Thursday 12 December 2019

Comment: The new hurling championship is horribly unbalanced and unfair to teams in Munster


Clare’s David Reidy in action against Cork duo Christopher Joyce (left) and Colm Spillane in their Allianz NHL clash. Photo: Sportsfile
Clare’s David Reidy in action against Cork duo Christopher Joyce (left) and Colm Spillane in their Allianz NHL clash. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The All-Ireland Hurling Championship looks insanely unbalanced right now. Five of the top seven teams are in Munster, where it's almost impossible to predict who will take the three qualifying spots.

On the other hand, Galway, Kilkenny and Wexford are practically guaranteed to emerge from Leinster.

Unless Galway get things badly wrong the Leinster title is theirs for the taking. Given the parlous state of both Offaly and Dublin, whose hammering by Limerick on Saturday shows how far adrift they are of serious teams, there will be some desperately one-sided games in Leinster.

But there are no such foregone conclusions in Munster. Its teams have minimal room for error.

The nuttiest thing about the new structure is that by mid-June the season will be over for the fourth and fifth teams in Munster.

Making this sillier still is that in July the two teams who have qualified from the Joe McDonagh Cup for weaker counties will play qualifiers against the third-ranked Munster and Leinster sides.

Meetings between, let's say, Antrim and Wexford or Laois and Cork can only have one, painful, result. Playing such games when Clare and Limerick may already have been knocked out is a joke.

The new structure is unfair to the Munster teams but they must crack on with things. Yesterday showed the diametrically opposite ways in which two of them are preparing to meet the provincial challenge.

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Listening to Clare wing-back Michael O'Malley talk about the importance of his team's first competitive win over Cork since the 2013 All-Ireland final, it was obvious that the home side had invested a great deal in the game.

It makes sense. Clare's defeat by Cork in last year's Munster final must have rankled terribly.

That 2013 triumph by a young team, combined with a hat-trick of All-Ireland under 21 titles, made the future look Banner-shaped.

Yet last summer Clare's young guns were outclassed by a Cork side full of players who'd been much less successful at under-age level. All those old tales about Cork's ability to come from nowhere and vanquish less exalted counties had apparently been proven correct.

Last year, Clare's performances in both League and Championship were surprisingly sloppy.

This year so far their zip and focus have been unrivalled. The nerveless finish against Tipperary, the first Nowlan Park win in 13 years and yesterday's commanding first-half performance have left them with three wins out of three.

Not bad considering they'd won just three of their previous 11 Division 1A matches. Victory over Cork is particularly important as they open the Championship against the Rebels at Pairc Ui Chaoimh.

The current run reminds us that Clare probably possess more talented individuals than anyone except Galway and Tipperary.

Waterford also have a 100pc league record - in their case one of failure. Before the competition started Derek McGrath seemed pretty unconcerned about it. After going so close to ultimate honours last year the Déise don't need to build confidence like Clare do.

Nobody will be pushing panic buttons over the awfulness of their League performances. McGrath has been proved right so many times in the past that second-guessing him is probably a mug's game.

His side's attitude against Kilkenny can be summed up by a moment just after the half-hour when Walter Walsh, though outnumbered by Waterford defenders, managed to outfight them and win an improbable free. Waterford are not usually out-hustled or out-worked but it kept happening in Walsh Park yesterday.

When Waterford are deficient in desire it leaves them horribly exposed because their cruising speed is much lower than that of their main rivals. Not the most stylish or technically proficient of the big sides, at their best they compensate with physicality, pace and huge commitment. But a Waterford side at less than full tilt can be a sorry sight.

McGrath's proven acuity notwithstanding, you wonder if it's helpful for a team to develop a losing habit.

Too much can't be read into these early defeats but they've still showcased the weaknesses which denied Waterford the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

The question of how best to deploy Austin Gleeson remains unsolved. They look lightweight in the full-forward line, something which places a huge responsibility on the likes of Gleeson, Kevin Moran and Jamie Barron to contribute from deep.

McGrath would give a lot for a John Mullane-type inside threat or even someone who could do the target-man job Walsh performs for Kilkenny.

Sometimes league results matter more than they appeared to at first sight.

Waterford had Galway at their mercy in last year's quarter-final but let them off the hook. That Déise failure and Tipperary's laissez-faire attitude in the decider helped Galway to a League title which seemed to instil a new confidence in Michael Donoghue's side.


Then again Clare's 2016 League victory, which seemed very significant at the time, was followed just two months later by a timid championship exit which spelled the end for Davy Fitzgerald. The interpretation of league results is not a scientific discipline.

We do know that the Munster teams will be under pressure from the start of the Championship. Galway and Kilkenny will have the luxury of playing themselves in, Clare and Waterford won't.

That's because the new Championship structure doesn't address an inequality likely to grow even greater in the next few years.

It's 2008 since the Leinster U-21 champions won an All-Ireland. Munster teams have won eight of the nine titles in that period and Galway one. Some really uncompetitive finals have shown the disparity in young talent between the provinces.

It's like the gap between Leinster and Munster in rugby, only the other way around.

For now Munster's finest can only hope they're on the right path to hit the ground running in May. But they won't know what the League really means until it's translated by the Championship.

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