The GAA Championship, Week 3: The Munsters

by | May 23, 2018

When my interest in Gaelic sports began in the 1970s, Munster’s Hurling Championship was THE hurling championship, Munster’s Hurling Final was THE big day of the hurling year, Semple Stadium in the small Tipperary town of Thurles was THE hurling venue (the GAA was formed there in 1884).

Over the next decade, this began to take on the mantle of ancient Irish myth. But in 1984, the Munster Championship returned to hurling’s peak. And the ‘new’ system looks very likely to keep it there.

There are only six Munster counties. And five are top ‘hurling counties,’ with the sixth, Kerry, improving but playing second-fiddle in the self-styled ‘Kingdom’ of football. Even when it was a knockout competition, every match promised something special. And all five counties could arguably finish in any position in the new ‘round-robin’ format.

So how did Munster hurling lose its lustre? Well, from 1972 to 1983, it was (apologies in advance) ‘a long way’ to the All-Ireland Final for Tipperary. Their 1971 All-Ireland triumph put them top of the All-Ireland roll-of-honour, overhauling Munster rivals Cork and leaving Kilkenny in their wake. Then, for 12 seasons…nothing. And only one Munster final (in 1973), which, in a competition they’d virtually duopolised with Cork for decades, was astonishing

With Tipp floundering, Cork dominated Munster, winning five-in-a-row from 1975 to 1979. And their 1982 and 1983 hammerings of Waterford caused the province huge reputational damage, especially as Kilkenny, Wexford and newcomers Offaly made the Leinster championship more competitive (Offaly winning their first-ever All-Ireland in 1981) and Galway had their best team in years (winning their first All-Ireland for 56 years in 1980).

In 1984, though, Tipp were back, narrowly losing a thrilling Munster final to a Cork side who the beat Offaly in a less-thrilling All-Ireland final. In 1988, Tipp reached their first All-Ireland final in 18 years and in 1989, they won their first All-Ireland in 19. And they have been there or thereabouts ever since.

Cork haven’t won the All-Ireland since 2005, a fallow period almost unprecedented in their history. However, it emphasises Munster’s strength that Cork were 2017 Munster champions, Tipperary were defending All-Ireland champions going into it and…Waterford, deservedly, reached the All-Ireland final.

Waterford, though, are widest-tipped to foot this year’s Munster championship, largely because they’ll have no home games. Their 11,500-capacity Walsh Park is too small for ‘big’ matches and won’t be redeveloped for the task until 2020 (cue half-a-million ‘Walsh Park 2020 vision’ headlines). And home advantage IS an advantage when teams meet just once.

Waterford haven’t hosted a championship match in 15 years (although they’ve won four of their eight provincial crowns since 2002). And playing ‘home’ games in Limerick and Tipperary will test everyone’s resolve. Kilkenny’s Nowlan Park is closer. But Munster’s ruling council insist Munster Championship matches are played in Munster, not unreasonably.

The championship opened with re-runs of a thrilling Limerick/Tipp National League semi-final and last year’s Cork/Clare final. At Limerick’s Gaelic Grounds, Limerick and Tipp couldn’t match their previous heroics. Like an ordinary “league match,” RTE pundit Tomas Mulcahy noted, disapprovingly, at half-time. But Cork/Clare, at Cork’s Pairc Ui Chaoimh, was terrific. “Everything’s an argument,” noted RTE co-commentator Brendan Cummins, approvingly.

Mulcahy was right. The ‘sudden-death’ aspect of the old championship added to the occasion…and added 5,000 to the crowd, judging by the crowd at their last ‘knock-out’ meeting, in 2016. Tipperary’s team selection suggested they were ‘pacing’ themselves, naming some big-name players as subs despite the cliched importance of not losing your first match. Mulcahy’s punditry colleague Ger Loughnane said before RTE’s live coverage that if Limerick couldn’t “beat that Tipperary team, they’ll not be coming out of Munster.” He was more circumspect on telly. But he was right too.

The idea of finishing, rather than starting, games with your strongest team briefly emerged last year. Roscommon tried it…and lost by 22 points…IN…A…REPLAY (yes, I’m still bitter). And it worked better for Tipp only in the sense that they lost by sixteen points less. Mulcahy called it the worst Tipp display he’d seen “in a long, long time.” But Limerick were as good as they’ve been in that long, long time, with their 2015 and 2017 All-Ireland under-21 champions making a much-wanted positive impact at ‘senior’ level.

Clare probably should have beaten Cork and will fancy themselves in their two home games. Unfortunately, they developed a phobia for taking goal chances created by running at Cork’s easily centre-parted defence. And Cork’s Seamus Harnedy showed them how it was done in stoppage-time to give the final score a slightly-slanted look, repeating the five-point margin in last year’s final.

In Leinster, Kilkenny photocopied the formbook with a nine-point home win over Offaly, who look relegation favourites, despite exceeding (low) expectation in parts of both their games to date. Indeed, they were only three points behind Kilkenny with eight minutes left. Dublin, meanwhile, have far exceeded expectations, much good it’s done them.

They were warm second-favourites travelling to Wexford, as they’d been against Kilkenny. And for an hour, the bookies were right. Then Paul Flynn netted to foment a late revival which put Dublin a point ahead with three minutes left. But Wexford prevailed, full-forward Rory O’Connor belting over a crucial point from, as they say in Ireland, another parish. And despite all their expectation exceeding, Dublin and Offaly’s 3rd June meeting in Dublin has ‘relegation four-pointer’ written all over it.

In the football, after last week’s Mayo/Galway bilge, expectations were Offaly-level low for Monaghan’s visit to Ulster champions Tyrone, despite both sides being likely ‘Super-eighters.’ In his Sunday Independent column, RTE’s Colm O’Rourke suggested Galway won “in the most boring fashion” and that “anyone looking for a repeat…should go to watch Monaghan and Tyrone.” But anyone who was, and who did, was disappointed in the most positive fashion.

With both teams’ first kit being white, they wore their change kits of all-blue and all-red. And there endeth the FA Cup final comparison…mercifully. Monaghan grabbed a vital goal in first-half stoppage-time and kept Tyrone at arm’s length in a gripping second half, clinching victory with a series of breathtaking late scores, the most breathtaking being another ‘from another parish’ effort, by Monaghan’s star forward Conor McManus.

Sadly, Tyrone showed flashes of typical Ulster Championship, ahem, ‘intensity.’ Keeper Niall Morgan’s first kick-out after Monaghan’s goal was a swipe at Monaghan forward Jack McCarron’s legs, for which he was booked by a referee who clearly hadn’t seen the incident. And in second-half stoppage-time, Tyrone boss Micky Harte’s nephew Peter thumped Ryan Wylie and received a red card to match his red mist. Although, given Tyrone’s ‘combative’ reputation, Mickey may have been a proud uncle.

So, two 2017 semi-finalists, Tyrone and Mayo, are in the All-Ireland ‘qualifiers’ first round. Thus either could be playing in London on 9th June. London/Tyrone would certainly be…something. The draw is next Monday. Watch this space.

Ciaran Whelan said Tyrone/Monaghan “sparked a bit of life into the Championship, which we badly needed.” That might have seemed a bit harsh, so early in the season, until you saw the ‘highlights’ of Saturday evening’s matches.

Fermanagh will be Monaghan’s next opponents, after shocking a shocking Armagh side in a shockingly-dour contest…although at least it WAS a contest. Tipperary were angry at having to play championship games on successive weekends. But their facile win over Waterford was a glorified training session, which may leave them better prepared than Cork, who haven’t played competitively since losing to the mighty Roscommon (copyright…er…me) in late-March.

Meanwhile, Limerick’s footballers had sharply divergent fortunes to their hurlers. Watched at the Gaelic Grounds on Saturday by 23,000 empty seats and two massive empty terraces, Limerick were beaten ‘out the gate’ by an intermittently dozy Clare team. But the real story was Limerick’s pre-match chaos.

Manager Billy Lee cut a frustration-sodden figure in a difficult post-match interview with RTE’s Marty Morrissey, which suggested that the tuft of hair on his forehead hadn’t already been torn out simply to leave him something to tear out before the qualifiers. He told an incredulous Morrissey that FIFTY-THREE players had refused to play for the county. And chronic maladministration cast doubt upon remaining player eligibilities.

Hours before the match, Lee “told the administrators that I wouldn’t be letting the team out,” evoking an image of an imprisoned panel which only probably wasn’t true. And AT HALF-TIME, Lee discovered that Limerick would have forfeited victory if one particular sub came on. Little wonder their comeback from a slow start collapsed in the second half. “Are you going to stay with it?” Morrissey asked. “Will I be left with it after saying all this?” Lee laughed/sobbed. If Limerick are drawn away to London, London may have a chance. Or a bye.

Next week, Munster and Leinster hurlers share centre-stage. But THE game is Leitrim hosting the mighty Roscommon at 5.30 on Saturday, with live Shannonside FM radio commentary from the incomparable Willie Hegarty. As preparation for the Champions League final, that surely can’t be beat.