The Christy O'Connor column: Break to the last four has cost Munster hurling champions before

The Christy O'Connor column: Break to the last four has cost Munster hurling champions before
Lorcán McLoughlin tackles Tipperary's Lar Corbett. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

AFTER Cork won the 2014 Munster title, the outpouring of emotion was understandable.

It was Cork’s first Munster title since 2006. It was the last big game in the old Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Cork had avenged the previous year’s Munster final defeat to Limerick, but, most of all, Cork had real momentum again. The empire was finally striking back.

Any talk of a Rebel revolution, though, ended five weeks later, in the All-Ireland semi-final, against Tipperary. 70,000 turned up — the biggest crowd ever to watch Cork and Tipp face off — but only one team did.

Tipp took a flamethrower to Cork’s ambitions. It was their biggest win over Cork in the championship since 1965. The Cork players and their manager left Dublin charred and blistered from the scorching.

“We let ourselves down,” said Jimmy Barry-Murphy, before the following year’s league final. “Looking back on it, the five-week break was a major factor. If we were ever in that position again, I would use the time far differently.

“We had too much time together. We were doing the same thing over and over again. The players would have been far better off going back to their clubs for two weeks.”

Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

Since the hurling qualifier era had begun, 13 years earlier, that five-week break had been a constant issue for the Munster champions. In eight of those 13 seasons, they had fallen at the All-Ireland semi-final stage. Interestingly, on two of those five occasions, when the Munster champions did advance to the final, they had only a three-week break, because there were quarter-finals (in which the provincial champions played) between 2005-07.

Since that 2014 All-Ireland semi-final, the stats haven’t improved for the Munster champions: in three of the following four seasons, the Munster winners have fallen at that penultimate stage. To put more flesh on the numbers, on the 13 occasions since 2003 when the Munster champions have advanced directly to an All-Ireland semi-final, they have won just four times.

Those stats are even more pronounced when compared to how Kilkenny mastered the long run-in. Of the 15 All-Ireland semi-finals that Kilkenny won in the first 17 seasons under Brian Cody, eleven were after at least a five-week lay-off. Kilkenny had the best players, but being able to expertly manage that extended layoff — and being able to replicate it before the final — was crucial to Kilkenny’s modern success.

Kilkenny mastered the art because they were so annually accustomed to it. In Munster, no-one enjoyed that privilege, because no-one had been that dominant. Dublin’s emergence as a force, and Galway’s arrival into Leinster, made Kilkenny’s life more difficult in the province, but they were still consistently able to get their timing right. When other teams were entering August, in that ideal groove of a game every two to three weeks, Kilkenny were still always able to withstand that surge.

Kilkenny haven’t reached an All-Ireland semi-final now since 2016, but while the Leinster champions — Galway in 2017 and 2018 — have maintained that remarkable consistency of the provincial champions reaching the All-Ireland final, their Munster counterparts have continued to struggle.

The break between the Munster final and the All-Ireland semi-final is now down to four weeks, but Cork couldn’t handle it again last year. After losing successive semi-finals as Munster champions, former Cork player Lorcán McLoughlin said recently that Cork would be better served by finishing third in the province.

“There is so much hype around a Munster final that, win or lose, there is a comedown from it, and a break,” said McLoughlin. “Third place allows you to come in through the back door, where there is no hype, and then build for the latter stages of the All-Ireland championship.

“So third position would suit Cork better than getting to a Munster final this year. Third position suited Limerick last year. You get that extra game, you can build that extra momentum, test your panel, and see how strong it really is.” 

After losing to Clare two weeks ago, Cork will now go in as that third team, with tomorrow’s Munster final being contested between Limerick and Tipperary.

Limerick will always want to win Munster titles, but, given the team John Kiely picked last Sunday, against Tipperary, and the subsequent performance, Anthony Daly questioned on The Sunday Game Live if Kiely really wanted to reach the decider.

It was Limerick’s third game in 14 days, but Daly still expanded on his original point, in his Irish Examiner column the following day.

“It’s only my opinion, but I reckon Limerick would have preferred to have gone through as the third team,” said Daly.

“As well as having to play Tipp again, they could have to face them a third time yet, before the year is out. It’s hard to know if Limerick want all those big battles, if they are to retain the All-Ireland. The evidence from yesterday suggests that they may not.”

Kiely reacted strongly to that claim this week. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but we went to win that match the same as we go out to win every single match we play,” he said.

“That (not trying to win) wouldn’t be my mantra — it certainly wouldn’t be my mentality — and the day I start thinking like that is the day I’ll be saying, ‘good luck, lads’. The bottom line is that it’s really difficult playing the three games in 14 days.”

In any case, Cork are now in that third-placed spot. It’s a whole new starting point for this team, but it didn’t do Limerick any harm last summer. And, given their struggles to deal with the long lay-off as Munster champions, over the last five years, it might be the best pathway for Cork in their quest for an All-Ireland.

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