Anything is possible in All-Ireland SHC once provincial duels are settled
Christy O’Connor sketches a picture of an All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship which any team out of seven could win...
AT A preview event in Galway last May, Cyril Farrell, the former Galway manager, said the third-placed team in Munster was ideally placed to win the All-Ireland. It was only conjecture at that point, especially when nobody knew what to expect from the new Championship system, but Farrell was subsequently proven right.
Limerick didn’t want to be that third team. They were desperate to reach a Munster final. The team and management shipped some stinging abuse from within their own county after losing so heavily to Clare in their final match, which was effectively a Munster semi-final. Losing so heavily to their arch-rivals made the defeat harder again to take, but that loss, and the subsequent pathway it created for Limerick, was critical to them winning the All-Ireland.
Much of that theory is still relative though. Kilkenny – whose All-Ireland quarter-final was their third tough game in 14 days - could have beaten Limerick. Cork should have beaten Limerick in an All-Ireland semi-final, but effectively blew it when leading by six points with eight minutes remaining.
There is no right path to negotiate in the new Championship system because the only priority for most teams is to stay alive and just make that top three. Cork and Clare could have won an All-Ireland last year. Both teams could win an All-Ireland this year, but will they make the top three in Munster? At this moment, nobody can say with any conviction who those top three teams will be. Limerick look to be ahead of everyone else at the moment, but are they that far ahead either?
At face value, five of the top seven teams appear to be in Munster and yet two of those five will be gone by mid-June. The three knockout spots in Leinster seem that bit handier to secure compared to the dog-fight in Munster. On the otherhand, is Munster overrated compared to Leinster?
Some of the teams within the province have huge question marks over their defence. That will lead to high-scoring shootouts and plenty of drama once more, but there’s every chance that Leinster will produce just as high a standard.
Dublin were the unluckiest team in the 2018 Championship, narrowly losing to Kilkenny and Wexford, but they look an even better side this season under Mattie Kenny. Dublin will be a dangerous outfit this summer but, they are so well tactically set up, that they also opened a window of example in the league semi-final as to how teams may set up to try and beat Limerick.
Dublin effectively played four at the back for most of that league semi-final against Limerick (a sweeper and three man-markers), but they were hammered for their approach afterwards. Early on in that game, Eddie Brennan posted a tweet: ‘God this is ugly hurling, as near as it gets to all out defending which has destroyed Gaelic football. Dublin coming with a plan to saturate between the 45s and frustrating Limerick.’
Brennan’s tweet triggered a long thread of responses. Brennan fired off a number of replies to reaffirm his point, one of which was: ‘We all get the winning & results side of things but if skillful hurlers are gonna get smothered and choked by numbers, people will not go to games. Rubgy with hurls, no thanks.’
It was one of the hardest-hitting league games in years. The statistic for turnovers-in-possession underlined as much, with a colossal 41 over the 70-plus minutes. That smothering and suffocating style doesn’t exactly appeal to the purists, but it almost worked for Dublin, who got a lot closer to the All-Ireland champions than Tipperary, Kilkenny, Laois and Waterford managed during the league.
Dublin’s way of setting up against Limerick also underlined how much the All-Ireland champions’ template is invariably copied, studied and heavily dissected the following season by most teams. And the subtle style-change throughout this year’s league largely came from those teams plotting to try and beat Limerick.
There was a move to greater physical presence and physicality in the middle third. That has largely formed the basis of modern hurling for over a decade but, with half-forward lines coming deeper again this spring, before looking to break forward with massive pace, the congestion in that warzone has never been greater.
With no relegation from Division 1A, or promotion from 1B, the competitiveness in the league was heavily diluted from other seasons, but most teams spent the spring experimenting with personnel and gameplans. It also presented the opportunity to expand panels because Limerick showed last year the importance of having a strong bench.
Tweaks have been made to last year’s format. Teams won’t be forced to play four games in three weeks. Leinster have staggered their Championship so that every team will only play on two consecutive weekends. Munster will take a break-weekend at the end of May, but Clare and Limerick will still be the only two teams playing three games in 14 days.
Managing that stress will be a key test because the round-robin format takes a huge physical and mental toll on players. It’s harder again for the teams who lose their opening game: Dublin, Offaly, Tipperary and Waterford all lost their first games last year and all four were gone by June.
The stats also show how difficult it is to win away. Removing Offaly, there were only three away wins last summer. Clare (who lost their opening game to Cork) secured the only away win in Munster – against Tipperary – which both saved and made their summer.
With the standard so even in both Munster and Leinster, managing fatigue, recovery and injuries will be critical to advancing in the most competitive hurling Championship in history. Seven teams are good enough to win an All-Ireland, but at least nine of the 10 will have designs on reaching an All-Ireland semi-final.
Yet once the Championship begins, securing those top three spots in both provinces is all that will matter during those defining first five weeks of the hurling summer. And as Limerick showed last year, anything is possible afterwards.