Monday 21 October 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Kilkenny dominate Martin Breheny's Hurling Team of the Decade'

Analysis

Pádraic Maher. Photo: Sportsfile
Pádraic Maher. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Ten years ago, the question now being asked about Dublin's dominance of football applied to hurling and Kilkenny - when will their seemingly never-ending grip be broken?

They had taken seven of the decade's ten All-Ireland titles, with four won consecutively in 2006-2009. Was there to be no end?

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Kilkenny had also done well throughout the decade at minor (three All-Irelands) and U-21 level (four), so there was absolutely no reason to suspect that the next decade wouldn't be highly productive too.

And it was, certainly at senior, where they won four All-Ireland titles, one more than Tipperary. They were less prominent in the minor (two) and U-21/20 (none) grades.

A place in history as the first county in either code to win five-in-a-row eluded them when Tipperary took full advantage of their injury problems in the 2010 final (they were without Brian Hogan, then the best centre-back in the country, and lost Henry Shefflin, contender for hurling's greatest ever player early on).

Tipperary's win, which was followed six days later by a thumping success over Galway in the U-21 final, launched theories about a new Premier empire, apparently set to dominate for years to come.

It didn't happen. They didn't win another senior All-Ireland until 2016, by which time Kilkenny had added four more, with Clare weaving in to take one in 2013.

Now, as the decade closes, Tipperary are back at No 1 at senior and U-20 level. The mood is much different though than in 2010 when the county became all giddy and presumed the good times were sure to get even better.

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That's because there's a realisation now that the margins between several counties are so narrow that All-Ireland champions might not even make the top three in the provincial championships in the following year.

Eliminated

Indeed, Tipperary know how finely balanced a season can be after being eliminated from last year's Munster Championship. It was Galway's turn this year to discover that the new system has no respect for reputations or odds.

Nobody predicted that they wouldn't finish in the top three in Leinster, yet it happened. And while they had the same number of points as Kilkenny, Wexford and Dublin, they were squeezed out on scoring difference.

That a team was eliminated from the All-Ireland race on what is effectively a technicality would have been dismissed as unthinkable 20 years ago. So too would league-style provincial championships.

These are different times and hurling people are happy to embrace them, although administrators still draw the line at ending the provincial system. But for how long more?

The key question at the end of any decade is whether a particular game - in all its facets - is better or worse than ten years earlier. In a general context, hurling has advanced significantly on where it was at the end of 2009.

The standard of play, the competitiveness and the sense that any one of seven or eight teams can win the All-Ireland in a given year combine to leave hurling looking very healthy.

There are exceptions though and it would be wrong to ignore them. Offaly have slipped so far that there has to be genuine concerns if they will ever again be genuine All-Ireland contenders.

Relegation to Division 2 of the Allianz League was dispiriting enough, although nothing compared with the drop from Liam MacCarthy Cup (last year) and Joe McDonagh Cup (this year).

It leaves Offaly in the third tier (counties ranked 16-24), which means that even if they win the Christy Ring and Joe McDonagh Cups in successive years, the earliest they can return to the Leinster championship is 2022.

That's not just a massive decline from their All-Ireland-winning days but also from the start of the decade in 2010 when they forced Galway to a replay in the Leinster semi-final, losing by two points, They later beat Limerick in the qualifiers before losing to Tipperary.

Antrim are another of the worrying stories from a decade which they started by drawing with Offaly in the Leinster quarter-final before beating Dublin in the qualifiers and turning in a competitive performance against Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final. The Glensmen have dropped well down the pecking order and, similar to Offaly, there are doubts about whether they will ever get back into the fast lane.

That's a concern, although not one that gets much attention at national level. But then it's easy to ignore it in favour of concentrating on the undoubted robustness of the game at the top end.

The decade delivered five All-Ireland winners (Kilkenny 4, Tipperary 3, Clare, Galway, Limerick one each), two more than 2000-'09 and one behind the 1990s.

Progress

It also saw Dublin win the Allianz League title for the first time since 1939 and the Leinster title for the first time since 1961.

Wexford made huge progress too, eventually winning Leinster for the first time in 15 years, leaving them starting a new decade with a real sense that the All-Ireland breakthrough is an achievable goal.

Cork have been the big failures of the decade, failing to win an All-Ireland at senior, minor, U-21/20 level, while they haven't won a league title since 1998.

It's not exactly a crisis, especially since they reached the business end of several championships, but it does add to the pressure on Kieran Kingston when he resumes as manager for a second term next year. Apart from having several more All-Ireland contenders than at the start of the decade, there's no doubt that the standard of the game has improved too in many, although not all, facets.

Most skills have never been at such a high level, executed with mesmerising speed, precision and consistency. It's a much more tactical game now and while innovations are always welcome, the primacy of getting ball in hand over striking either in the air or on the ground in all circumstances is an unwelcome development.

It's helping to make hurling more like football and while handpassing will never become as prevalent as in 'big ball', it has increased substantially in this decade.

It's being encouraged, of course, by the inexplicable failure of referees to clamp down on illegal transfers. They rarely penalise, even for the most blatant throws, which is in clear contravention of rule.

They are obviously doing so with the blessing of the authorities, as otherwise those who are most guilty would be dropped off the refs' elite panel.

It's an irritant which could be sorted out in a matter of weeks if the will were there. Clearly, it's not.

The decline of Offaly and Antrim aside, it has been an excellent decade for hurling, made all the better by increasing the number of championship games.

However, since nothing stands still, the next phase of development has to be the dismantling of the Munster and Leinster Championships, replaced by two round robins, comprised of teams from both,

With only ten counties (the short-term aim should be to increase it to 12) in the Liam MacCarthy Cup tier, there's an obvious logic in using a draw to make up the two groups, rather than relying on outdated geographical borders.

A final point: restore the All-Ireland final to its rightful place in early September.

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