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Ciarán Murphy: Jeopardy makes the Munster hurling championship a force for good

Spectre of the dead rubber has stayed away, showing fans that group stages can have all the drama you can handle

It’s the start of the hurling championship this weekend, and there’s no hand-wringing over competition structures, no worries about a low-key start, no “what does it all really mean?” pieces in the newspaper. This is good. We’re all agreed. This is no small thing.

The only complaints are that it’s over too soon – and that’s hardly a complaint at all – or that we don’t see enough of the games on television – and that’s a complaint of a different kind as well, really. The message is we can’t get enough of this, and for once it’s actually true.

The Leinster hurling championship has consistently given us more last-day drama, but it’s only natural that it be over-shadowed year after year by the goings-on in Munster. There are three games in Leinster this weekend, but only Dublin and Wexford has any real competitive uncertainty about it. And even at that, it’s a game between the eighth and ninth best teams in the country, neither of which really look capable of launching a bid for provincial honours, let alone the All-Ireland.

So the Munster championship begins this Sunday with Clare hosting Limerick, Waterford hosting Cork – and five into three will not go. Now it had been the case up until 2023 that every team that had been eliminated from the Munster championship had actually played fairly terribly to end up there.


But when Cork lost out last year, having beaten Waterford, drawn with Tipperary, and then lost by a point to Clare and Limerick in their last two games, there was genuine sympathy for their plight. No-one from Cork’s dressing-room said anything of the sort, but the idea was out there that this was a miscarriage of justice in some way. This was seemingly magnified by the fact that the Joe McDonagh Cup winners and runners-up joined the All-Ireland championship after Cork had already been eliminated, as if this was some kind of salt being rubbed in Cork’s wound.

But that jeopardy is what makes the Munster championship so special. We all grew up watching GAA games that were never short on jeopardy. We are a knockout people, trying to transition to leagues and group stages. But in almost every competition, at every age-group and in club and county, teams are now being given three and four games to prove their worth.

We thought the group stages of the All-Ireland football championship last year would be damp squibs, given that three teams from each four-team group would go through, but the final round produced a ton of fireworks nevertheless. The Connacht U-20 football championship, which finished last night, was absolutely wild – with all five teams incredibly well-matched, and plenty of last-day permutations even if three of them would still be alive in the championship afterwards.

Cork may have been unlucky in last season’s Munster championship, but they played the three teams that emerged from the round-robin and couldn’t beat any of them. They got close, in all three games, but they didn’t get it done.

In that respect, the Munster hurling championship has been a force for good across the GAA in convincing people that group stages can have all the drama you can handle, and that giving five good teams four really competitive games is a full season. If you can’t qualify after that, you’ll have given it your best shot, and you’ll have been given ample opportunity. The table won’t lie.

Mini-leagues and group stages are not a sop to give teams endless games. The spectre of the dead-rubber has not materialised, despite it being the bogeyman mentioned at each step of every championship restructuring. Dublin may have lain waste to a few Super Eight groups over the duration of that format, but pretty much across the board they’ve been a success. No competition has done more to facilitate that change of mindset than the Munster senior hurling championship.

So if Waterford finally raise a gallop this weekend, and take down Cork, the entire competition is blown wide open. If Clare lose at home to Limerick it’ll be no disgrace, but their trip to Páirc Uí Chaoimh seven days later then becomes a game that neither team can contemplate losing.

Clare have won more points in the Munster round-robin than any other team since its inception ... yes, even more than Limerick. They have Tony Kelly to reintegrate into their league-winning team, and if accommodating one of the finest hurlers of his generation is the biggest problem facing their management, then that’s a fairly good situation to be in. But there are no guarantees, and those first two games are properly terrifying.

Tipperary qualified for the league semi-finals, but took a trimming from Clare when they got there. They’re on the sidelines this weekend, and then have both their away games inside a week of each other. But they still have All-Ireland winners in their squad, and there aren’t many of those elsewhere in Munster in colours other than green.

The entire enterprise bristles with possibility. The football championship doesn’t know what it is or what it wants to be for these few weeks, but we all know exactly what the Munster championship is about. Start your engines.