LARRY RYAN: Relishing the new normal in Munster rat race

Stand down Richard Scudamore and company, think again Paul Merson; is the Munster Hurling Championship now The Best League in the World?

Round-robin, Champions League format, whatever you’re having. “Rats in a barrel” is what Brendan Cummins prefers.

“Knockout hurling with a twist”, is Michael Ryan’s take, the twist being, I suppose, that it’s not knockout hurling.

But no back door or side door. No bypass. Caught for half an hour in Fermoy on your way to Dublin.

Come out of Munster or forget about it. Three from five, two rats eaten. And no whipping boys. No county, for now at least, who should stick to their traditional music.

In a sporting world where administrators and moneymen and other assorted chancers are scratching around for new formats, with billions to throw at invented competitions and franchises, this is our own Super League. Bayern v Real on Sunday followed by Barca v PSG.

Men like Gianni Infantino, who would stage a World Cup every six weeks if he could, would be impressed with the appetite TV has shown for it. Ulster and Leinster football shoved off the box. Scudamore would be making calls. A fifth round of games in Hong Kong maybe.

They might be rolling in graves across the province, the devotees of Munster myth and legend.

The man who threw the orange from the terrace that Reddin peeled and ate. Anyone who knows whose hurley hit Moloughney or what Mackey said to Ring.

But they’ll hardly be cranking up GAA Go for Monaghan v Tyrone all the same.

Sure, adjustments will be needed. Maybe we can’t hope to maintain the proverbial ‘white heat of Munster Championship’ over 11 matches — unless the moneymen give Abu Dhabi the final.

But were those old summers ever as scalding as we remember? Won’t we settle for sunny spells, with scattered outbreaks of rooting and tearing and poor wides.

Already new conversations replace old certainties. We are learning of the advances in science and medicine that will be required if young men are to play a match once a week.

One county, Derek McGrath claims, has even sent a deputation over to the artist formerly known as The Best League in the World, to see how they cope.

It won’t be the first Munster title to be won away from the field of play, but it might, Gerry O’Connor suggests, be the first won sitting in an ice bath.

There’s familiar language in fresh context. The urgent need to try and ‘take at least a point’ from Páirc Uí Chaoimh. And the rise of Ennis as a ‘tough place to go’.

By the time Waterford land next week, Cusack Park will have taken its place alongside Galatasaray’s Türk Telekom and River Plate’s Estadio Monumental among the world’s great cauldrons of hate.

People are saying previously unthinkable, near sacrilegious, things in this new normal.

Such as Cummins, this week: “A defeat to Limerick wouldn’t be the end of the world”.

And there’s even an outside chance, after a gruelling month, that the winning captain will actually mean it when he holds the old trophy above his head and tells us that everyone in the panel played their part.

The new structure will give us too the one thing we’ve always needed to know, heading into a winter of inquest and recrimination.The thing writers and statisticians occupy themselves with over idle October weekends, compiling their power rankings: Who is the worst team in Munster?

Now it will be laid bare by the middle of June. The league table doesn’t lie, unless, of course, it’s the National League table.

And what if Kerry do the needful in the Joe McDonagh and the relegation play-off comes to pass. A game that can be swaddled in romanticism in the traditional play-off style by totting up how much is at stake for the county boards. The Million Dollar Final.

There will be other side-effects, mostly positive.

Weekly suspension and appeal soap operas will fill a gap should Fair City drop an episode for the summer.

And they’ll have to be resolved quicker than a Carrigstown saga.

The potential value of scoring difference will legitimise the sometimes frowned-upon art of the hammering. Never again will a Ray Cummins take a merciful point, or a man be vilified for decades for smiling when you go 20 up.

And in the final round, as news from the other ground becomes critical, The Man with the Wireless can resume his natural place in the upper echelons of Irish society, even if he is now The Man with the Smartphone That Can Get a Blessed Signal.

There are many psychological questions to answer. What role does the Savage Hunger play? How long can you stay in the long grass? Will there be any time to fly in training? Are Cork still Cork if they have to be Cork every week.

And sure, it’s not perfect. The clubman has fecked off to America and Cody will probably win the next five All-Irelands.

There is potential for dead rubbers and conspiracy theories and accusations that teams lay down with nothing at stake.

Might you be as well off finishing third and taking your handy (with all due respect to etc) preliminary quarter-final, than bursting yourself in a Munster final?

Unlike makeshift competitions such as the Six Nations, there is at least some effort to put fairness above TV exposure by playing the concluding pair of games at the same time.

But the inherent flaw with a five-team format could still leave Tipp sweating at home on the final day in case Limerick and Clare call a truce like McCarthy and Gullit in 1990 and puck around for a point apiece.

Or worse, a narrow defeat for one of them. Then the devotees really would rise up out of their graves and put an end to it.

But self-defeating as it would be for hurling, what a five-team league really needs is a genuine trapdoor to keep them all honest, like Leinster’s.

Though in the current impatient GAA climate, that would surely have the managerial merrygoround spinning ever faster. With hurling’s Big Sams — the fire fighters and rescue specialists — sent for after two defeats to save seasons and relocate lost dressing rooms.

Only then could we truly say the rat race had begun.



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