The John Horgan column: Munster hurling will be more cutthroat that ever

The John Horgan column: Munster hurling will be more cutthroat that ever
Darragh Fitzgibbon of Cork in action against Jerome Cahill of Tipperary. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

IT will be three months to the day next Sunday that the Munster hurling championship gets underway, but the countdown has begun.

It’s a similar situation in Leinster and between the 10 competing counties in both provinces, and with just six of them to go through to the All-Ireland series, we will be entering the most open race ever for the McCarthy Cup.

Long gone are the days when the most likely scenario every September would be a Kilkenny, Tipperary, or a Cork captain lifting the big prize.

Now, seven or eight counties are in with a realistic shout.

There was a lot of scepticism when the decision was taken to turn the Munster and Leinster championships into a round-robin format, two groups of five, each county playing four games, two on home soil and two away.

The more conservative among us believed that the old knockout format in the provinces was working very well; a case of not fixing it if it wasn’t broke.

But that’s all changed now and the new structure has turned out to be a resounding success, with some fascinating encounters.

We’ll concentrate on Munster here, with the five competing counties and the belief that there’s very little between any of them.

Cian Lynch.
Cian Lynch.

And with only three to emerge and the remaining two having their year terminated in June, it becomes a minefield of epic proportions.

The perception is that Tipperary and Limerick are ahead in the pecking order, with Cork in third, and that it will be those three who will go forward to the race for the McCarthy Cup.

That may well be the case, but would you rule out Clare and Waterford?

Stephen Bennett of Waterford. Picture; Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Stephen Bennett of Waterford. Picture; Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Waterford have had a few disastrous championship campaigns and have had two managers depart.

Clare have done much better, but they are still waiting in the Banner County for the All-Ireland winning year of 2013 to be built upon.

In both cases, there are new managements teams, former great Brian Lohan taking the reins in Clare and two-time Tipperary under-21 All-Ireland-winning boss, Liam Cahill, in Waterford.

And, already, there has been a bounce in both counties, Waterford getting off to a positive start in the league, with two victories.

Clare’s victory over Wexford last Sunday, in Wexford Park, was a real marker of significance being put down.

The first game of the round-robin format is crucial: win that and the pressure is lessened; lose it and the opposite is the case.

Cork have Limerick, in Cork, on the opening day, while Waterford have Tipperary in Walsh Park.

Safe to say that the house full sign will go up in both venues.

For Cork, this is a huge game: win it and you have leeway; lose it and the pressure is on and it could mean having to go to Thurles for the last game and needing to beat the All-Ireland champions in their own backyard.

Cork's Patrick Horgan watches as his penalty beats Tipperary's Brian Hogan. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton
Cork's Patrick Horgan watches as his penalty beats Tipperary's Brian Hogan. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton

There are so many permutations attached to the Munster championship and every game is loaded with potential.

In the third game in the series, you have Cork travelling to Waterford and Clare hosting Limerick and those games will be fascinating.

Tony Kelly in action. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Tony Kelly in action. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

The stakes have been heightened for all the counties, with this new format, and, over the next couple of weeks, in the national league, we might get a better picture of how it might all pan out.

Tipp, Limerick, and Cork are the fancied three, but would you put money on that being the case?

Tipp don’t appear to be too interested in the current league campaign; not as interested as the others, it would seem.

Then again, should we read a whole pile into the league? Waterford reached the final last season, but were subsequently dumped out of the Munster championship without winning a game.

This time, though, you think it might be different, because in Cahill they have a serious operator and if he has a full hand to choose from, they’ll not be easy opponents.

Lohan has a lot to prove in Clare and they have the material, too.

You could say the same about all the five counties and the Munster championship, this time, may be even more of a lottery.

One thing we do know: five into three won’t fit and come the middle of June, two major hurling counties will be gone for the year.

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