Munster needs intensive care, but isn't ready for the grave
The country's most sought-after provincial title has lost some of its lustre, says Damian Lawlor
P áDRAIC MAHER can still almost taste the sulphur that lingered following Tipperary's 10-point collapse to Cork at Páirc Uí Chaoimh last May. That result was heralded as the one that would revitalise Munster hurling, although not everyone was convinced. Cork supporters may have rejoiced in the hammering of their old rivals but fears remained that it was the last sting of a dying wasp as the sun was setting on the careers of many of their team. Had Tipperary one eye on September, or were Cork born again?
As the provincial championship unfolded and the final went to a replay, we wondered whether it was back to its unpredictable best or if most people had stopped caring.
The picture became even more muddled when Cork lost tamely to Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final before the Cats lost by eight to Tipperary in the final. Such results raised questions about the true worth of the Munster championships.
After Tipperary lost that game to Cork, the county was awash with rumours of trouble in the camp. "The whole county went nuts when we lost," recalls Maher. "It was bad enough for the players but I was taken aback by the talk outside the camp. The negativity . . . I'd never experienced anything like it, 'twas really harsh to be honest with you.
"As young lads we were surprised it turned sour so quick. Then you had this stuff that we didn't go flat out against Cork. Laughable! I can only speak for myself but we were in tatters for two weeks after losing that game. It was the Munster championship after all. The supporters may have been furious but we were devastated. Losing to Cork opened my eyes and personally I learned a lot from marking Aisake. I upped my game from there."
Lar Corbett (pictured) holds even more disdain for the suggestion that such a heavy defeat to Cork didn't cost Tipp a thought. "Hindsight is great," he says. "I can tell you that losing to Cork by ten points in Páirc Uí Chaoimh is never acceptable and that isn't something we'd like to repeat."
Through the years this rivalry commanded the sole focus of two tribes, but it's not as strong anymore as the provincial championships serve more as a facilitator for the All-Ireland series or a scenic qualifier pilgrimage.
The supporters know as much -- by last Thursday, just 3,000 Cork and 11,000 Tipp tickets had been sold for this afternoon's latest instalment at Semple. For a rivalry so revered that's a shocking indictment. Today simply doesn't generate the usual spine-tingling electricity associated with a Cork-Tipp clash.
"The take-up in Cork has been slow, no point in saying otherwise, but we'd still be hoping to have 30-35,000 people there," says Munster Council vice-chairman Robert Frost. "And what's wrong with that? Maybe the Munster championship doesn't have that winner-takes-all feel to it anymore but our attendance figures stack up anywhere in the world. What are we to do -- go back to a knock-out system and kill hurling altogether? Leave teams with no game for a year? Those days are long gone. This is the best system we have. We are still very strong, still vibrant."
Although its status may have diminished slightly, the Munster championship has staunch defenders. Last week Ger Loughnane said the GAA would have its soul ripped out if they abandoned it for a Champions League-style All-Ireland format in the coming years.
"Other provincial championships are not as important as the Munster championship," he declared. "If we lose it, we'll have lost something really precious and we won't get it with any other format. We'd have lost a massive part of our soul in the GAA. This is our preserve. This is what the GAA is about. It's not about the corporate days in Croke Park. It's about the feeling you get from playing in and winning the Munster championship. But as great as the tradition is, tradition on its own will not save it. It is up to every county in Munster to fight for the Munster championship and to fight to preserve it." The chief problem is that the competition is only a stepping stone. It's easy to suggest that provincial honours mean little to Tipp and Cork anymore; after all, they boast 38 and 49 titles respectively. But Limerick haven't won it in 15 seasons, Clare 13. Imagine the lift they'd get from winning again.
Former All Star Joe Quaid agrees. "We would give our left arm for a provincial title in Limerick -- we've only won two in 17 years and you don't see too many Limerick men going around with medals," he says "It's a traditional thing. My cousin Nicky will hopefully be in goal in our semi-final against Waterford and you have no idea what that means to our family as he follows in the footsteps of his late father Tommy and myself. The Quaids carved out their careers in goal and Nicky playing in the Munster championship is a very proud thing for us.
"Okay, things have changed . . . in my playing days the Munster championship was electric. It was knock-out with full houses every day. I lived for it. It won't be quite like that today because people are struggling for a few bob and there's also a safety net. And the ground won't be full, which still takes a bit of getting used to. But I guarantee a real battle -- not one guy from Tipp or Cork will even contemplate the qualifiers.
"It's supporters' own choice if they don't want to travel, but Tipp have five games to retain their All-Ireland and Cork fear defeat will set them back years, so the stakes are high. Anyway we've no better alternative to what's there now. A Champions League format would only throw up more meaningless games with half the crowds again."
Still, clouds of doubt darken with every passing year. Provincial championship critics point to the Munster football series which hasn't seen a winner outside of Kerry and Cork save for 1992, when Clare won, since 1935.
Christy Cooney also highlighted the issue of provincial structures at Congress last month.
"In the context of the positive change brought about by Galway and Antrim's inclusion in Leinster, we should ask ourselves whether there are further changes that we should be considering to our provincial championships. Do we need a more even spread of counties in each province? Should we dispense with the ancient geographical borders of the four provinces and seek instead to realign our provinces along more practical lines?"
It will take some weight to push the provincial championships aside against the resistance of the councils.
Seán óg ó hAilpín feels some action is needed. "I think the back-door system has gone stale now," he said. "It has probably passed its expiry date and to get the punters in again you need to go back to knock-out championship games on a Sunday afternoon. Please God there'll be a big crowd in Thurles but if a fella knows that win, lose or draw, Cork will still be in the championship, it'll be easy to persuade that fella not to go. It's probably going to go full circle again when the back-door system will start to peter out and it'll be one bite at the cherry, which we grew up with."
The Munster championship still averages crowds of 24,000. Over 120,000 watched their five senior games last season and while their gate receipts fell by €161,000, caused primarily by lower ticket prices, overall attendances rose. The Council has handed out €5.8m to assist capital projects over the past four years and paid out €3.8m to the six counties in 2010 alone. This is what makes it even harder for them to contemplate getting rid of the provincial championship.
"Some teams now see the provincial championship as a secondary competition as they target September but it doesn't apply to the majority," says former GAA president and Munster chairman Seán Kelly. "Most players would still die for a Munster medal and the competition still has a huge role to play.
"Yet we must give more impetus to it. We need to reward teams with more home games for winning, we need to have something more gratifying in place for provincial winners to benefit from.
"The current format is still the best system; we only have one safety net. Look at other competitions, the Champions League, Heineken Cup and Magners League where there are more safety devices. An open draw will lose us crowds, I'm convinced of that. Early rounds would be farcical. At least today, you'll have two teams at it hell for leather and the crowd will be very decent."
Now more than ever, that's what's needed.
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