Sunday 18 March 2018

Dermot Crowe: Let the games begin

Ancient rivalries recommence as summer throws in

Croke Park, Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Croke Park, Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

The championship season that might see Dublin win three-in-a-row for the first time since the 1920s, Waterford end a 58-year wait to hook hurling's greatest prize, or Tipperary retain the MacCarthy Cup for the first time in over half-a-century, gathers momentum in venues around the country today.

A fortnight ago Sligo ventured to New York and came back unscathed and recent weekends have been busy deciding which two hurling teams obtain passports from the round robin into Leinster's quarter-finals. But the championship season begins in earnest today.

In Thurles the ancient rivalry of Tipp and Cork will demand fresh ink and perhaps a new twist. It preserves its niche and meaning even if it is not always able to shoulder the immense burden tradition bestows. Recent times have seen Tipp in the ascendancy and last year's match won't stand tall in the lore to which it belongs. Cork succumbed most un-Cork like. They will expect more fire in the belly today but Tipp are All-Ireland champions, smarting from a National League final trouncing from Galway four weeks ago. They will be scraping their hooves and raising dust, roused by the red jersey, there to inflict harm on them.

Their Munster quarter-final meeting has the hurling stage to itself, while three provinces set sail in the football championship.

In Leinster there are three first-round matches among the down-at-heel, a province ruled imperiously by Dublin for so long that some people have stopped caring. The winner of today's first-round match between Carlow and Wexford must face Jim Gavin's men in the next round.

Mayo, tossed and torn, resume their eternal and penitential quest for that All-Ireland with what should be a relatively comfortable launch at home to Sligo. No team in either championship captures the craving for a long overdue consummation than Mayo. They are the championship personified: no matter how cruelly they fall short they are renewable, never crushed nor without hope. Their spirit won't be broken. Pass today's test and they have Galway, resurgent and uppity, waiting in Salthill.

Ulster's reputation as the most competitive and functional provincial championship in football is well justified. Donegal, since 2011, have been in every final and won half of them but last year saw their hold loosened by Tyrone. They responded with an impressive league win over Tyrone in the spring and have discovered that there are more young players ready to replace those who have downed tools. In Ballybofey, a fortress before fortresses existed, they will be expected to see off Antrim, now three divisions beneath them in the rankings.

This will be the end of the current football championship format as we know it. Next year sees a new beginning: the start of a three-year trial for the Super 8 which includes a series of round-robin matches at the quarter-final stage. Some of the product, undeniably, has gone stale, reflected in falling crowds. This is an attempt to rejuvenate the championship and make it more interesting. In the meantime, it's as you were.

Hush now: the national anthem is about to begin.

Sunday Independent

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