Shark Infested Waters Ahead
The greatest show on earth gets underway this weekend, or at least it used to be the greatest. The Munster Senior Hurling Championship is an ancient affair, contested every year since 1888. It has survived world wars, global pandemics, foot and mouth and everything else that life has thrown at it. Not even the arrival of live television could kill it off despite the prophets of gloom who railed against the televising of live hurling in the 1980’s. In Tipperary, our most cherished Munster Championship memory wasn’t even on live TV. The Munster Hurling Final replay in Killarney in 1987 was not televised which adds somewhat to the folklore nature of the day. Those that were lucky to be there have events permanently ingrained in their mind’s eye.
Gaelic games on free to air TV is probably the main reason why I pay my TV licence fee. The first hurling match to be broadcast in colour was the All Ireland final of 1971, with Tipp beating Kilkenny by two points. At the time, only 27,000 Irish households had a colour television. This Sunday, the Munster Championship will throw in once more, this time in Walsh Park Waterford with the home side entertaining Tipperary. The tight Waterford venue is not fit for purpose and can only entertain 11,000 supporters. Far fewer than wish to see the game in person. Contrast Walsh Park with the proposed venue for the Cork v Kerry Munster Senior football match. That was originally pencilled in for Pairc Ui Rinn which would have a capacity of around 11,000. Interestingly Pairc Ui Chaoimh is not available as it is being used for an Ed Sheeran concert. Yes, you have that correct, a purpose built GAA stadium in Cork City which has a capacity of 45,000 is not available for some of the Munster Championship due to a music event taking place. So the alternate Cork venue was mooted. This however has not met with the approval of the Munster Council who want the game moved to Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney which has a capacity of a little under 40,000.
This would mean that Cork would have to sacrifice home advantage in order to accommodate more paying spectators at the larger Kerry venue. Needless to say the Cork football players and management are not happy about this, but where should they direct their anger? Towards the Munster Council who wish to maximise gate receipts or their own county board who have booked a concert at the larger Cork venue. In fairness to the Cork County Board the redeveloped Pairc Ui Chaoimh is something of a financial millstone around the board’s neck. The Irish Times recently reported that the most recent accounts for the Cork County Board show the Páirc Uí Chaoimh stadium debt stood at €29.74 million at the end of last September. The accounts show that €21.8 million of the total is owed to Bank of Ireland with loan terms extended until 2028. Annual repayments of €750,000 to €1.1 million are to be paid over that period with the remaining loan to be revisited in seven years’ time. Ed Sheeran is a big draw, likely to generate millions of euros for the County Board, and the timing of his availability is outside the control of the Cork GAA officials. So Ed gets preference for the Pairc over the Cork footballers who have not disguised their displeasure about being told to decamp to Killarney.
So Pairc Ui Rinn is considered too small to host Kerry in football but Walsh Park is not too small to host Tipperary in hurling. In the interest of fairness it should be pointed out that the Munster Hurling Championship is run differently to the football equivalent. The Hurling championship is a round robin event with all teams guaranteed at least two home matches. Waterford deserve home advantage as much as anyone else. The football championship is straight knock out and venues are decided, very often, on home and away arrangements between counties. It isn’t only the Cork footballers being discommoded by Ed, their hurlers will forgo home advantage against Clare on May 1st and will decamp to Thurles as an alternate venue. Their hurlers are being moved to a neutral venue, but their footballers are being asked to concede home advantage to their opponents? But if this is about increasing the number of spectators that can see the Kerry Cork football match then the same principle should be applied to the Tipperary v Waterford match surely? Right now Waterford are league champions and riding the crest of a wave. Expectation is high in the county and their supporters, still waiting for a first All-Ireland in over 60 years, are giddy.
You would have to have some sympathy for the Cork footballers who appear to be digging their heels in a little over their proposed relocation to Killarney. Time will tell if their argument for fairness trumps the financial advantages of Fitzgerald Stadium and if we are being honest, Cork will need every little thing to go their way if they are to be competitive against a Kerry side that looks to be the finest in the land right about now.
But back to Munster hurling, and with the Championship upon us this weekend, it is timely to have a look at what might or might not happen in the coming days. Five counties are jostling for three qualifying slots. That means that come the end of May, two of the traditional hurling counties of Munster will be finished for the year. Might one of those two be Tipperary? One hopes not, but as ever, the Munster Championship is something akin to a shark tank with each county as likely as not to take a bite out of the opposition.
Walsh Park at 2pm this Sunday will get things underway. Waterford are strong favourites, despite Tipperary having enjoyed far more championship success over Waterford in the past ten meetings (7 for Tipp, 3 for Waterford). But that statistic doesn’t reveal the trajectory that both sides are on. Liam Cahill and Mikey Bevans are in their third year in Waterford and their fingerprints are now all over this team. They play with pace, strength and have evolved a killer instinct of late that suggests that goals will come on Sunday. Dessie Hutchinson and his Ballygunner team mates are buoyed by their recent All Ireland club success. Tadgh De Burca is back in defence and along with Conor Prunty will provide the defensive anchor that all teams need. Austin Gleeson has been moved permanently into the forwards and on his day can unlock pretty much everything. Stephen Bennett and Hutchinson will look to find goals where most forwards might settle for points.
Tipperary’s trajectory since 2019 is the polar opposite of Waterford’s. Colm Bonnar is in his first year and has inherited a squad weakened by injuries and retirements. I’m sure that Colm had not reckoned on naming a Championship side this year without Paudie Maher. But pick an opening day panel of 24 he must and it will mix the seasoned with the raw. Championship debuts are inevitable and what a place to make your first Munster Championship start, a packed Walsh Park. How Tipp respond to the Waterford running game, how they themselves retain possession, and how they respond to the almost inevitable Waterford goals will all be extremely telling. Waterford’s game is high energy and requires great stamina. Responding to it and matching it will require super human fitness levels from Tipperary and from what I know of Colm Bonnar, we won’t be found wanting on that score.
I have long held the view that we have some big players coming from our back to back under 21/20 winning teams. Craig Morgan might well start on Sunday alongside Jake Morris and Mark Kehoe. Other like Dillon Quirke, Paddy Cadell. Ger Browne, Brian McGrath and Conor Bowe are sure to be included on the match day squad and will likely see some game time. What an opportunity for these players to step up? And it is a considerable step up. We wish all concerned well and hope that the bookies, who are offering generous odds on a Tipp victory, may well rue their inability to read history.
Following on from Walsh Park, attention turns to Pairc Ui Chaoimh for the meeting of Cork and Limerick. Limerick’s league campaign was similar to Tipp and yet no one is writing them off to the extent that we seem to have been. They are a more settled side than Tipp, have an experienced management team in place, have youth and pace in the team and all the medals to go with it. No matter what the form book says, I cannot see anything other than a Limerick win. One feels that the real Limerick is about to announce its return now that the league is over. For Cork, their famine is set to continue, but I would still be surprised if they don’t make it out of Munster. This year marks the 17th year since they last won the Liam McCarthy. When we went 18 years between 1971 and 1989, we wondered when, or if, it would ever end. Cork’s problems look to be in defence, and not for the first time. The manner in which they conceded goals against Waterford in the league final must surely have set alarm bells ringing on Leeside. But knowing your Achilles heel and being able to fix it are two quite different things. Cork seem strong at underage once again but translating that into senior success is by no means certain. Home advantage on Sunday may not be all it is cracked up to be.
Let the games begin……..