IN the autumn of 2020, just three of the nine county senior and intermediate hurling and football championships were played to completion.
While Blackrock, Charleville and Blarney came out on top in the Co-op SuperStores Premier Senior, Senior A and Premier Intermediate Hurling Championships, the intermediate A and lower intermediate grades remained unfinished, as did all four football competitions.
That meant that, once the easing of Covid-19 restrictions allowed it, 16 teams took part in delayed county finals in the summer just gone (including junior A) – and of that group, seven of them made it back to deciders when the 2021 championships got going.
On the one hand, you point to momentum and there’s no denying the fact that East Cork duo Castlemartyr and Lisgoold definitely fed off their 2020 wins at lower intermediate and junior A respectively, both making light work of the next grade up as they achieved back-to-back glory.
However, on the football side, what was notable was that it was sides that lost out in their delayed finals were able to dust themselves down and come back again: Mallow in senior A came back to go a step further while Kanturk in premier intermediate and Mitchelstown in intermediate A will be looking to emulate that feat when they line out in finals this coming weekend.
What the repeat final appearances show is that the change in competition format has led to more consistent teams being rewarded, something Mallow manager Keith Moynihan commented on after Sunday’s SAFC final win over St Michael’s.
In June, Mallow faced Éire Óg in the 2020 SAFC decider and, though they had beaten the Ovens club in the group stages in September of last year, the tables were turned in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Though disappointed, they regrouped and – despite the fact that they lost experienced players like Cian O’Riordan, James Loughrey, Andrew Cashman and Michael Quirke – they bounced back to top their group and then saw off Béal Áthan Ghaorthaidh in the semi-finals and Michael’s in the final to take a place in premier senior for 2022. Moynihan certainly felt that it was a case of the system bringing the competition’s two best teams to the last game.
“It is a great achievement,” he said, “I also think it’s testament to the group phase.
“I was telling the lads today that Mallow, Kanturk, Mitchelstown are all back in finals and down in Kerry with Beaufort, Gneeveguilla and Castlegregory it’s the same.
“That all helps and it’s why today’s final was so close – both teams were top seeds and, obviously, you have to survive a scare in the semi-final when you’ve been off for four weeks but that’s why today was competitive.”
A native of Annascaul, it was understandable that Moynihan would name-check football teams in Cork and Kerry who were able to reach consecutive finals, but it’s not just a big-ball occurrence on Leeside.
Taking the hurling finals played last autumn into account, Glen Rovers, Fr O’Neills and Castlelyons were also examples of that phenomenon, though unfortunately for all three they suffered second straight defeats at premier senior, senior A and premier intermediate respectively.
In fact, across the top five hurling grades, there were two instances of the 2020 beaten finalists up against a beaten semi-finalist and two where a recently promoted side clashed with a team that had lost at the last-four stage last year. Of the ten clubs in final action, Midleton were the only side that had not tasted knockout action in 2020 – they were of course the side unlucky to miss out in the group of death featuring Sarsfields, Douglas and Ballyhea. The Magpies for Na Piarsaigh was the only difference in terms of clubs advancing in 2021 compared to 2020.
Similarly, Clonakilty were outliers in the football as new champions St Finbarr’s only lost last year’s semi-final to Castlehaven on penalties. Mallow and Michael’s was finalist v semi-finalist as Kanturk-Newmarket will be this weekend while the IAFC final sees Mitchelstown – defeated in the 2020 decider by Rockchapel – up against the junior champions of last year, Iveleary.
While there may be some who will decry the fact that it’s harder for a ‘bolter’ team to come from nowhere and win a title, it seems that the new system provides a more accurate reading of who the top sides are.