Is the Munster hurling final worth winning or even reaching?

At the launch of the Munster Senior Hurling Championships 2019 in Dungarvan. Hurlers, from left: Noel Connors, Waterford; Conor Cleary, Clare; Séamus Harnedy, Cork; Dan Morrissey, Limerick, and Jason Forde, Tipperary. Picture: Harry Murphy

It’s coming home, it’s coming home, hurling’s finally coming home. Or at least it’s giving Waterford a game where they can call home.

The last time Walsh Park welcomed someone other than Kerry for a Munster senior hurling championship, Baddiel and Skinner were top of the charts for the first though not the last time, singing about three lions on a shirt and the promise and hope of Euro ’96.

Detective Jerry McCabe was in his final five days walking this earth and Veronica Guerin in her last 20 before both were callously gunned down to the horror and shock of the nation.

Down in Waterford, Austin Gleeson was a few weeks short of his first birthday while his future hero and clubmate Ken McGrath was making his senior inter-county debut, though still just a minor.

McGrath would acquit himself well that day, starting and scoring a point from wing forward, and his team wouldn’t disgrace themselves either against Tipperary, unlike when the sides had clashed the previous year. In 1995 down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Waterford had been hammered by Nicky English & Co, 4-23 to 1-11. In ’96, on their home patch, they merely lost 1-14 to 1-11.

Still, that was their summer, just like the three prior to it — done and dusted after one solitary game. There was no backdoor then, not even for the beaten provincial finalists, as Tipperary could dejectedly testify the following month, losing to Limerick in a Munster final replay.

That was the last game Nicky English and Pat Fox would ever play for Tipp, and it would be the last do-or-die Munster final as well. The following year Tipp would again lose a provincial final by a goal in the bowl by the Lee, this time to Clare, but their summer would continue.

That 1997 season was the first year of the backdoor, or at least it was for provincial runners-up, and by September Tipp would again come within a John Leahy goal chance of foiling Ger Loughnane and his army.

So much has changed, and for the better, since Austin Gleeson was in nappies.

Although he has yet to win a Munster championship, he’s played 22 championship matches in five seasons, whereas by the same age and career juncture his Mt Sion clubman Tony Browne had featured in just five. Lose your first-round game in Munster these days and you’re not only still in the championship, you’re still in the Munster championship.

What’s more, now you get to play two provincial championship games at home. Even if you’re Waterford, who were notoriously deprived that privilege last year. While Browne only once played someone other than Kerry at home in the Munster championship over a 22-year career, Gleeson and his teammates will host Clare this Sunday, and then just three weeks later, All-Ireland champions Limerick. The capacity might be a good bit smaller than it was in ’96 — 15,655 filed through the turnstiles for that visit of Tipp — but everything else about this Munster championship is better and bigger.

Well, everything else but the Munster title itself, that is. While we’re all relishing the feast of hurling that’s almost upon us now, Super Sunday followed by Super Sunday with a few special Saturdays throw in as well, it’s telling what the most recurring question is.

Who will come out of each province? Or rather, who won’t come out of each province? No one is asking who will win each province.

In fact, any mention of a Munster final tends to prompt another question: is it worth winning or even reaching?

On the eve of last year’s championship Anthony Daly shrewdly observed that finishing third in Munster might just be the best route for a team in the province to get their hands on Liam MacCarthy. Now his former teammate Jamesie O’Connor is just one of many pundits and observers proclaiming it’s the way to go for Limerick or anyone else again.

“If Limerick are beaten somewhere along the way in Munster, I think they’ve a better chance of winning the All Ireland,” O’Connor would say at the Sky Sports recent championship launch. “They were the third team to come out of Munster last year. That’s not a bad position to come from.”

In yesterday’s Irish Examiner, Diarmuid O’Sullivan questioned the wisdom and merit of his native county winning another Munster title.

Is that really the ambition for Cork? Do they want to go three-in-a-row or do they wind up further down the field this time? That’s a question for later on.

It is a question that isn’t occupying them now. All Cork want to do now is win their opening game this Sunday, all the more so with it being at home. But what if “later on”, as O’Sullivan puts it, you are assured of a spot in the All Ireland series with still a game to go in the Munster round-robin?

What if Cork don’t need to win in Ennis in their last game to make the All Ireland series, just like Limerick didn’t when taking an 11-point loss down there last year? What if they calculate a loss can skip them the hassle of a Munster final with all its inherent risks?

Losing a provincial final can do quite a bit of damage to a side and a county.

Draw one and you can get deeply entangled in a struggle you wish was already over either way yet you can’t back down from, potentially leaving you with too little time and energy for a possible All-Ireland quarter-final, a la Kilkenny in Thurles last year.

And win a provincial title and your punishment, sorry, your supposed reward, is a four-week layoff. The worst possible sentence to a side still in the championship, while everyone else, including your All Ireland semi-final opponents, is in that perfect groove of playing every couple of weeks.

The GAA learned and tweaked some things from last year’s inaugural round-robin format, ensuring a Gleeson no longer had to play four Munster championship games in just 21 days. But inexplicably they again did nothing to shorten the layoff between the provincial final and the All Ireland semi-final.

It’s as if it’s more important among officialdom for a provincial council to still have the possibility of a replay financial bonanza than a side who wins a provincial final at the first time of asking to have a fairer lead-in and layoff ahead of an All-Ireland semi-final.

No side like a Cork should be feeling potentially foolish for maintaining their own competitive integrity and that of the Munster title itself. Yet that is the quandary they or any Munster champion potentially face again this year.

Of course there were other factors in Cork’s past two All-Ireland semi-final defeats, ones which were within the control of their management teams and which John Meyler will have spent the winter and league trying to address: Greater strength in depth and of mind. But the data and history shows that the layoff provincial champions have to endure is a controllable the GAA itself should be looking to address and control.

Only three of the last 16 Munster champions that automatically won through to an All Ireland semi-final won that semi-final at the first time of asking. In contrast, back when Munster champions had to play an All Ireland quarter-final from 2005 to 2007, the Munster champions all won the next day out, and all but one of them won their All-Ireland semi-final as well.

The facts show: Anything more than a three-week layoff and Munster champions are more likely to lose rather than win their next game.

What could and should be done?

Well, instead of a third-placed like Limerick last year getting a nice and handy back-on-the-road win over a Joe McDonagh finalist, instead let the provincial champions play them in mid-July as a bona fide All-Ireland quarter-final, with the third-placed side pitted against the runners-up from the other provincial final. That way then a provincial champion is allowed to keep ticking over nicely ahead of their All-Ireland semi-finalist.

Reward the team that finishes top of the round-robin section of their province with choice of venue for the provincial final — and duly give them a higher proportion of the gate. Clare-Cork last year should have been in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, and Galway-Kilkenny, in Salthill.

The alternative is to scrap the provincial finals, eliminating a lot of the delays and provisos that it entails. Stagger the round-robin stages out further (the GAA, especially under pressure from sponsors, do not want the inter-county hurling season over by the end of July). Then you go to an occasion like Cork-Clare the past two years and wonder: Why would you get rid of this?

Only then a month later when its winners are beaten in Croke Park and you’re wondering what that last day of the Munster championship was all about. No team should feel a sucker or compromised about winning a provincial title.

Including a Limerick who’ve made it clear they want to win the next competition going. But as Jamesie and the recent Cork experience would tell them, third might be the best way to eventually come first.

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