Christy O'Connor: Stats don't lie but Munster hurling might not be that far ahead of Leinster after all

Kilkenny were the last team to beat Limerick in championship in 2019 but have been knocked out of the championship by a Munster team every year since 2016: Tipperary, Waterford, Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford and Cork
Christy O'Connor: Stats don't lie but Munster hurling might not be that far ahead of Leinster after all

Ryan Taylor of Clare intercepts the sliotar ahead of Darragh Fitzgibbon of Cork. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

ON the day in early May that Cork played Clare in Thurles and Galway met Kilkenny in Salthill, Derek McGrath and Shane Dowling were on duty for The Sunday Game night-time show.

Both games were scheduled for 2pm but the Galway-Kilkenny game was live on TV.

Still, Dowling and McGrath decided to watch the Cork-Clare game first from the RTÉ studios before analysing the match from Salthill afterwards.

“Well, how wrong we were,” wrote Dowling in his RTÉ column two weeks later. “The game in Salthill was the one. Contrary to current perceptions, Munster hurling is not as far ahead of Leinster as people imagine.

“The two leading contenders for Liam MacCarthy may be from Munster, but can you honestly say that if either of them took on Galway or Kilkenny that you’d be overconfident? Absolutely not.”

This weekend will test that theory as Clare and Limerick take on Kilkenny and Galway.

Although it was always a treacherous game for Clare, they were lucky to escape with a win against Wexford two weeks ago. With 12 minutes of normal time remaining, it appeared as if the Leinster empire was emphatically about to strike back.

For the first time since Galway entered the eastern provincial competition 14 years ago, Leinster looked set to have three teams in the All-Ireland semi-finals.

WE'LL MEET AGAIN: The handshake between Kilkenny senior hurling manager Brian Cody and his Galway counterpart Henry Shefflin at Pearse Stadium. Picture: INPHO
WE'LL MEET AGAIN: The handshake between Kilkenny senior hurling manager Brian Cody and his Galway counterpart Henry Shefflin at Pearse Stadium. Picture: INPHO

There were a couple of occasions, in 2000 and 2001, when Galway were joined by two Leinster teams (Kilkenny and Offaly in 2000, and Kilkenny and Wexford in 2001) in the All-Ireland semi-finals. But Galway weren’t in Leinster at that time.

In any case, Leinster’s attempt to try and reclaim some lost ground on Munster still has a bit to go after Clare stormed back against Wexford to charge into today’s All-Ireland semi-final.

So how stark are the comparisons between the provinces?

The night before the epic Clare-Limerick Munster final, Galway and Kilkenny played out a damp almost soul-less Leinster final in a vacant Croke Park.

“We were so disappointed afterwards,” said Henry Shefflin after Galway’s win over Cork.

“Then to turn on the television and watch the Munster final, my God that’s what we want to try and achieve.”

Even though it’s all one hurling community, there will always be some degree of rivalry between the provinces.

For most of the last two decades, Leinster held the upper-hand, with the province bagging 13 of the 20 All-Irelands on offer between 1998 and 2017.

Kilkenny’s dominance between 2000-2015 was the dominant theme of that superiority.

Yet Munster have completely turned the tables in the last four years.

A Munster team has won the last four All-Irelands, which is the first time that has happened in over six decades — between 1948 and 1954, Cork, Tipperary and Waterford shared seven All-Irelands between them.

It was straight knockout back then but two Munster teams have contested the last two All-Ireland finals, which is the first time that has happened in history. So is the overall standard higher in Munster now?

The numbers in the last few years add to that perception at the moment. In 2017, 2018 and 2021, three of the four All-Ireland semi-finalists were Munster teams.

The last two national league finals, in 2019 and 2022, were all Munster affairs.

Leinster has still been highly competitive. The huge number of draws and close matches have reflected those tight margins between the teams in recent years.

Yet Leinster’s numbers haven’t been impressive when their sides have come up against their counterparts in the other province.

Outside of their preliminary quarter-final win against Kerry three weeks ago, Wexford haven’t beaten a Munster team in championship in their last seven meetings.

Dublin haven’t beaten a Munster team since 2015. Kilkenny have only won three of their last nine championship matches against Munster sides since 2016.

CATS DEMISE

Kilkenny were the last team to beat Limerick in the championship in 2019 but Kilkenny have been knocked out of the championship by a Munster team every year since 2016 — Tipperary, Waterford, Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford, and Cork.

If they lose to Clare now, Kilkenny will have lost to Munster’s top five since their last All-Ireland title in 2015.

Munster’s current grip has also been completely reflected at U21 and U20. Prior to this year, Munster teams had won the previous 10 All-Ireland U21/U20 titles.

The numbers tell a large part of the story, but there are a multitude of strands to this whole debate which pick holes in that theory as to how far ahead of Leinster Munster really is.

Outside of the two Clare-Limerick games, this year’s Munster championship was really poor. Waterford collapsed in their last two games, losing to Cork and Clare by an aggregate margin of 18 points.

Tipp lost their four games by a combined total of 31 points. Cork were extremely poor in their opening matches against Limerick and Clare before recovering, albeit against Waterford and Tipp teams way off the pace.

This year’s campaign can’t be taken in isolation either because the three previous Munster championships weren’t a whole lot better.

The 2019 Leinster championship was brilliant and, while the last three campaigns have been average, a lot of those games still went to the wire, unlike in Munster. That has meant more excitement, especially in the smaller stadia like Nowlan Park and Wexford Park.

On the other hand, exciting games don’t necessarily mean high quality. The odds now favour a third successive all-Munster All-Ireland final and round three of Clare Limerick.

Yet could it be round three of Cody-Shefflin?

If the Leinster empire was to strike back, that rematch would be the loudest way possible of doing so.

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