THERE are reasons to dismiss the Munster football championship as meaningless and irrelevant.
Kerry have won the last five – three of the finals by 10 points or more – and it feels like an awful long time since Cork have beaten their old rivals. Honestly, 2012 feels like a different time altogether.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice has an eye on revenge on Mayo after last year’s non-performance in the All-Ireland semi-final, focus has been on building a team that can challenge and ultimately defeat Dublin and Munster exists mainly for Kerry as a path to that end goal, a testing ground for more real challenges.
The super eight of the All-Ireland football championship has sort of given an alternative goal for more or less everyone in the mid-tier of counties as well, where teams with no real hope of winning an All-Ireland and who previously had only vague ideas about what round would be a realistic aim have been tending to set the quarter-final group stage as something that’s attainable and worthwhile. Though clearly, many are going to be disappointed, much as everyone thinks they’re capable.
Cork would take a last eight outcome for year one of the Ronan McCarthy era, a flat and very clear sort of measurement on the success of a year, where not reaching that stage is clearly less than satisfactory, and where reaching that section of the tournament immediately lends a sense of progress. Clare and Tipp would both have gotten there the year before last and might think it’s possible again.
Recent history then might suggest a closed championship and yet there’s something in the idea that there’s an openness developing in Munster, away from the title winners especially. Tipp and Cork have been only a score apart in the last two championships and the league game this year reflected quite accurately the different stages of development of the two. Clare have beaten Cork in the last two league campaigns. Waterford were what, maybe 10 minutes and a bit of experience/quality from taking Cork out in Dungarvan last year.
Limerick haven’t quite recovered momentum from the end of the John Galvin era but wouldn’t be frightened of anybody outside Kerry. Cork’s place as top of the chasing park is as vulnerable as it’s been for some time and that means there are games and potential wins/ losses that will have meaning here. Kerry won’t have a successful year by just winning Munster but a defeat at any stage along the way in the province would probably call an end to more ambitious outings down the road for this year.
There is a to-do list for Munster then.
Tipp will target beating Cork again as a real statement, to show that two years ago wasn’t a once-off and to properly reflect a power shift in their direction - any gap in quality in the league opener down the Páirc probably leaned towards Liam Kearns’ team. The likes of Michael Quinlivan, Conor Sweeney, Steven O’Brien, Robbie Kiely, have been around for a few years now and there will be a genuine target of winning big games and putting together another serious run; it’ll be interesting to see how they deal with that expectation of performances and results.
Clare will be thinking of an optimum moment for a shock at a stage of development where purpose and clear improvements have been made in Colm Collins’ time, where key players are at peak form and they’ll want to make the most of momentum and belief behind this current set-up.
Again, they didn’t look out of place in beating Cork in this year’s league, with no reasoning or excuses for that result beyond Clare being a more controlled, more balanced and more consistent team right now. It’s hard to imagine Clare having enough big wins in them to make it through a super eight but if they are to have one statement performance in them it’s a possibility to come in Munster against a Kerry team that’s not settled or sure of itself yet.
We’ll look at Cork in more detail but the target in Munster will be pretty basic: win the first game. It’s hard to see Cork being able to recover from a loss to Tipp (or Waterford) to make anything of the year afterwards; the Munster opener is that defining right now for Ronan McCarthy’s season to establish a base for the summer.
So, not exactly priority yet vital for almost every county in different ways. Munster football has never been completely box office. Can you really recall a classic Munster football campaign in the same way you could a Munster hurling or Ulster football year?
And still it’ll make or break at least two of the main four counties’ seasons. Think of the FA Cup, where we constantly get told how rubbish and outdated it is yet read and see each year the importance of one great day winning a trophy and how much that means to the individual players.
A Kerry cruise to six in a row would be the least interesting outcome. A Cork emergence through a confident win over Tipp and a rocking Páirc for a Munster final could catch the imagination.
A Munster final for Tipp would probably be more an expectation for them than a breakthrough at this stage. A Munster final for Clare would be a game-changer obviously.
We’ll certainly have a better idea of where each county is by the end of June.