Sunday 18 February 2018

The Munster hurling championship – the jewel in the GAA provincial crown

The Limerick squad celebrate with the cup in the Gaelic Grounds dressing room last summer.
The Limerick squad celebrate with the cup in the Gaelic Grounds dressing room last summer.

DECLAN WHOOLEY

Perhaps only those in Ulster football circles might argue against the notion that this weekend sees the return of the most eagerly awaited provincial championship when Cork and Waterford start proceedings in Munster.

Critics of the current provincial system will rightly point to lop-sided games before the contenders move into Croke Park at the business-end of the season. Indeed the Munster Football championship is one of the main examples of where the current format does little for the game. Cork and Kerry won their four games before meeting In Killarney by an aggregate of 70 points and an average of more than 17 points per match.

The hurling equivalent couldn’t possibly be further removed.

Five teams will set-out with hopes of reaching the final on July 13th, with loftier ambitions further down the road. There has been three different winners in the past four years, and the other two sides, 2013 All-Ireland finalists Cork and Clare, will be looking to keep up with their progress of last year by adding the Munster crown.

Ulster football is a war of attrition where only the strongest will survive, but this has not always been the case. Donegal’s maiden All-Ireland success in 1992 sparked a revival and the Armagh-Tyrone rivalry brought the game to a new level in the last decade as northern teams dominated at a national level, but traditionalists will argue that the Munster hurling championship has been an ever-present in the greater scheme of things for the GAA. It doesn’t look like changing anytime soon either.

It is hard to imagine that the reigning provincial champions Limerick are according to the bookies, fourth favourites to claim early season silverware. That outpouring of emotion from Limerick supporters last July was one of the moments of an incredible season, eclipsed only when Clare sent the Treaty men packing at the penultimate stage before claiming Liam McCarthy in the most exhilerating manner.

The opening fixture for the right to face Davy Fitzgerald’s team will pit two teams with a bristling modern-day rivalry. Cork and Waterford have contributed to some of the most memorable games in recent years.

From Mickey O’Connell’s eight points from play in 1999 on the Rebel’s march to the All-Ireland, to Paul Flynn’s free and that unforgettable final of 2004 to Brian Corcoran’s iconic score on his knees in Croke Park, it will not be short of commitment and skill, traits rarely lacking when local bragging rights are at stake.

Jimmy Barry-Murphy will hope to build on league form, though doubts remain over their defence which has at times offered generous gifts to opponents. His opposite number Derek McGrath will have lower expectations. Relegation from the top-flight – they leaked 13 goals in their final three games – will be offset with some exciting talent coming through to replace the oldguard. Whether anyone will even get close to the imprint Tony Browne has left on Waterford hurling only time will tell.

The Banner await the winners, while on the other side Tipperary will host Limerick at Semple Stadium. Tipp have been a real mixed bag, narrowly going down to Kilkenny in the league final while Limerick again appear in disarray off the pitch.

The unsavoury Donal O’Grady saga will either be used as the launch pad for excuses, or provide the motivation to confound the critics and retain their crown.

The provincial series as we know it may be coming to an end in the near future and those on the other side of the fence will make some valid arguments for their removal.

However, entertaining, controversial, passionate, skillful and memorable games are what makes the Association what it is. The Munster hurling championship more than any other provides this by the bucket load.

Just try telling captains Pat Donnellan, Pat Horgan, Declan Hannon, Brendan Maher and ‘Brick’ Walsh that it’s ‘only’ a Munster championship.

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