Burning Issue: Are we set for the most open hurling championship in years?
The performances of teams from outside the established top tier in the hurling championship in recent weeks have been encouraging, but will the pecking order be any different come the season's end? Two JOEs argue the case.
Conor Heneghan says... there was something very mid-90s about Limerick’s thrilling victory over Tipperary at the Gaelic Grounds on Sunday afternoon.
The sun was splitting the stones, the final whistle was greeted with unbridled glee by the home supporters present and one of the established hurling powers was dumped out of the provincial championship after 70 minutes of hell for leather hurling. It was played as if the safety net of the backdoor simply didn’t exist, as was the case in the middle of a decade that has been held up as something of a halcyon era for the small ball game, certainly in this generation at least.
While it would take a fool to write off Tipperary on the back of Sunday’s defeat and to deny that they are still at least in the top three, if not top two, in the hurling pecking order, the signs that Limerick and others are bridging the gap between the top dogs and the rest are promising based on this year’s evidence so far.
And, with all due respect to Kilkenny, whose excellence is not their fault and who have set a bar so high that is has only been reached by one other team in the last seven years, the established order in the hurling championship could do with a shake-up.
In the last seven years of the 1990s, for example, five different teams – Kilkenny, Offaly, Clare, Wexford and Cork – shared the Liam McCarthy Cup between them. In the 13 years since, only three teams have tasted All-Ireland glory and that doesn’t even reflect how things have gone because the Cats have got their greedy claws on the title nine times in the same period.
Will this year be any different? Maybe not, but we live in hope after all and here’s why.
Sunday’s win represented Limerick’s first win in the Munster Championship since the epic three-game saga against the same opposition six years ago, following on from Clare’s victory over Waterford, their first Munster Championship win in five years, a week previously.
One championship win might not be a whole lot to make a song and dance about but if Clare can beat Cork in the semi-final, they will have the chance to win their first Munster title since 1998 against a Limerick side gunning for their first provincial title since 1996. And both of these sides have been built on a strong foundation of under-age sides from the last few years so they’re not going away anytime soon.
In Leinster, Galway prevented Kilkenny from winning the Bob O’Keefe Cup for only the second time in the last 15 years (Wexford in 2004 was the other time) last season and having proved that the Leinster Final itself wasn’t a fluke in the drawn All-Ireland Final at least, Anthony Cunningham’s young squad would love another crack at the Cats, or Tipperary a little further down the line.
Staying in the Midlands, Offaly might not have toppled Kilkenny on Sunday but they had a right good go at it and so convincing was their performance that many are tipping the Faithful to get the better of Waterford, a Waterford side that have reached one All-Ireland Final and seven semi-finals in the last 15 years, next time out.
Wexford and Dublin, meanwhile, might not have stirred the blood of any hurling purists at Wexford Park on Saturday night, but Liam Dunne appears to be building something of substance in the sunny south-east and with a league title and an All-Ireland semi-final appearance behind them in recent years, the Dubs have shown that, on their day, they too can compete with the big boys when the mood takes them.
Put simply, the teams directly behind the established top two of Kilkenny and Tipperary have greater reasons for optimism this year than in previous years and results such as Carlow’s magnificent victory over Dublin in the Leinster under-21 Championship last night is proof that an attitude of refusing to accept the status quo seems to be spreading throughout the hurling community.
Kilkenny and Tipp are still favourites to be contesting the final on the second Sunday of September and rightly so, but if it happens not to be one or both of them in the decider, it might not be as much of a cause to raise an eyebrow as it would have been in years gone by.
Sean Nolan says... despite what we saw at the weekend, the answer is no. Are we facing an exciting summer of hurling? Hell yeah, but that’s a very different question.
The easy thing to do here is take a look at the bookies odds and see how they are rating the various team’s summer chances. And being a lazy sod, that’s what we will do.
Kilkenny are still red-hot favourites at 4/6, despite shipping four goals to Offaly at the weekend. Galway, the second best team in the country, are yet to play and they sit at 9/2 while Tipp, out of Munster after being scuttled by Limerick, are still at 5/1 even after their lacklustre showing at the Gaelic Grounds.
That shows us that even after a very open and exciting start to the race for Liam MacCarthy this year, it is still almost unimaginable that any county outside those three will lift the cup in September.
The one with the biggest worry is Tipp. Eamonn O’Shea’s side looked disjointed against Limerick and far too few of his big names performed for the full 70. O’Shea is not regarded as a coaching guru for no reason and I’m sure he will have the Premier firing for the Qualifiers. What they did from that spot in 2010 is known to everybody.
Galway, after an indifferent League, are hard to judge as always but if they can play as well as they did last term they should be there or thereabouts. We have yet to see them in Championship action in 2013, but they should be competing well into the summer.
The most interesting of all, of course, is Kilkenny. Despite their ubiquity for the last decade, they are still the most fascinating team in hurling. From the endless conveyor belt of talent, to the now annual Shefflin fitness race to Brian Cody’s burning desire to keep winning, they remain the thread through which the hurling summer is woven.
Offaly’s ability to cause their full-back line serious problems, and the frailties in goal of Eoin Murphy, give Kilkenny plenty to work on and gives hope to the rest but they nearly always find a way to prevail, and we expect them to do so again.
That’s not to rain on the parade of hurling thrills we have already seen and will see. Wexford, massive underdogs to Dublin, put it up to Anthony Daly’s men in Wexford on Saturday night in some style and Clare are a coming force as they showed against Waterford. We haven’t seen Cork swing a hurley in anger yet either.
But there are very good reasons why the top three in the betting are there. We’ll see lots more brilliant stickwork this summer, but as the days draw shorter in September, the shadows on the big days will look very familiar indeed.