was vindicated over the final four games but it still doesn't make them such overwhelming favourites to beat the Treaty men.
TJ Ryan insisted during the week that the Limerick players had responded superbly after the upheaval of O'Grady's departure so if they can harness the energy and method that steered them to provincial glory last year, the clash with Tipperary could even surpass expectations in terms of competitiveness.
All the signs are that the other semi-final will be a Cork v Clare battle, which would be one of the summer highlights. It was 1-1 each with one draw from their three championship clashes last year, with the aggregate score reading: Cork 6-55 Clare 5-56.
Naturally, the All-Ireland final replay was the defining game in terms of prizes, with Clare's win reinforcing the view they were the superior force. It was certainly the case on that occasion but it's worth remembering Cork scored more than Clare over the three games.
It will all form part of the intrigue if the pair meet on June 15, adding yet another layer of fascination to a Munster championship that is already overflowing with enthralling possibilities.
It's only four years since the Munster championship provided a one-sided quarter-final (Cork 3-15 Tipperary 0-14); forgettable semi-finals in which Waterford beat Clare and a non-event between Cork and a second-string Limerick team before Cork and Waterford raised the tempo in a drawn final. However, it was back to mediocrity in the replay. Tipperary saved the season for Munster by relaunching successfully in the qualifiers and going on to win the All-Ireland.
A whole lot has changed in Munster since then, in particular for Clare and Limerick, who are way ahead of where they were in 2011. Tipperary haven't built on the 2010 success in the manner they expected but are still genuine All-Ireland contenders. So are Cork, which leaves Waterford as the only one of the quintet with ground to make up.
It all points to a memorable Munster championship but whether it will produce the eventual All-Ireland winners remains to be seen. After all, Kilkenny, Galway, Dublin and an improving Wexford are pretty formidable forces, who have their own battles to wage in Leinster before the All-Ireland wars engages them with Munster opposition. It should be some season.
Munster Hurling Championships - Six of the best
This year's Munster hurling championship has the key essentials to be the most competitive in history. Of course, whether they interact correctly to make it happen remains to be seen. The following are the six most competitive Munster championships over the past 50 years, based on the closeness of the games.
The average winning margin in the four games was 1.75 points as Tipperary took the title for the first time since 1993, en route to winning the All-Ireland.
Limerick 1-16 Cork 1-15
Tipperary 0-15 Clare 0-14
Limerick 4-11 Waterford 2-14
Tipperary 2-16 Limerick 1-17
Apart from Cork v Kerry, it was close in every game as Cork took the title. They were later beaten by Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final. The average winning score in Munster was 2.6 points.
Cork 0-22 Kerry 0-8
Waterford 2-13 Clare 3-10 (draw)
Waterford 0-16 Clare 0-14 (replay)
Cork 2-12 Tipperary 1-12
Limerick 2-13 Waterford 1-13
Cork 1-22 Limerick 3-11
A GAA centenary year spectacular, the average winning margin per game was 2.75 points. Cork took the title with a late surge to beat Tipperary in the final. The Rebels later won the All-Ireland.
Clare 0-15 Waterford 2-8
Cork 3-15 Limerick 2-13
Tipperary 1-15 Clare 2-11
Cork 4-15 Tipperary 3-14
Fans got extra value in '71 as championship games were played over 80 minutes (from 1971-'74) . John Flanagan nabbed the winning point for Tipp against Limerick in the Munster final to end a campaign where the average winning margin was 3.25 points.
Limerick 3-10 Waterford 2-8
Tipperary 1-15 Clare 3-4
Limerick 2-16 Cork 2-14
Tipperary 4-16 Limerick 3-18
Even Kerry were competitive in a competition which had an average winning margin of 3.3 points as Cork clinched a provincial three-in-a-row.
Waterford 0-17 Kerry 1-9
Clare 1-10 Tipperary 0-13 (draw)
Clare 0-13 Tipperary 1-7 (replay)
Cork 4-13 Waterford 3-11
Cork 0-14 Limerick 1-9
Cork 4-15 Clare 4-10
Richie Bennis held his nerve to point a '65' in the final seconds of the Munster final to give Limerick the title for the first time since 1955, in a season when the average winning margin was 3.5 points.
Tipperary 1-16 Waterford 2-8
Limerick 3-11 Clare 3-9
Tipperary 5-4 Cork 1-10
Limerick 6-7 Tipperary 2-18