It’s that time of the year: provincial club championship time.
Tomorrow Na Piarsaigh of Limerick and Sixmilebridge of Clare clash in the Munster club SHC final, but all over the country the t-shirts and sneakers of summer are replaced by parkas and woolly hats.
People want to see the club games, and Paudie Butler, former National Director of Hurling, isn’t surprised.
“The attraction is huge because of the quality on offer,” he says. “You can see the attraction of the club championships in every province, not just in Munster.
“The crowds are massive, that just shows people want to see those games.
“The other point is with the condition county grounds are now in, they can take the games. It’s not winter hurling as such, winter hurling the way we thought about it.
“The players can play for the most part – you only have to look at the scorelines, 1-18, 20 points which is a very good return on a 60-minute game.
“The ball is moving, the games are attractive – hurling is at an all-time high in terms of excitement and quality, and the crowds will go because they want to go to matches – in hurling and football alike.”
Butler has little patience for the traditional criticism of the club games at this time of the year – that heavy fields and poor conditions mean the games are a slog that favour physical teams rather than good hurlers.
“That’s overdone completely,” he says. “Look at all the colleges games played on astroturf pitches, which means that players don’t have winter surfaces to deal with at all. This is a traditional time of the year for schools and colleges to play, and always has been, and the club championships have added to that.
“I’ve been involved with my own club on runs late in the year, and if you are you know that your club is alive and vibrant as a result. It’s the club that’s gone out of action in August and September — those are the clubs facing actual hardship.”
Butler feels the great games in the championships of the past have created narratives for the clubs involved then, while new legends are now being created.
“Look at what’s happening in Carlow now,” he says, referring to Mount Leinster Rangers’ progress to the Leinster club final.
“That’s phenomenal, that a club with its own ambition can reach up and exceed the expectations of them generally. The same with Loughgiel above in Antrim: their ambition found a route because of the club championships. The same with the Galway clubs who focused on winning the All-Ireland club and achieved that goal.
“The wonderful thing for me is that this goes even further. Look at what the GAA did by bringing in intermediate and junior provincial and All-Ireland championships.
“Look at Youghal, who won the Munster club intermediate title last weekend. That’ll energise the club for the next 20 years; they’ll get a dividend from that for years.
“The same for junior clubs who got the chance to venture outside their county for the first time.
“On top of winning a junior county for the first time, maybe, a team would then have a chance at a provincial title: playing in Thurles or Pairc Ui Chaoimh, or Croke Park.
“That would have been almost unthinkable years ago.”
Did the GAA miss a trick by not bringing in junior and intermediate club competitions earlier, or was the time just right for those competitions?
“I think the time was right. The GAA had done the work in bringing in good facilities, facilities which are a credit to every community.
“Most clubs have lights to train under, for instance, and if they don’t then they probably have to travel no more than five miles to find a facility with lights where they can train. Preparing teams in near darkness, a reality long ago, is gone.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that Butler is a fan of the competitions, then: “It’s local, it’s natural, it energises the community. It’s so right for Ireland, it’s no wonder it’s so successful.”
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