Christy O’Connor: Anything is possible on last day of hurling’s round-robins

But fans deserve Leinster and Munster matches to be split between Saturday and Sunday

Liam Óg McGovern (right) helped Wexford retain their Leinster SHC spot with a couple of goals against Kilkenny
Liam Óg McGovern (right) helped Wexford retain their Leinster SHC spot with a couple of goals against Kilkenny

BEFORE last year’s Wexford-Kilkenny Leinster round robin final match, with traffic congestion around Wexford town having pushed the throw-in back by 10 minutes, Wexford tenor Anthony Kearns belted out ‘Boolavogue.’

With their Leinster championship future on the line, the ballad that commemorates Fr Murphy and his Wexford army during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 was like a battle-cry that stirred the Wexford hordes into a craze of emotion.

What followed was a complete throwback, an old-school shootout that mesmerised and terrorised the locals into such a state of anxiety and delirium that the final whistle triggered mass scenes of apparent schizophrenia. Wexford celebrated like they had won the All-Ireland, even though they were out of the championship. Kilkenny lost an epic but were still through to a Leinster final.

And yet that match was just one chapter of an incredible and spellbinding story. The whole day was so entertaining that it was arguably the greatest day in the history of hurling.

Prior to last year, the final round matches in Munster and Leinster had always been kept apart but they were all played the same afternoon. What transpired was so electric that a Hollywood script writer couldn’t have made it up.

Three of the matches (Kilkenny-Wexford, Cork-Limerick and Galway-Dublin) were still on a knife edge in additional time. The Cork-Limerick and Kilkenny-Wexford matches were two of the best games in the history of the round robin. Wexford-Kilkenny was such a crazy match that there was a 14-point swing. There was a 13-point swing in the Galway-Dublin game that ended in a draw.

A Séamus Flanagan goal helped Limerick past Cork at the Gaelic Grounds on Sunday
A Séamus Flanagan goal helped Limerick past Cork at the Gaelic Grounds last year

Two hours later down south, as both the Cork-Limerick and Tipperary-Waterford matches entered stoppage time, the balance and outcome of the Munster championship was hanging on a precipice.

A draw in the Cork-Limerick game and a four-point win for Waterford would have knocked Limerick out. As it transpired, a one-point win for Limerick and a six-point win for Waterford dumped Cork out and saved Tipp by the skin of their teeth.

Tipp entered the day as favourites to reach the Munster final but if the Cork-Limerick match had ended in a draw, Cork would have gone to the Munster final and Limerick would have edged out Tipp for third spot. You couldn’t have made it up.

In the middle of that chaos was the Antrim-Westmeath game in Mullingar, a match Antrim had to win to survive. A week after their biggest win in Leinster history, when beating Wexford, Westmeath only needed a draw to ensure their safety. However, Westmeath could afford to lose if Wexford lost to Kilkenny.

In the history of the Leinster round robin, last year was unique in how two games were critical in deciding who was staying up in Leinster and who was going down to the Joe McDonagh.

Across the three previous iterations of the round robin, that last day had never been so complex, involving three teams. In 2018, Offaly were already relegated with one round still to play, just like Carlow found themselves in the same position in 2019.

The structure of the competition is different now since six teams began competing in the Leinster round robin in 2022, which has made the scrap at the bottom as intense as the battle at the top.

In 2022, Laois and Westmeath were battling it out on the last day to see who would stay up or go down, with Laois needing to win but Westmeath only requiring a draw. Westmeath subsequently hammered Laois by 18 points.

Antrim  v Wexford 5.jpg
Antrim v Wexford 5.jpg (seamus loughran)

Sunday is another straight shootout between Antrim and Carlow, although a draw will be enough to save Antrim. At the other end, Galway-Dublin and Kilkenny-Wexford are effectively Leinster semi-finals, along with deciding who qualifies as the third team and who goes home for the rest of the season.

It’s just as chaotic in Munster. Wins for Waterford and Clare will see Limerick eliminated from the championship, ending their ambitions to become the first team to win five All-Irelands in-a-row. A draw in the Limerick-Waterford game, along with a draw or a win for Clare in the Clare-Tipperary match knocks Cork out.

Cork are currently the form team, having beaten Limerick and annihilated Tipp last Sunday. And yet, all Cork can do this weekend is helplessly watch on and hope. In the history of the Munster and Leinster round robin, there has never been a situation where a team is waiting on other results to determine whether their season will continue, or if it is dead in the water.

The only team with nothing to play for this weekend is Tipp, but Liam Cahill spoke after the Cork hammering last Sunday about the importance of protecting the integrity of the championship.

Waterford were in a similar position in their last game last year, when nobody expected anything from them, and they produced a performance that turned the whole championship on its head, especially given how the permutations turned out, particularly for Limerick.

The shame for hurling supporters everywhere is, once again, most of the action is taking place at the same time; the three games in Leinster start at 2pm; the two matches in Munster begin at 4pm.

From a promotional perspective, how does it make any sense to have five huge games on the same day, considering five of these teams – or possibly four, along with Cork - won’t be seen in action again until next February? What was wrong with the old system up to last year where Leinster had their final round on the Saturday, with Munster on Sunday?

It’s all the more infuriating again given that, after Sunday, there are just nine games left in the Liam MacCarthy, and only one in the Joe McDonagh Cup, just eight of which will be televised live.

Across the same time-span, there will be 27 games in the Sam Maguire, along with 19 in the Tailteann Cup, with three of those Tailteann Cup games televised live.

Two hurling games are live on Sunday but anyone watching those games in Munster and Leinster will be equally attuned as to what’s going on elsewhere at the same time. Because on the last day of the hurling round robin, in both provinces, literally anything is possible.