How important is group form in the Cork club hurling championships?

As the 2021 knockout stages begin, a look at how last year's games went in terms of seeding
How important is group form in the Cork club hurling championships?

Erin's Own's James O'Flynn goes past Sarsfields' Cillian Roche and Daniel English in last year's Co-op SuperStores Cork Premier SHC quarter-final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh - the only top-tier knockout game won by a lower-ranked side. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

TRYING to extrapolate the potential outcome of future events from past occurrences is always a fairly inexact science, so the health warning is even more hazardous when the sample size is extra small.

Still, we won’t let that deter us. With the knockout stages of the county hurling championships commencing this weekend, there is a sense of this being ‘the real thing’ – the quotes from managers in the wake of the group stages concluding would have been along the theme of the year starting now, with the phony war out of the way.

Obviously, there is a need to perform in the round-robin to ensure progression to the quarter-finals and beyond but, in golfing parlance, there’s no point winning a strokeplay qualifier for a matchplay event if you’re going to lose your first encounter.

So, while the 2020 championship was the first under the new format, the insight gained might be too little to make any definitive judgments but we can certainly check to see if there were any developing patterns.

The clearest method of analysing if a perceived advantage was borne out is with regard to the automatic semi-final spots for the higher-ranked sides (one in premier senior, two in each of the other four grades) but the seeded nature of the draw means that there is empirical evidence in assessing the scorelines, too.

So, for instance, in the Co-op SuperStores Cork Premier SHC last year, the three group winners were Sarsfields, Blackrock and Glen Rovers. While it was the Rockies who ended up coming out on top to end an 18-year wait for a title, it was the team they beat in the final, the Glen, who had the best group-stage record, taking the semi-final place.

Had the quarter-finals gone according to the seeding, then the Glen would have faced Sars but instead the Riverstown side were beaten by their neighbours Erin’s Own, who had finished second to Blackrock with a win, a draw and a loss in their three games.

Sars had come through the ‘group of death’ that featured Douglas, Midleton and Ballyhea so a case could be made for that having taken too much out of them but if they had beaten Erin’s Own we’d have said that those matches had tuned them up.

The original draw had second playing fifth but that would have meant Blackrock-Erin’s Own, which couldn’t happen as they had met in the group. In any case, Blackrock overcame Douglas, who were number 4 (a fixture which will be repeated this weekend, with the roles reversed as Douglas are second seeds and Blackrock fourth).

While the team emerging from the divisions/colleges section are notionally the seventh seeds, they can’t really be counted for this purpose. So, with Blackrock and the Glen winning both of the semi-finals, it meant that the higher-ranked side won three of the four PSHC knockout games.


The senior A grade had three stand-out group winners and the battle for the semi-final spots was tight – Fr O’Neills and Charleville progressed with scoring differences of 34 and 31 respectively, with Kanturk missing out on 30. They overcame Bandon though while Newcestown won the battle of fourth and fifth against Bride Rovers.

With Charleville and O’Neills winning the semi-finals, all four ties held true in terms of rankings.

Of the five hurling championships, premier intermediate was the outlier in that it was the only one won by a side that previously lost, with Blarney overturning their group-stage defeat to Castlelyons by beating the East Cork side in the final.

Castlelyons and Carrigaline progressed to the semi-finals as the top two seeds while Watergrasshill were the other group winners but they lost out to Courcey Rovers. Blarney had a higher rank than Ballincollig and then they upset the formbook by seeing off Carrigaline. With Castlelyons beating Courceys, there was a 50 percent record for the higher-ranked sides, two out of four – given that premier intermediate has always been a very even grade, perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise.

Eventual champions Éire Óg and Kildorrery were the teams progressing to the IAHC semi-finals, while the other group winners Aghabullogue overcame Mayfield in the quarter-finals. Fourth seeds Sarsfields beat fifth-ranked Cloughduv but lost to Éire Óg – who had beaten them in the group – in the semi-finals on penalties. On the other side, Aghabullogue knocked out Kildorrery, giving three out of four ties to the higher rank.

Finally, the lower intermediate grade was won by Castlemartyr, who had progressed to the semi-finals directly along with St Catherine’s. Russell Rovers were the other group winners, who beat Milford while Kilbrittain beat Tracton despite being seeded lower than them.

In the semis, Russell Rovers saw off Catherine’s in their Imokilly derby while Castlemartyr beat Kilbrittain – two out of four again.

Aggregated, the 20 knockout ties (excluding finals) went the way of the higher-ranked side on 14 occasions, with six underdogs triumphing. Six of the nine group winners bypassing the quarter-finals won their semis, so there wasn’t a sense that a longer gap between games was an impediment, as was the case for first-round winners under the old knockout system.

As we said, it’s not scientific, but unless a team can magically tailor their preparations in such a way to just make it through the group and then start firing, they’re probably better off aiming for as good a group showing as possible.

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