Tuesday 18 June 2019

The inside view as Munster hurling championship enters a new era

Stephen McDonnell is surrounded by Cork supporters as he lifts the Munster SHC trophy after last year’s final victory over Clare – the absence of the knockout element this year has already fuelled much debate. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Stephen McDonnell is surrounded by Cork supporters as he lifts the Munster SHC trophy after last year’s final victory over Clare – the absence of the knockout element this year has already fuelled much debate. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Cork, Waterford and Tipperary didn't want a round robin format in the Munster hurling championship but they got it anyway.

Dublin were opposed to a similar change in Leinster, while Kilkenny urged that a decision be deferred to the end of this year to see how the 'Super 8s' worked out in football.

Laois, Offaly and Meath would not have supported the hurling proposals unless the prize for the two finalists in the Joe McDonagh Cup was upgraded to include immediate entry to the All-Ireland championships.

That's a lot of opposition among the top counties to running Munster and Leinster on a league basis, but it still won a 62-38 per cent majority at last September's Special Congress.

But then it had the backing of Central Council and also drew substantial support from counties outside the Liam MacCarthy Cup tier.

Democracy is a noble method of organising affairs but can anyone seriously argue that counties in the bottom third of hurling's ladder cared a jot about how the provincial championships were run?

Central Council told them the round robin was the way to go, so they went.

Leinster had long since surrendered their exclusivity by welcoming Galway, Kerry and Antrim into their senior championships at various stages, but Munster were different.

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Leinster continue to insist on retaining the title of the eastern championship but from the day they allowed outsiders into their nest, it wasn't the same.

In effect, it had become the 'Rest of Ireland' championship, while Munster retained its unique brand.

It had always prided itself on being the authentic big deal, even if the All-Ireland success ratio - certainly over the last 40 years - doesn't quite bear that out.


Nonetheless, the Munster Championship is probably the main reason why hurling hasn't moved on from the provincial system. Leinster's willingness to accommodate outsiders showed that they were open to change in a manner that's not apparent down south.

Munster took in Galway in the 1960s but times were different then. The Tribesmen weren't a major force (they won only one game in 11 seasons in Munster) and high-tailed it back on their own in 1970.

One suspects that any suggestion to re-locate Galway to Munster now would be fiercely resisted.

The claws shot out at even the merest suggestion that the bottom team in Munster might, similar to what will happen in Leinster, be relegated to Joe McDonagh Cup level after this year's championship.

Indeed, there's a double lock to protect Clare, Cork, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford.

They can only be relegated if they lose to Kerry in a play-off. And the only circumstance in which the play-off will arise is if Kerry win the Tier 2 championship.

The reality of that inequality will become apparent next month when one of the five counties in Leinster drops out for 2019.

And with Antrim going very well at present, there's a decent chance they could win the Joe McDonagh Cup, leaving only three Leinster counties in their own championship.

Automatic relegation from Leinster has drawn the ire of, among others, Brian Cody, as he outlined after Kilkenny's win over Dublin last Sunday.

"There's no way any team in Leinster should be relegated. There's no team being relegated in Munster so why it's supposed to happen in Leinster, I have no idea. If anyone thinks there is a lack of quality in Leinster, they're absolutely wrong," he said.

Leinster Council chairman Jim Bolger said this week that if counties expressed dissatisfaction over the relegation issue, he would "represent the views of the province in any review."

He also said that "ways of tweaking it could be looked at."

The obvious one is to scrap relegation this year and allow the Joe McDonagh Cup winners into Leinster next season in a six-series round robin.

It could be run off as quickly as a five-series, which leaves one county idle each weekend. In all probability, that will be proposed later on in the year,

Meanwhile, Munster sets out tomorrow with a system that three of the five counties opposed, including Waterford, whose chairman Paddy Joe Ryan claimed during the debate last September that, if agreed, it would be "one of the worst decisions in GAA history."

So what's the mood around Munster as the province enters a new phase in the famed history of its 131-year-old championship?

* * * * *

Niall Gilligan made his senior debut with Clare in 1997, the year when beaten Leinster and Munster finalists were re-admitted to the All-Ireland race for the first time.

Not that Clare had to rely on the 'back door', instead powering their way to a second All-Ireland title in three seasons.

It took them three games to win Munster, although the first-round tie with Kerry was no more than a practice fence. If they are to win Munster this year, they will have played five games again top-ranked opposition.

"It's great from a player's perspective - regular games and the chance to come back if one of them goes wrong. What player wouldn't want that?" says Gilligan.

Gilligan was in the Clare team in 1997 when they beat Tipperary in the All-Ireland final. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

"My problem - and I'm looking from a club perspective now - is that it's closing down a long period for clubs. I don't think the whole April thing (no inter-county games) worked.

"With the provincial championships starting so early, counties had an eye to that so there weren't a whole lot of big club games played around the country.

"We (Clare) played no championship games in April and I think that was the right decision. Starting the championships and then closing them down for months is no good for anyone," he says.

Club problems apart, Gilligan believes that the full impact of playing four championship games so quickly will only become apparent once counties are doing it.

"You can talk all you like in advance about what it will entail, but it's only when lads are in the middle of it that they will find out exactly what it's like. Conal Keaney got injured last Sunday and is out for a few weeks.

"That wouldn't matter as much any other year when there was a break between games but Dublin are playing again next Sunday.

"You will find that sort of thing happening all over the place in the coming weeks so the counties with the biggest squads will have an advantage," he says.

Who's that in Munster? "You'd have to say Tipperary. They have a lot of options. I would be very surprised if they don't reach the final. As to who joins them, it's impossible to say," adds Gilligan.

In terms of the Munster Championship big-game experience, he believes the public will be selective in the games they attend.

"Many Clare people are still considering whether to go to Cork on Sunday. They will have Waterford in Ennis on Sunday week and there are still two more games to go after that so there's plenty to choose from."

And what about the shock to the system for the two counties who find themselves out of the All-Ireland championship as early as June 17?

"They can't complain. They will have had four games to avoid it," says Gilligan.

* * * * *

Ollie Moran believes that the new-look championship could hasten the day when there are two distinct seasons: one for club, one for county.

Limerick played two rounds of the senior hurling championship in April, but he doesn't believe it worked.

"To be honest, the standard was poor and attendances were low. That's hardly surprising when players and public alike knew that the next round was at least a few months away.

"The new (inter-county) championship is having a detrimental effect on the club game so maybe it's time to look at having two seasons, one for club, one for county. That way, everyone knows where they stand," he says.

As for the new format, Moran is a fan. He doesn't think it will take away from the glamour of the Munster Championship in any way.

Limerick veteran Ollie Moran will call time on his career at the end of the Championship campaign

"Things changed when losing a game in the provinces didn't mean the end of the championship. That was a big difference, this one is just a case of having more games which the players will certainly welcome. I would have loved to have had it in my time.

"With so many games in a short space of time, every player will get a run at some stage and that has to be good.

"Obviously, it will suit counties with a lot of strength in depth, but there's nothing wrong that either," he says.

He rates Tipperary as the most advanced in Munster, but expects a big surge from Waterford, even if they are the only county without a home game.

And Limerick? "I would see them getting better as the weeks pass. This format will suit them. I would certainly think they will be in the top three, which gets them to the next stage. That's the most important thing."

He does not believe that the extra games (11 instead of four) will impact negatively on crowds.

"There seems to be as much interest around Limerick this week as there would be if we were playing Tipperary in a knockout game," he says.

* * * * *

Stephen Frampton agrees with Gilligan and Moran that the new format is damaging club hurling and is also of the view that it may be time to have two separate seasons.

"Keeping April free for clubs just hasn't worked, not just in Waterford but around the country too. But then it was never going to.

"You can't have lads playing club championship in April and not knowing when their next game is. It's hardly surprising that so many of them are heading off to the US," says the former Waterford star.

He is intrigued to see how managers deploy their squads under the new format where some counties, including Waterford, play on four successive weekends.

"It's a totally different challenge for managers and players alike. Players aren't used to having so many championship games squeezed into such a tight space. Apart altogether from the physical demands, there's the psychological side.

"Usually when you lose a championship game, there's a two- or three-week break but now lads will have to re-set on Sunday evening and be ready to go again in seven days. That could throw up some surprising results," says Frampton, who is coaching Waterford minors this year.

Like Gilligan and Moran, he regards Tipperary as the market leaders in Munster, mainly on the basis that their talent pool is deeper than the others.

He also believes that Cork and Waterford, who were relegated from 1A, are better than they looked in the league.

"We didn't finish the league on a positive note which was disappointing, but we know there's a lot more there. Obviously, it's a disadvantage for Waterford that the other counties have two home games while we have none, but then we haven't had a Munster Championship game in Walsh Park for a long time.

"You'd just be hoping the lads can show the form that brought them to the All-Ireland final last year. They will need to because otherwise it would be easy enough to slip out of the top three in Munster in a series of games like this."

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