Seán Moran: Hurling round-robins still paying their way in Leinster and Munster

The final weekend of games had something on the line for all the teams involved

For something that was thrown together on the hoof in response to the now defunct All-Ireland football quarter-final groups (Super 8s), the provincial round-robins in hurling have proved a surprisingly resilient success.

Now that their third iteration is complete with just provincial finals to come, what are the lessons (or in the sporting vernacular, ‘learnings’) of the format and its impact?

It's proved a robustly open competition. Yet again, the final weekend had something on the line for everyone and a late upheaval in the Leinster pecking order.

Only four counties have got out of their province in all three years and eight of the nine frontline counties have had a crack at the All-Ireland stages – Waterford and its sorrowful mysteries proving the exception, of which more below.

Clare beat them comprehensively on Sunday to top the Munster table and confirm the county – which has neither a provincial nor All-Ireland title during these years – as maybe, surprisingly, the most consistent of the round-robin era. They are top of a three-year table on 17 points, one ahead of Limerick.

The novelty of the format includes the provision of home matches to all counties, a departure from bigger provincial venues taking nearly all the fixtures. As a mechanism for levelling off, it may be losing impact in the Munster championship, where in the successive years of 2018, ’19 and this season, home wins have gone from 5-2 to 5-5 to 4-5.

In fact, no county in the province at this stage has an unbeaten home record over the three years in question.

In Leinster, Galway have made themselves the only undefeated county in round-robin fixtures at their own venue, Pearse Stadium – an interesting statistic given how long and hard the county had to fight for the right to play on their side of the Shannon.

There is a downside. The rapid sequence of matches in a short space of time means that a struggling team can find itself in serious trouble with no way out – because of injuries, suspension or loss of form.

Then there is the effect on provincial finals. Are the provinces primarily set up to provide three All-Ireland qualifiers or two provincial finalists and a spare? It’s pretty clear that for most managers it’s the former but any supposed loss of cachet for the finals, which represent the most traditional of occasions, has not been borne out by experience.

All six (seven if we count the 2018 Leinster replay) of the provincial finales have been well contested and frequently memorable.

The occasions may have the feel of a spur line off the main track – and to an extent were proved as much when neither of the provincial winners in those years went on to add the All-Ireland – but Cork, Limerick, Galway and Wexford in 2019, especially, were all pleased to lift the trophies.

Leinster has always been distorted by the presence of the fifth team, coming and going from the McDonagh Cup. This year, the addition of another team from that tier made for less than riveting fixture lists, with generally just one match between the top counties in any given week.

It was also seen as unfair to one county, as was the experience of Offaly and Carlow in the first two years, to have to play the four top sides with little prospect of a breakthrough and as result, morale draining away with every match.

This year, having Westmeath as well as Laois in the round-robin and stipulating that they shouldn’t meet until the final match kept the teams on their toes – to the extent that Westmeath took a point off Wexford in the penultimate round before soundly defeating Laois last Saturday.

The capacity of the format to facilitate changed fortunes was emphasised at the weekend when Wexford launched an unexpectedly successful raid on Kilkenny to leapfrog Dublin on the final day. It was a haymaker performance from Darragh Egan's team, whose morale after an encouraging league ended in disaster had looked shattered.

It was also noted that he had the nerve to persevere with the side that had dropped a point to Westmeath and challenge them to show that they were better than that.

Change of fortune, two: Cork became the first team to lose its opening two matches and still qualify from a provincial round-robin. For Tipperary, to finish bottom of the Munster table after the worst beating from their closest rivals in 80 years left the future every bit as grim a prospect as the present is proving.

They have won three All-Irelands since Cork’s last but that cohort has reached the end of the road.

Has Liam Cahill? It would have appeared unthinkable just seven weeks ago but the scale of the disintegration has been overwhelming. One local said that Waterford was just commencing the seven stages of grief and was still in shock.

It’s short odds, however, that things will move pretty swiftly through denial and straight on to anger. After an All-Ireland final, two semi-finals and a league, this championship has come as the first big setback in Cahill’s managerial career.

He won’t want to leave on those terms and deserves another opportunity. It’s been an intense three seasons, crammed into little more than 18 months and the sense of deflation must be numbing.

Players ultimately decide these matters. They must have the honesty to acknowledge that what happened was simply a short campaign beset by runaway adversity. The manager may have questions to answer but so too do most of the players. They need to be strong enough to set aside whatever damage to relationships occurred during what was a particularly turbulent time and reset for the good of Waterford hurling.

sean.moran@irishtimes.com

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