Thursday 22 February 2018

Munster hurling championship weaves its magic yet again

GEEZ thanks John Allen. Thanks Limerick.

We'd a good thing going on in this column for the last couple of weeks and then you had to come along and ruin it all for us.

The provincial championships were a waste of time. We were very clear on that. We were equally clear that the gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening all the time. Something we put down to the concentration of top teams in the top divisions of the National Leagues.

Well if that's the case how can you explain last Sunday? How can you explain a Division 1B (essentially Division 2) team defeating the finalists of Division 1A? How can you explain a vibrant and fascinating Munster senior hurling championship? It's not easy that's for sure.

Perhaps, it's just the case that the Munster hurling championship is something special. Where the Munster football championship is the exemplar of everything that's wrong with the provincial structure, the Munster hurling championship is the embodiment of everything that's great about it.

Those great local rivalries and traditions stretching back generations. Those ritualistic trips to Limerick and Thurles and Cork. Fans, fathers, sons and daughters stopping off at the same public houses before and after the game, meeting the same people year in year out.

And the hurling? The hurling is unfailingly thrilling. It's the most open of all championships. Everybody in it – now that Kerry are no longer competing – has a chance of winning it on any given year. On any given year a team can emerge from the pack to take the rest by surprise.

It's been a hell of a long time since anybody did that in the Munster football championship – Clare in 1992 and, even with Micko in the mix, they won't be repeating those heroics this Sunday against the Rebels in Ennis. No football is a duopoly in these parts.

All those remaining in the hurling championship (Clare, Cork and Limerick) have a geniune chance of winning it and the elimated sides weren't that far off either. Imagine that? Real competition to keep us interested as the early stages of the championship play themselves out.

There's none of that shadow-boxing vibe you get from a lot of the championship, this is the real deal. The reaction of the Limerick fans after the full-time whistle tells you that. The elation was real and justified.

Tipp were desperately disappointed. Limerick's final fifteen minutes was a geniune suckerpunch. John O'Dwyer's performance after coming on a sub at half-time was as scorching as the conditions in the Gaelic Grounds – 1-3 from play and Tipp were well on their way to an expected victory. Their Division 1B opponents could hardly be expected to recover from there, could they?

Not a bit of a it. Paudie O'Brien and Gavin O'Mahony were magnificent for the Treaty on the half-back line, Richie McCarthy's resistance at full-back stout. Tipp, the team which scored goals for fun for the last three or four seasons, looked bereft of ideas. An injured Lar Corbett failed to spark the front six to life.

Not as long as Donal O'Grady (the midfielder, not his former manager) drove forward with intent. Not as long as Declan Hannon and Seanie Tobin ran the channels and found themselves in good positions – Limerick's support play was top notch. Not even a poorly struck free and a miss by Hannon at a vital time dented their confidence. They held their nerve.

John Allen is doing a great job on Shannonside. Then again it's not as if it's the first time he's followed in Donal O'Grady's (the manager, not the player) wake and made a success of it. Having beaten the favourites for the title the burden now falls to them.

Not something that either Allen or his players will get hung up about. On the Sunday Game his former charge Donal Óg Cusack described Allen as the consumate man-manager, better than any sports pyschololgist. Not matter who emerges from the second semi-final Limerick will be in the right frame of mind. Count on that.

For Cork, Limerick's victory ought to provide plenty of motivation. It proved that in this championship any team can win on any given day. It proved that league form counts for very little in a derby (they're all derbies in the Munster hurling championship).

This time last week Clare were the story of the championship, now Limerick are. Things change. Cork hurling may be at a low ebb at present, but they're only seventy minutes away from redemption.

Yes the Munster championship really is special. If we could only do something about its big ball brother...


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