Mind the gap - the dangerous leap from provincial champions to All-Ireland contenders

Mind the gap - the dangerous leap from provincial champions to All-Ireland contenders
GREEN WAVE: Diarmaid Byrnes celebrates with the Limerick fans after winning this year’s Munster SHC final. Limerick side will be hoping to buck the modern trend where the majority of Munster champions have failed in their quest for All-Ireland glory. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

One evening a few weeks back, Jackie Tyrrell and I were talking about the Dr Harty Cup when I mentioned to Jackie that my Harty medal from 1987 meant far more to me than the Croke Cup (All-Ireland) I won with St Flannan’s against St Kieran’s six weeks later.

Jackie was almost incredulous in trying to understand the full meaning of the comparison. “Do you really mean to say a provincial medal means more to you than an All-Ireland?” he asked. “For definite,” I replied.

From the moment I went into Flannan’s as a first year, I understood the importance of the Harty, almost by osmosis. It was a different galaxy away from me by that stage but I was just enthralled by that new exciting world which had been opened up to me. Going to Harty Cup matches, the atmosphere and pageantry when Flannan’s played The Mon or Farna or Thurles CBS, it was just magical.

My first big dream as a hurler was to win a Harty, which made it all the more special when it actually happened against Midleton CBS in 1987. I remember Bishop Willie Walsh bringing us into an old history room where Liam Ashe — one of Flannan’s greatest teachers — taught the subject, for a team meeting the Friday night before the final.

“If you never catch a hurley again after Sunday,” he said “when you’re 50, 60, 70, 80 or if you’re lucky to be 90, you can talk hurling with anyone if you have a Harty Cup medal.”

I was never as mangled with nerves before a match as I was before that Harty final in Kilmallock. When we played Kieran’s above in Birr in the All-Ireland final, I had no nerves. I gave away a penalty after two minutes, which Pat O’Neill came up from centre-back and stuck, but it didn’t knock a stir out of me. If it had happened to me in the Harty final, I’d probably have had a meltdown. We beat Kieran’s handy for a finish in that final but that still dilute the sensation at the end. It was still incomparable to what I felt in Kilmallock six weeks earlier.

Maybe we were inoculated differently in Clare in that — unlike Jackie when he was growing up in Kilkenny — we never thought about All-Irelands because we never expected to win them. Flannan’s was the one place where you had the ambition as a young Clare player to go after All-Irelands but the ethos of the place was still grounded in chasing Munster Colleges glory.

I’m not surprised Jackie struggles to understand my thinking. It’s probably different again for Cork and Tipperary because they have so many of them but Munster titles are just unique for every other county in the province. My most special moment as a Clare player was winning the 1995 Munster title. That remarkable moment in Cork when Waterford had their breakthrough Munster win in 2002 remains burned into my memory.

Limerick are All-Ireland champions but look at what a Munster title meant to the whole county four weeks ago?

There was a similar outpouring of emotion after this year’s Leinster final but how often has that happened?

I was lucky enough to experience it with the Dubs in 2013. That was one of the greatest days of my career because it was Dublin’s first title for 52 years but you still get the sense the emotion is always that bit more explosive in Munster.

Maybe that stems from Kilkenny’s dominance but the muted reaction to a Kilkenny Leinster final win is always in stark contrast to a Cork and Tipperary Munster final win. And Cork and Tipp almost have as many of them as what Kilkenny have.

When we played Cork in the 1999 Munster final, the big carrot for us was to try and win three-in-a-row for the first time in our history. We didn’t manage it as Cork won a first Munster final in seven years. They celebrated the success like it was their first in seven decades.

In typical Thurles fashion after a big game, there was mass gridlock. The Clare bus was going nowhere so Fergal Hegarty and I took off up through the town. We knew full well we’d meet someone who would give us a lift home.

With baseball caps pulled down tightly over our foreheads, we trekked up through the throng to Alan McCormack’s pub. The place was packed with Cork fellas, who were going bananas, dancing and jumping around to the songs blaring out from a jukebox. Hego and I were doing our best to ignore the din as we sat sipping a couple of pints of cider in the corner until this auld fella from Cork copped me.

“Be proud of yourself boy,” he said to me. “Look at the manners you’re after putting on those fellas over there.”

I wasn’t in the form for chat but I really appreciated the sentiment from the man. Having spent the decade in the doldrums triggered a more explosive reaction than normal to a Cork Munster final win but a similar level of emotion was still apparent after last year’s Munster final in Thurles. It was Cork’s third Munster title win in five years but the Rebels celebrated it as much as Clare would have. And we’re still looking for a first since 1998.

Of course you’d wonder if it would mean as much if Cork won 13 provincial titles in 14 years, as Kilkenny did between 1998-2011. Yet even if Cork did, they’d have had to put far more into winning Munster during those years than Kilkenny had to in Leinster.

And even if Cork had won bags of Munster titles over the last 20 years, they’d have celebrated them far more than Kilkenny did during that time.

I’ll never forget my first Leinster final with Dublin in 2009. We gave it an unmerciful shot but we just came up short. Michael Fennelly was the team captain but he couldn’t make the team so he went up to accept the cup in his tracksuit bottoms. By the time he raised the Bob O’Keeffe trophy over his head, most of the Kilkenny supporters had gone home.

Richie Stakelum, who had captained Tipperary to a famous Munster title win in 1987, sidled up beside me. “Me with my ‘famine is over’ speech and you with your ‘no longer the whipping boys of Munster’ speech. And then this fella goes up in a tracksuit.”

Although Kilkenny have only won three of the last nine Leinster titles, you couldn’t have imagined Kilkenny supporters going bananas if they had beaten Wexford four weeks ago.

There has been massive Leinster wins for Galway, Dublin, and Wexford in the meantime but, even with those breakthrough successes, winning Munster will always mean more, no matter what anyone says.

In that context, it’s fair to ask if that’s one of the chief reasons why the record of the Munster champions has been so abysmal over the last two decades.

S

ince the qualifiers were first introduced in 2002, on the 14 occasions where the Munster champions have advanced directly to an All-Ireland semi-final, they have won just four times.

That’s a hard statistic to digest given the standard within the province throughout that time. Limerick may be the All-Ireland champions, and favourites to retain their title, but you can’t ignore those numbers either.

That four-week gap between a Munster final and All- Ireland semi-final has been an obvious factor. Limerick are a well-oiled machine primed to deal with every obstacle put in their way.

They have the bench to withstand any injuries or dip in individual form but you’d wonder is that four-week break even more of an impediment now in the current system? Especially when teams are so used to playing week-on-week.

When we won our last Munster title with Clare in 1998, we were almost unbackable favourites going into the semi-final against Offaly. We had blown Cork (league champions that year) away in the Munster semi-final before hammering Waterford in a Munster final replay.

It was our third Munster title in four years but it meant so much to us that it probably took the edge off us ahead of our All-Ireland semi-final against Offaly.

It’s a much-changed environment now, especially in terms of sports science, and — despite the horrendous statistics — I think Limerick can override all of that stuff. They got their shock early in Munster, which has put them on their guard ever since. Moreover, that setback came after a long layoff, which I’m sure management will have learned from as they dealt with the gap of the last month.

Limerick will come ready. They will fully earn this against Kilkenny but I can’t see them being beaten.

And I think the whole narrative around the struggles of Munster teams in All-Ireland semi-finals will be a whole lot different by 8pm.

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