MUNSTER begin the defence of their Martin Donnelly Inter-provincial hurling championship this afternoon in Fermoy when they face Ulster (1.30pm), followed by the football semi-final between the same two provinces.
Meanwhile in Kiltoom, Co. Roscommon, Leinster and Connacht face off in the other hurling/football double-header, the finals to be played under lights in Portlaoise today week.
It is not the best of timing for the football particularly, one would think, with the International Series in Australia. But such is life nowadays for the poor relation of the GAA. It wasn’t always like that of course, as Munster hurling manager Len Gaynor knows. A three-time winner during his days as a flying wing-back with Tipperary, he accepts that the series has now lost its lustre.
“Oh God it has. It was a totally different scene back in the 60’s. You didn’t have the blanket coverage on live television of games back then that you have now, people rarely got to see the top players in action which meant that St. Patrick’s Day (the traditional date for the final) was always a huge day.
“You’d have extra trains laid on to go to Dublin, people travelling from all over to see the likes of Christ Ring, Jimmy Smyth, Philly Grimes, Jimmy Doyle, Seamus Power, all the top players from Munster, and of course you had the same from Leinster. Nowadays the spotlight is really on the league and championship – I know it was always on the championship but the league has grown in importance. So the Railway Cup has moved down the pecking order. The public seem to have lost interest in it, but the interesting thing is that the players are still keen on it.”
There can be no quibble with that, and that eagerness is reflected in the team chosen for today’s game. Captained by Tipp keeper and current All Star Brendan Cummins, all five major Munster hurling counties are represented, and every position is filled by a top star. “We actually had representatives from all six counties in the panel,” Gaynor explains, “But we won’t have Shane Brick from Kerry now, he broke two ribs last Sunday in the Kerry championship, can’t come, which is hard luck on him. We’ll also be short a couple of the Cork lads, John Gardiner and Seán Óg (Ó hAilpín, named as subs) are going away this weekend, and we thought we’d be without Ben O’Connor also but he’s able to play now that it’s been fixed for Fermoy. Other than those, and Shane McGrath, who pulled a hamstring on Tuesday night, playing football, all those selected on the starting 15 will be there.”
In the absence of McGrath, Gaynor and his co-selectors have a number of options, the most obvious of which would see Clare captain Brian O’Connell move from wing-back to partner Tom Kenny in midfield, to be replaced in the half-back line by another Clareman, Brendan Bugler. A more daring option would see the shift of Cork’s Cathal Naughton from wing-forward to midfield, where he did so well on several occasions this year, with Naughton’s Newtownshandrum clubmate Ben O’Connor then coming into the wing. Either way, it will still be a strong Munster side.
“We haven’t got the Ulster team yet but we know they’re making a big push for this, this year, they brought forward their Ulster club final to last Sunday to get that over with, have the Cushendall and Ballygalget players available. I saw the club final – those guys are flyers when they get going, and we’re expecting a tough battle. I don’t know if we’re ready for it or not but we’re certainly expecting it.”
Last year Ulster had representatives from six counties, a reflection of the growth of hurling in the province. Donegal, Fermanagh, Armagh all had players on the panel, alongside those from the usual suspects, Antrim, Down and Derry .
Meanwhile up in Roscommon, Leinster will be weakened by the loss of Eoin Larkin, Jackie Tyrell, Henry Shefflin and Cha Fitzpatrick, all four involved with their clubs in tomorrow’s Kilkenny senior final (the first two with James Stephens, the latter pair with Ballyhale Shamrocks).
Of course in the context of Leinster hurling, weakened is a relative term here – with so much strength in depth in Kilkenny alone, but with Wexford, Dublin, Offaly, Laois, Westmeath, Carlow, etc. etc. also involved, Leinster should still have a strong side out.
Galway, meanwhile, newly manager-less now that Ger Loughnane is gone, will be expected to supply the bulk of the Connacht side, if not all 15. Though it took the western province a long time to make their mark in this competition, only one title (1947) up to 1980, they have made up for that in the interim, with ten additional titles in the last 27 years.
Last year they were pipped in an entertaining final by Munster, 2-22 to 2-19 – don’t be surprised if it’s a repeat final next Saturday, in Portlaoise.
MUNSTER (SH V Ulster): B Cummins (Tipperary — Captain); C O’Brien (Tipperary), P Curran (Tipperary), S Hickey (Limerick); B O Connell (Clare), G Quinn (Clare), D Fanning (Tipperary); S McGrath (Tipperary), T Kenny (Cork); T Carmody (Clare), S Callanan (Tipperary), C Naughton (Cork); A O Shaughnessy (Limerick), Eoin Kelly (Waterford), N Gilligan (Clare). Subs: D Óg Cusack (Cork), B Bugler (Clare), P Donnellan (Clare), P Kelly (Tipperary), B O’Connor (Cork), L Corbett (Tipperary).
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