KIERAN SHANNON: Winter fire guaranteed with Munster club hurling

For all the drama and entertainment sport provides, there are very few sporting events which can virtually guarantee both.

Most major finals of an international soccer tournament are to be endured more than enjoyed; in seven of the last eight World Cup or European Championships finals, the losing side failed to score a goal.

A typical weekend of Six Nations rugby will trigger pundits to bemoan the lack of flair and creativity on view compared to what the southern hemisphere offers up, although next spring that tune could change.

In Gaelic football, most of the provincial inter-county championships have become predictable processions or in the case of Ulster football, wars of attrition. Donegal-Monaghan or Donegal-Tyrone might be close and even absorbing for those really into their football, but for the casual sports fan, such a fixture will involve channel hopping.

Even the Munster hurling championship has lost some of its lustre.

The past two years, the hurling summer has only properly ignited at the All-Ireland semi-final stage, something the Cork and Waterford teams of the noughties would never have allowed.

But as for the Munster club hurling championship? Well, that’s a different story.

Actually, it just might be the most satisfying competition in all the GAA. A bit like sitting down to follow the last day of the Masters every April, any time you put on TG4 on an October or November Sunday afternoon and discover it’s a Munster hurling game they have on GAA Beo, you’re nearly sure not to be disappointed.

Just take this year’s championship alone.

In the first round, Thurles Sarsfields pipped Ballygunner by a single point, with a Pa Bourke free in the last minute.

On the other side of the draw, Glen Rovers came from behind to squeeze past Patrickswell of Limerick, also by a point.

The other semi-final featured the most dramatic game and finish of the lot. Tony Kelly striking points over from all distances. Gary Brennan’s last-minute goal. Paudie Mahers’s extra-time goal. Then, some more magic from Kelly. When Niall Deasy pointed a ’65 with the last puck of the game, it gave Ballyea the biggest-winning margin of this year’s Munster club championship, by doubling their advantage. Ballyea 4-18 Thurles Sarsfield 2-22.

It was an exceptional game — yet merely typical of the Munster club hurling championship.

Two years ago you had the final between Kilmallock and Cratloe that also went into extra-time, the sides being level 1-21 to 3-15 at the end of 60 minutes.

But again it was nothing unusual, even for Kilmallock alone; a couple of weeks earlier they had also been brought into extra-time, by Sarsfields of Cork, prevailing in the end on a scoreline of 3-22 to 3-20.

The one absolute outlier in this competition over the last decade was the 2013 provincial final, when a Seán Stack-coached Na Piarsaigh hammered his native Sixmilebridge by 18 points. In eight of the previous nine Munster finals, the winning margin had been two points or less or the match had required a replay.

The best hurling though often comes in the earlier rounds. Sarsfields from Cork have never even reached a provincial final in their four campaigns beyond their own county, yet each time it took the eventual provincial champions to foil them, and in only one of those four defeats were they beaten by more than a puck of a ball.

The scorelines say it all: Kilmallock 3-22, Sars 3-20. De La Salle 0-22, Sars 2-15. De La Salle 0-18, Sars 0-16. All of them shoot-outs as much as battles, even though they were all played in October.

There has been something of an anomaly regarding the Munster club championship though. Since the turn of the millennium, the eventual champions rarely go on to win the All-Ireland. In fact, they have an awful habit of falling in the semi-final round.

After the great Doora-Barefield team of Jamesie, McMahon and Baker reached back-to-back finals in 1999 and 2000, only three of the next 14 Munster champions went on to play on St Paddy’s Day: Newtownshandrum in 2004 and 2006, and De La Salle in 2009. Only one of them beat someone other than an Ulster team in a semi-final and only one of them went on to win the All-Ireland outright — in both cases, Newtown in 2004.

Whether it’s because the gruelling campaign that was Munster took so much out of them, or the break from such a campaign took them out of their groove, but any time the champions of Munster met the Galway or Leinster champions they invariably lost, albeit often in a classic.

Last spring was something of a landmark. For once a Munster team won a classic semi-final: Na Piarsaigh shading Oulart-the-Ballagh in extra-time at Thurles. They then built on that by winning the All-Ireland outright.

It was a hard-won All-Ireland, one of the best that’s ever been won. In Munster alone they had to come from eight points behind to beat Sixmilebridge by a point in the opening round; then beat Thurles Sarsfields by four points, before coming from three down at half-time to eventually beat Ballygunner from Waterford. And before any of that, they only won their own county final by a point, edging Patrickswell.

This summer Na Piarsaigh couldn’t even get out of their own group in their own county. That’s how exhausting a Munster club campaign can be and how challenging even winning your own county can be.

There’s something in that for both of next Sunday’s finalists. By winning their county championship for the first time, Ballyea became the 10th different club to win the Clare championship over the last 13 years. That’s how competitive and even the Clare county championship is. Ballyea will probably never get a better chance to win a Munster club championship.

Their opposition in Thurles will be Glen Rovers, the inaugural winners of the competition, back in 1964 when Ring still graced the game. For the next 20 years, Cork sides dominated the competition; in fact from 1971 to 1980, the cup never left Leeside.

Things have changed. Newtownshandrum have been the only Cork club to win any of the last 28 Munster titles.

You can never tell at the start of a Munster club campaign who will win it. About the only guarantee is that you won’t be able to take your eyes off it. Which makes it one of the best guarantees in all of Irish sport.


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