Friday 15 December 2017

Have your say! Is the all-Munster hurling final the start of a longer-term power shift to the south?

Clare midfielder Tony Kelly gets away from Conor Cooney of Galway during Saturday's Bord Gais Energy All-Ireland U-21 semi-final as Banner's U21s joined their seniors in the All-Ireland final
Clare midfielder Tony Kelly gets away from Conor Cooney of Galway during Saturday's Bord Gais Energy All-Ireland U-21 semi-final as Banner's U21s joined their seniors in the All-Ireland final

Cliona Foley and Martin Breheny

ALAN Hansen famously put his foot in his mouth in 1995 with that "never win anything with kids" comment just before Manchester United went on to win a league and cup double with the bones of their brilliant 'youth' team. Predicting senior glory off underage success is undoubtedly a hazardous occupation.

But there was one noticeable thread in hurling circles at the start of this year and that was the palpable excitement at how much fresh, emerging talent was bursting into the game's senior ranks. Right now, that's looking very prescient.

Cork are back in the big time with a blend of only moderate experience and complete rookies.

For us wrinklies, the sight of a Clare senior hurler taking off his helmet these days brings to mind that old cliche about the gardai: "Jeez, I must be getting old."

After winning two All-Ireland U-21 titles in four years (and beating Kilkenny in both finals), the baby-faced Banner look more like a boyband than a senior inter-county team, with 14 U-21s in their senior panel.

Youngsters like Tony Kelly, Podge Collins and Colin Ryan have long been tipped for the big time. So have a handful of Limerick's young players, who have helped the county to their first Munster title since '96.

The move from Limerick to Croker hit their nerves, but Limerick now have a Munster crown and youth on their side to spur them on further.

It is surely no coincidence that the Munster U-21 hurling championship has been so competitive for the past two years.

Two years ago, Tipp pipped Cork and beat Limerick only to lose to Clare by two points in the Munster U-21 final.

This year, only goals separated Waterford from Clare. Tipperary beat Limerick and Cork and lost to Clare by four points, so the Premier County know they're not far off either and have some promising reserves.

Yes, Limerick won three consecutive All-Ireland U-21s at the start of the noughties which didn't yield a senior title.

Galway have an even more baffling inability to turn underage success into senior All-Irelands, but they are a unique case whose 'Connacht' status doesn't seem to do them any favours, even allowing for their seniors joining Leinster.

What is incontrovertible is that an awful lot of exciting individual underage talent has come through in Munster counties recently, including Waterford.

So, what about Leinster? Laois reached last year's U-21 final and Wexford beat Kilkenny in it this season, indicating some levelling out of standards but, apart from Dublin, the rest appear to have some way to go to catch the Cats at senior level.

Kilkenny's last All-Ireland U-21 title was in 2008, their seniors ran out of road and personnel this summer, and their age-profile indicates they're set for some rebuilding.

Brilliant individuals don't always make for great teams, but, if all the other ducks (good management and development systems) are in a row they certainly increase the chances of building one. How long they'll hold it is a moot point, but, right now, the balance of underage talent in the country is in Munster.

Cork and Clare in the All-Ireland senior hurling final after three Munster teams contested the semi-finals; Clare and Waterford favourites to win the U-21 and minor titles – happy days in the deep south and a belief among some that they will extend into a dominant era.

If hurling fans were told last May that the senior final would be an all-Munster affair, they would automatically assume Tipperary's involvement. They would also have assumed that if Tipperary didn't make it, the Munster champions would be in the final.

Instead, it's Cork v Clare, with Munster champions Limerick and pre-season fancies Tipperary trying to figure out how they were overtaken. Waterford's defeat by Clare in the Munster quarter-final has taken on a different complexion in light of the Banner's current position. Besides, Waterford took Kilkenny to extra-time in the qualifiers, their best championship performance against their neighbours since 1959.

It all points to a healthy situation for Munster hurling, all the more so since there are question marks over whether Kilkenny are entering a transition phase, complete with all the uncertainty that brings. Kilkenny have been the bane of everyone's life since 2000 and since they have carried the Leinster standard so often in that period, it has enabled the east to dominate the bragging rights over the south.

However, given the power surge from Clare, Cork and Limerick this year, Waterford's stability and the assumption that Tipperary will re-emerge as a more formidable force next season, it would be easy to assume that Leinster, now backed up by Galway, could be headed for a period of recession.

It would also be very questionable. When the draws for next year's championship are made in early October, Kilkenny will be installed as All-Ireland favourites. One season when they fell below their remarkably high standards can't be taken as a sign of a long-term dip. They proved that in 2011 when they returned to power a season after being beaten by Tipperary in the final.

And then there's Galway and Dublin. Galway were dismally bad this year, but when they re-emerge from under the debris, the memory of 2012 will help in the revival bid. They came very close to winning the title last year. The heights reached in that run were covered in thick cloud this year, but, having scaled them once, there is no reason to believe that it cannot be done again.

Dublin enjoyed their best championship since 1961 this year and, while they came up short against Cork, the game was probably influenced by the dismissal of Ryan O'Dwyer.

Wexford made solid progress and will be encouraged by having drawn with Dublin and Clare, even if they lost to the former in a replay and the latter in extra-time.

It's a boom year for Munster, but, for now at least, is no more than that. It's far too early to claim with any certainty that the power balance will remain with the south for anything more than this season.

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