We go again. The great old tangled jamboree of the Irish summer, underwayonce more. Well, spring/summer. The championship is never not in fashion.
Saturday in Wexford and Mullingar, in Enniskillen and Donnycarney. Sunday in Ruislip and Waterford, in Ballintemple and the Bronx. The flagship competitions of hurling and football start on Easter weekend. Novelty anywhere you look.
In a way, it’s entirely appropriate. For one thing, the hurling counties mostly gave up the league for Lent anyway. Roll away the rock behind which Limerick have been hiding for much of the past two months and you’ll most likely find a tactics board, a couple of bench presses and a gang of three-time All-Ireland champions ready to go on the B of the bang. More misdirection than resurrection.
That said, it’s fair to concede that the earlier than normal start hasn’t been universally popular. The vista of August lying idle with no intercounty action – and the majority of counties not starting their club championships until September – doesn’t sit right with large portions of the GAA audience. Plenty don’t even know it’s happening yet. The first chimes of the Sunday Game music this weekend will have more than a few people wondering how long they were asleep.
No point grumbling now though. It’s here, it’s new, it’s happening. The All-Ireland hurling final is set for July 17th, the football a week later. Both Sundays will end with gold ticker tape falling from the roof of the Hogan Stand and one crowd going home happy and the other wondering if they want to go home at all. Ultimately, the dates won’t much matter. The game remains the thing.
So, Kerry and Limerick then? It certainly appears to be the most likely outcome. The favourites for the football championship won’t be out for a few weeks yet but Limerick start their defence of Liam MacCarthy in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday afternoon. John Kiely’s side have squeezed the hurling championship in such a vice over the past few seasons that it feels like a straw-grasp to come up with a legitimate threat.
Tipperary and Galway won the last titles Limerick didn’t but they’re both in the early stages of a rebuild. Kilkenny are staring down the barrel of a seventh season without an All-Ireland, their longest famine since the late 90s. None of Clare, Wexford or Dublin will nobble Limerick, albeit they might on a going day nobble somebody who might.
All of which leaves us with Waterford and Cork, the last two All-Ireland runners-up. Liam Cahill’s Waterford side look to tick lots of the right boxes. They have the right age profile, they’ve done their penance in losing finals, they knocked off the league with the appropriate sense of purpose. They welcome Tipp to Walsh Park this weekend with the county fizzing in anticipation. Maybe they’re prime targets for an ambush, maybe they’re the real deal. We ought to know a lot more by mid-afternoon on Sunday.
By then, Cork will be readying themselves to draw a line in the sand against Limerick down by the Lee. When Kieran Kingston came in to talk to the press after the All-Ireland final rinsing, the first words he said were, "Tis all about Limerick, lads." That won't wash here. In front of a bumper home crowd, Cork can't fold so meekly again.
Storylines, storylines. A resurgent Wexford against Henry Shefflin’s Galway. Westmeath and Laois trying to find their footing in a Leinster Championship where the bigger guns will have to use them for target practice or answer uncomfortable questions if they don’t. All coming at a rat-a-tat pace – Waterford play Limerick and Dublin play Wexford next Saturday. Mercy.
The football starts at a slightly more leisurely gallop, with only three games on opening weekend – and only one Division One team involved. That team is the defending champions, all the same, with Tyrone heading to Brewster Park on Saturday night. They’ve never won Ulster from the preliminary round and the road ahead is hardly pleasant this time around either – Derry next if they get past Fermanagh and most likely Monaghan to come in the semi-final. But we can take it that they should have enough in hand here to get the engine going.
Onwards, then. Fourteen weeks of intrigue and scores, rows and roars. The championship will visit around 30 different towns and when you’re there when it happens, the heightened sense of something happening will be unavoidable. It’ll be over before we know it, yes. We’ll worry about that when the time comes.