Munster still seems to be dominating Leinster in hurling - but Kilkenny may dispute that
WITH 12 minutes of normal time remaining in last Saturday's Clare-Wexford All-Ireland quarter-final, it appeared as if the Leinster empire was emphatically about to strike back. Galway and Kilkenny had already advanced to the All-Ireland semi-finals and Wexford looked in pole position to join them in the last four.
For the first time since Galway entered the eastern provincial competition 14 years ago, Leinster looked set to have three teams in the last four. 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 last Saturday to charge into the All-Ireland semi-finals. Clare will need to drastically improve to beat Kilkenny but, already, the odds are pointing towards a repeat Munster final pairing for the All-Ireland final.
That provincial decider earlier this month was one of the greatest in the history of the competition, with Limerick beating Clare after extra-time in an epic. The previous evening, Galway and Kilkenny played out a damp almost soul-less Leinster final before a poor attendance in Croke Park.
"We were so disappointed after our Leinster final performance," said Henry Shefflin in the aftermath of Galway's win over Cork on Saturday. "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 because they won 11 of those 13 titles. 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 been highly competitive in the last few years. The huge number of draws and close matches have reflected those tight margins between the teams. Yet Leinster's numbers haven't been impressive when their sides have come up against their counter-parts in the other province.
Outside of their preliminary quarter-final win against Kerry two weeks ago, Wexford haven't beaten a Munster team in championship in their last seven meetings, which stretches back to 2016. Dublin haven't beaten a Munster team since 2015, having lost their last five championship games against sides from the southern province.
Kilkenny's record is still nowhere near where they would like it to be – since 2016 Kilkenny have only won three of their last nine championship matches against Munster sides. Galway have the best record, having won six of their last ten against Munster teams.
Munster's current grip has also been completely reflected at U-21 and U-20, which is always a more accurate gauge than minor. Prior to this year, Munster teams had won the previous 10 All-Ireland U-21/20 titles. Galway may have dominated at minor level but their last U-21 title was in 2011. Kilkenny finally arrested the slide in May by securing their first All-Ireland U20/U21 title since 2008.
Kilkenny were the last team to beat Limerick in the championship in 2019 but Kilkenny have been knocked out of the championship since 2016 by a Munster team every year – Tipperary, Waterford, Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford, and Cork. If they lose to Clare now on Saturday week, Kilkenny will have lost to Munster's top five since their last All-Ireland title in 2015.
Another all-Munster All-Ireland final would be hard for Leinster to stomach but the province can't argue with the numbers. On the other hand, 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 average at best. 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 was brilliant and, while the last three 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. But as Ger Loughnane has rightly noted, equating excitement with a high standard is a mistake.
Next weekend, Munster goes up against Leinster again in both semi-finals. The odds 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.
* I would like to extend my deepest sympathies to the family of Damien Casey, along with his friends and everyone in the Eoghan Ruadh club in Tyrone. Damian was a brilliant player and a special gift to hurling, especially to Tyrone.