Hurling people everywhere are hoping for a Munster championship for the ages

Hurling people everywhere are hoping for a Munster championship for the ages
Luke Meade of Cork in action against Seamus Kennedy of Tipperary last summer. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

LIKE everyone else, Ger Loughnane has come around to the new hurling championship round-robin system. On the day the proposed format went before Special Congress last autumn, Loughnane totally railed against it. 

He said the championship would effectively be "reduced to an early-season tournament" so that the main part of the summer "could be left free for football".

Loughnane's views often oscillate as wildly as the wind but on the evening of the league final last month, Loughnane had a different opinion on 'League Sunday'. "We can dispute the timing of it," said Loughnane "but it's going to be a magical championship."

It certainly has that potential. And there is added intrigue and mystery now with a totally new system.

Wateford’s Austin Gleeson bounces through the challenge of Ronan Maher of Tipperary during the league. Picture: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Wateford’s Austin Gleeson bounces through the challenge of Ronan Maher of Tipperary during the league. Picture: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Last year's championship was a memorable one, especially with the uniqueness of the Galway-Waterford All-Ireland final. There were some excellent games but assessing the whole championship (excluding the Round-Robin in Leinster because full footage from those games wasn't shown on TV), there were 14 good games. 

That is a high number, considering it's taken from just 22 games, but a more forensic analysis shows how only seven of those 14 were of real high quality.

That number though, is bound to rise now considering the increase in the volume of quality match-ups with the new championship system. Waterford and Limerick haven't met in the championship since 2011. 

When Clare played Tipperary last year, it was their first championship meeting since the same season. Numerous other counties haven't faced off against each other in years but that will radically change now with four Round-Robin games in five weeks.

Four teams will play four games in 21 days but such a hectic schedule will be a whole new challenge for all teams. Optimal performance is primarily based on optimal training and optimal recovery, but optimising recovery in such an intense period could define some teams' championship. Under such intense championship demands, squad depth will also be critical.

The new championship will be electric but some of Loughnane's initial misgivings are still lingering in the background. For a start, the summer is almost broken up into two separate seasons. From when the Liam MacCarthy championship starts on May 12 until the All-Ireland quarter-finals are played on July 15, there will be 26 games in 64 days. 

Twenty of those games will be played inside 35 days. Yet there will be just three matches played in the last 35 days of the hurling summer, two of which (the All-Ireland semi-finals) are condensed into the same weekend.

The change will be massive, especially in Munster. Last year, Waterford began their championship campaign on June 18th. By June 17th this year though, two Munster teams will be gone out of the championship.

Tweaks to the system will have to be made in the future because flaws are already obvious in such a condensed format. Teams having to play on four successive weeks is unfair. Playing the Leinster final, Munster final and Joe McDonagh Cup final on the same day is a disgrace and a complete insult to hurling supporters. 

The new system does guarantee seven more games but hurling will still be swamped by football from July on. The football Super 8s are definitely the elephant in the room. Even Waterford football manager Tom McGlinchey referred to as much recently. 

"It's all about the Super 8s getting exposure," he said. "We are talking about running of a hurling round robin in five weeks, just to get to this magic 'Super 8s'".

Tony Kelly of Clare drives over a point against Limerick. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Tony Kelly of Clare drives over a point against Limerick. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

The manic early intensity has certainly made it a hard championship to predict, especially in Munster. Six weeks ago, Tipperary looked the only banker in Munster but their league final performance has prompted a revision, especially with their problems at full-back.

Cork will fancy their chances of progressing but their defence needs to be tighter. Limerick will be hard to crack while Clare will really be in the mix if their big players can stay injury free and if they can win their two home games against Waterford and Limerick. Waterford are at a disadvantage with not having any home games but it's not that big of an issue because Walsh Park doesn't suit this side anyway.

Every team will need to get off to a good start but it will be a game of inches everywhere. Clare joint-manager Gerry O'Connor said last week that he expects the top three places to be decided either by score difference or head-to-head. 

In Division 1A of this year's league, the top four teams were separated by score difference. "A lot of maths will have to be done at the end of the four games," said O'Connor. "Why would we think that it's going to be straightforward in the Munster championship when it wasn't in the National League?"

That could add another massive layer of intrigue, especially for Tipperary, who will be desperate to get the job done early. Otherwise, they could have an anxious wait on June 10 (their free weekend) as the other four teams battle it out on the final weekend of the Round Robin.

Every team will target their home games but the home venue factor is certainly one of the most attractive parts of the new system. Cusack Park in Ennis will host its first Munster championship match in 21 years, and first real big Munster game since 1993. The Round 4 clash there between Clare and Limerick could be an occasion for the ages.

Hurling people everywhere though, hope it will be a hurling championship, and especially a Munster championship, for the ages.

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