Bear-pit factor makes club success harder to attain
In the storied history of the Munster club hurling championship, this weekend three years ago appeared to represent the beginning of a new chapter. In more plain terms, the two semi-finals proved it was the most novel Munster club championship since the inception of the competition.
Ballygunner and Na Piarsaigh squared up in one semi-final, while Crusheen and Carrigtwohill faced off in the other. Ballygunner were old hands but they had just beaten Drom & Inch - who had won their first county title - in the quarter-final. Na Piarsaigh had also just secured their first county title, while Crusheen had won their first Clare championship the previous year and Carrigtwohill had bridged a 93-year gap to win Cork.
The campaign became even more novel when Na Piarsaigh and Crusheen qualified for the final. In comparative terms, the 1990 and 1995 Munster club championships were populated with rookie teams but those titles were still won by traditional powerhouses - Patrickswell and Sixmilebridge.
One of the most robust trends of the club hurling championship is that the big clubs keep coming back.
Prior to 2011, since the Munster championship began in 1964, 37 of the 48 titles won had been shared by just 14 clubs. New clubs had to emerge sometime but breakthrough soon often stood for unbreakable.
That trend was consistently maintained throughout the last decade in Munster; Newtownshandrum secured their first Cork championship in 2000 but went on to win three Munster titles in seven seasons; De La Salle were maiden Waterford champions in 2008 before bagging two Munster crowns in three years. Then, Na Piarsaigh identically followed a similar path, winning a first county title and following it up with two Munster titles in the last three seasons.
When teams arrived, they tended to stay around. That trend was far more apparent in Leinster. Since that first Leinster club championship in 1971, just seven clubs have won the title on one occasion, with the remaining 35 provincial crowns being shared by just nine clubs.
Some of those clubs were complete oligarchs - Rathnure, Ballyhale Shamrocks and Birr share 19 Leinster titles between them. Yet despite those consistent trends, there has paradoxically been more novelty and change in the club championship over the last three seasons than at any other time in the competition's history.
Of the seven clubs to win just one provincial title in Leinster, three were won in the last three seasons; Coolderry, Kilcormac-Killoughey and Mount Leinster Rangers.
It would have been inconceivable five years ago to think that a club like Mount Leinster Rangers could contest an All-Ireland club senior final three years after contesting an All-Ireland intermediate club final but there are no limits to the ambitions of certain clubs anymore. Increased competitiveness has broadened the field and inflated the chasing pack. Shelmaliers won a first county title in Wexford this year; Clara won just their second Kilkenny county title last year, a year after winning the intermediate title.
Next weekend, Clara go up against a Ballyhale side which won five county titles in the previous eight seasons.
During that time, Ballyhale, Oulart-The Ballagh and Ballyboden St Enda's often had the Kilkenny, Wexford and Dublin championships in a headlock but similar big-gun strangleholds have gradually been loosened around the country.
The success of most club teams depends on a confluence of cycles, timing and quality players but traditional powerhouses have also been finding it more difficult to flex their muscles with so many more teams emerging from the pack.
Mount Sion and Ballygunner shared every Waterford county title between 1993 and 2006 but the Waterford championship has never been as competitive in the meantime.
Between 1995 and 2000, Clare clubs won six successive Munster club titles. The standard in Clare is not as high now as it was then but the championship has gone from effectively being a closed shop of four outstanding teams, to one which has produced nine different winners in the last 11 years.
The emergence of so many new teams has levelled the playing field but the possible corollary is that it has also led to a decrease in real quality at the top. There is definitely a correlation between the demise in club standards in some counties and how the inter-county structures are squeezing the clubs.
The oscillation of population trends and underage success will increasingly alter the culture of the club championship but clubs are also becoming more professional in their approach each season. Talent, hunger and hard work still dictate everything but some clubs' logistical and backroom structures mirror inter-county set-ups. And a more professional attitude naturally extends to greater ambition. Despite the recent openness, Portumna's fourth All-Ireland in eight years last season was further proof how the big clubs keep coming back. Prior to Portumna's dominance, Birr and Athenry had divided up seven All-Irelands in nine years.
That duopoly had been preceded by the oligarchy of Cork's big-three, the response from Kilkenny's ruling caste and the subsequent Galway revolution.
The Galway revolution is also a very interesting case study when compared with Munster over the last 25 years. In that time Galway clubs have reached 17 All-Ireland finals, winning 12 titles.
The Galway champions, though, have always had the advantage in their All-Ireland bid of not having to negotiate a tough provincial campaign.
Some of those teams were so powerful and dominant that it might not have mattered if they had to enter a tough provincial campaign. But it would definitely have made a difference in trying to maintain a relentless pursuit of All-Irelands.
There is an obvious correlation here. In the past 25 seasons, only three Munster clubs - Sixmilebridge, St Joseph's Doora-Barefield and Newtownshandrum - have won club All-Irelands. Yet has the standard in Galway been that much higher than the overall standard in Munster during that time? Absolutely not.
The system is a glaringly obvious factor. While Galway champions can target peaking twice in February and March, Munster - and Leinster - teams have to enter into a provincial bear-pit, many at away venues, before they can even contemplate an All-Ireland campaign.
The Galway sides could argue that they don't have the same amount of preparatory games but peaking is a crucial part of such a long provincial and All-Ireland club campaign. Na Piarsaigh had to beat Loughmore-Castleiney, Passage, and Sixmilebridge to reach last year's All-Ireland semi-final, where they were beaten by Portumna.
Back in 2009, Newtown defeated Thurles Sarsfields, Adare and Ballygunner before losing to Ballyhale the following February. "It was only a matter of time before Newtown ran into a haymaker," said Pat Nally - who managed Athenry to three All-Irelands - before that year's All-Ireland final. "They hadn't a hope in hell of winning an All-Ireland. Their path was just too tough."
Munster has always been a bear-pit and tomorrow is no different. Thurles Sarsfields are the only side with a modern history of success, having been crowned champions for the first time in 2012, but Kilmallock also have serious pedigree having won Munster titles in 1992 and 1994.
Sarsfields (Cork) and Cratloe are still looking for a first Munster title but both sides are stacked with class players good enough to win a provincial crown. Na Piarsaigh's emergence as a power in Munster in the last three years also shows how big-time tradition has to start somewhere.
It is that kind of evolution which ensures why there will always be big guns ready to fire in the Munster club hurling championship.
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