IN the history of the GAA, the most dramatic 30 seconds in living memory was the spine-tingling wait for HawkEye to declare John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer’s late free in the 2014 drawn All-Ireland final either a point or wide.
Just five years later though, that kind of oppressive and nerve-wrecking tension was extended to minutes at the end of the Dublin-Galway and Kilkenny-Wexford final Leinster Round Robin matches.
For those handful of moments after the final whistle in Parnell Park, Dublin players and supporters were the only ones that could relax as the most dramatic and on-edge couple of minutes imaginable was played out. Dublin were through, but Galway would have been too if either Wexford or Kilkenny won in Wexford Park.
Listening attentively to what was still happening in Wexford Park, Galway were still safe after TJ Reid edged Kilkenny ahead in injury time. After Lee Chin nailed an equalising free three minutes into injury time, players, managers and supporters were frantically seeking results and clarification, uncertain whether they would be in a Leinster final, a preliminary All-Ireland quarter-final or simply redundant for the rest of the summer.
Galway soon realised that they were the first team to be dumped out of the championship on scoring difference. It was also Galway’s earliest exit from the championship since they took a hiding from Cork in the 1968 Munster championship.
How did it come to such a scenario? Galway won two games, drew one and only lost one. Wexford only won one game, but it was still enough to carry them to a Leinster final.
You couldn’t have made the drama up but the whole evening was in sync with a Leinster championship which had bobbled and weaved all summer like a cork in an angry ocean.
“I have to say, I’ve been in Munster hurling all my career before Wexford and this is incredible,” said Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald after that Kilkenny game. “The atmosphere down here, the rivalry with Kilkenny, it’s absolutely immense.”
Two weeks later, Wexford won an epic Leinster final against Kilkenny to secure a first provincial title since 2004. On the same afternoon in the Gaelic Grounds, Limerick hammered Tipperary in the Munster final.
Up to that point of the summer, Leinster had lorded it over Munster, because the 2019 Round Robin campaign in Munster was largely a washout. The disappointment was even more acute again because everyone was expecting a similar level of spell-binding and Hitchcockian drama from 2018.
The 2018 Munster campaign produced three draws while there was only two games where the margin of defeat was by six points or more. Yet that margin was exceeded in eight of the 11 games played in 2019. To make it worse, six of those matches could be described as routs.
In 2019, Waterford lost three matches by an aggregate margin of 51 points. Clare lost two matches by an aggregate of 31 points.
The only person who saw that coming was Ger Loughnane. On the Monday after the league quarter-finals in March 2019, Loughnane made a number of bold predictions, most of which came to pass in the 2019 championship.
“My belief is that this year’s Leinster championship will be way ahead of its Munster counterpart,” wrote Loughnane.
“To me, Leinster will be the province to watch because it will be ultra-competitive. I can see one-sided games in Munster, and dead rubbers as it peters out at the end.”
The Leinster championship may not have exactly produced consistent top quality in 2019 but it was, as Loughnane predicted, “ultra-competitive”.
The arrival of Fitzgerald completely altered the whole tone and complexion of the Kilkenny-Wexford relationship and rivalry. Wexford may have bombed in Leinster last year against Galway, but they played out another spell-binding clash against Kilkenny in their recent Leinster semi-final. In the other semi-final, Dublin over-turned Galway.
Leinster hasn’t exactly been all sweet and honey this year; Wexford annihilated Laois while Dublin walloped Antrim. But Munster can’t exactly say either that the last two Munster championships haven’t been pockmarked by one-sided and average games.
Last year’s Munster final was a slugfest between Limerick and Waterford; the previous evening, Kilkenny won a much more entertaining Leinster final against Galway.
The flipside to all of this is that a Munster team has won the last three All-Irelands. There were two Munster teams in last year’s final. So, while Leinster may be producing more dramatic and entertaining games, is the overall standard higher in Munster?
Kilkenny’s dominance between 2000-2015 skewed that debate for most of the last two decades but the debate has always existed. Even though it’s all one hurling community, there will always be some degree of rivalry between the provinces.
There was a famous photograph taken in 2000 at a Leinster U21 final, shortly after Offaly had dethroned Cork to reach the All-Ireland senior final, where they were due to square up to Kilkenny again.
The TG4 cameras picked it up and a host of media outlets ran with the story, all loaded with the intent of promoting Leinster ahead of Munster hurling.
That heat has risen again recently. In anhurling podcast after the provincial semi-finals, former Kilkenny player Brian Hogan was lauding the quality and standard of Leinster hurling ahead of Munster.
With both finals on this weekend, and with the last two Munster finals less entertaining than the last two Leinster finals, Munster hurling wants, and almost demands, a high-quality final.