Hurling & Camogie

Christy O'Connor: Munster '23 the greatest provincial championship ever played

The margins in the Munster championship this year were so small across the board that it could justifiably be seen as the greatest provincial championship ever played. Picture: Sportsfile
The margins in the Munster championship this year were so small across the board that it could justifiably be seen as the greatest provincial championship ever played. Picture: Sportsfile The margins in the Munster championship this year were so small across the board that it could justifiably be seen as the greatest provincial championship ever played. Picture: Sportsfile

IN the first line of his acceptance speech after last Sunday’s Leinster final, Kilkenny’s Eoin Cody cleared his throat.

He wanted to get something off his chest first before he started thanking everyone who needed to be thanked.

“We’re hearing all week that there’s no hurling in Leinster,” said Cody.

“Well there’s plenty of hurling in Leinster.”

Nobody has ever doubted that there is but Cody’s comment was a clear swipe at Munster and the commentary that the game down south is far better than what’s on show in the east.

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 before Munster completely turned the tables. 

A Munster team has won the last five All-Irelands, which is the first time that has happened in over six decades. Whether Leinster like it or not, they can’t deny that Munster has become the main show in town.

And this Munster championship absolutely overshadowed what was on show in Leinster. 

The Munster championship has long been regarded as the jewel in hurling’s crown but this campaign was unlike any other.

Prior to this season, the 2018 Munster championship was the greatest in history but the 2023 campaign absolutely surpassed it. 

More games presents more opportunities for more drama and intriguing subplots. That 2018 campaign was glorious because it was so novel, with it being the first year of the round robin. 

It was packed with so many brilliant matches loaded with more drama and fascination than a Hitchcock novel; Limerick beating Tipperary on the opening day to announce themselves as a coming team; the drawn Cork-Tipp game; the Cork-Limerick draw in the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh; Clare beating Tipp in Thurles in a Munster championship match for the first time in 90 years, in late spell-binding fashion; the Waterford-Tipperary draw that was defined by the infamous ‘ghost goal’; the Cork-Clare Munster final.

Cork hunted down a huge lead that afternoon, which was a strong theme throughout that 2018 championship, especially in Munster, which was particularly evident in the Cork-Tipperary and Waterford-Tipperary matches.

The excitement was all the greater again, not just because of what the round robin in its maiden season offered, but of the annual level of magic and quality the new format looked set to promise every year. But that didn’t happen.

In eight of the 11 games played in Munster in 2019, the margin of victory was six points or more. Six of those matches could be described as routs.

The 2020 Munster championships was only average, which was understandable during a winter championship, and even more so when some teams were starting back later than others due to prolonged club championships.

The 2021 Munster championship was better but you still couldn’t say it was electric. The Limerick-Tipp Munster final was memorable for the manner of Limerick’s incredible comeback but none of the other games really caught fire. 

Last year’s Munster final was one of the greatest in the history of the competition, with Limerick beating Clare after extra-time in an epic. Both sides had also drawn in Round 3 in Ennis a few weeks earlier in another titanic battle.

However, outside of those two Clare-Limerick games, last year’s Munster championship was again, 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. 

Clare and Limerick had already qualified for the Munster final after their third game last year and, while Cork, Tipp and Waterford all had a chance of claiming that third spot on the final day, there was no real sense of drama or intrigue about that afternoon. Clare hammered Waterford. Cork comfortably beat Tipp, which they were fully expected to.

From the first match this year though, there was a sense that it was going to be different, especially in how Waterford completely altered the narrative of the championship by the manner in which they almost beat Limerick.

Clare-Tipp was an eight-goal thriller. Clare-Limerick was a game for the ages. Cork-Tipp was enthralling and absolutely electric at the end. So was Cork-Clare and Limerick-Tipp. Cork-Limerick was one of the greatest games seen in years.

The jeopardy floating around that afternoon encapsulated all the magic of the campaign. As the Cork-Limerick and Tipperary-Waterford games entered stoppage time, the balance and outcome of the championship was hanging on a knife edge.

A draw in the Cork-Limerick game and a 5-point win for Waterford would have knocked Limerick out. A one-point win for Limerick and a 6-point win for Waterford knocked 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.

The only non-events were Cork-Waterford and Waterford-Clare. Waterford were gone after round 3 but they still showed up for round 4 and gave Tipp such a whipping that they radically altered the final standings in the table.

Last Sunday’s Munster final was nowhere near the quality, drama or intensity of last year’s Clare-Limerick decider, but it was still absolutely compelling, tense, relentless, gripping and thrilling. A free that should have been awarded but wasn’t would have taken the match to extra-time.

It was the fourth match of the campaign that was decided by one point. Two more were draws. Two points separated the teams in another match. A Hollywood script writer would give anything for that kind of material.

The dynamic between the two provinces is vastly different, especially around the make-up of the teams in Munster and Leinster. There is a lot of hurling to be played yet.

There is plenty of hurling in Leinster, but Leinster has never produced anything like what Munster delivered this year.

It was the greatest GAA provincial championship ever played.