Seán Moran: It’s important to make hay while the sun shines

Waterford and Laois show historical power relationships are fading

Waterford’s Shane Bennett tackles Conor Lehane of Cork during the Munster SHC semi-final at Semple Stadium. Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Waterford’s Shane Bennett tackles Conor Lehane of Cork during the Munster SHC semi-final at Semple Stadium. Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

To the victors the spoils and to the vanquished, the qualifiers.

I was reminded last week of the lead-up to the 1997 Munster semi-final between Clare and Cork. That was Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s second year in charge of Cork and there had been signs that the project, which would eventually land the All-Ireland, was under way.

Clare were on the way to a second All-Ireland and had defeated their opponents in the two most recent championship meetings, the frequently mythologised 1995 semi-final and the match that signalled the first stirrings of the county, their 1993 victory, also in a provincial semi-final.

A friend from Tipperary told me that his father, not a man given to being blinded by status, had formed the view that Cork should win, as he couldn’t see them losing in championship to Clare three times on the spin.

Traditional hierarchies

For 25 minutes the anticipated scenario played out and Waterford looked anxious and apprehensive as if the sight of the blood-and-bandages was indeed prompting them to doubt their karma.

In the end Waterford recorded a win that brought the running championship tally between the counties to six apiece (with two draws) from 14 meetings over the past 15 years.

The previous 14 championship outcomes had broken 11-3 in Cork’s favour so there’s been a change. This was all the more impressive, as Waterford are effectively on a third-generation team since the breakthrough year of 1998.

It was widely publicised both before and after Sunday’s Leinster quarter-final that Laois’s most recent win over Offaly had been in 1972.

What was most striking about Laois’s hurling year wasn’t so much the melodrama about whether Séamus Plunkett had stepped down or was coming back but the calculated confidence with which he plotted a year that focused on this single championship match.

It was clear that Offaly might be vulnerable although the county enjoyed a better league than it had last year but the comfortable assumptions were apparently confirmed by Laois’s less than impressive league and Leinster round-robin.

Directing a team exclusively at championship carries risks but the manner in which Laois rose to the challenge with the backing of a home crowd appeared to splinter Offaly’s resolve and certainly vindicated Plunkett.

Hurling is a game in which tradition matters but it is also becoming one which is no longer dictated by historical power relationships.

Development work is now increasingly the basis for a county’s status. What Offaly and Cork – two of the big losers at the weekend – have in common is that they have allowed the supply lines of talent and coaching to atrophy. The process has been in train for a long time – at least 20 years in Offaly’s case and 15 in Cork’s.

There is a symbiosis between underage and senior success. The emotional charge of having a good team creates interest in the community and properly husbanded that emerging talent can fashion the county teams of the future.

Neither Cork nor Offaly made sufficient hay when the sun was shining most recently – nearly two decades now in Offaly’s case and one in Cork’s. They are very different counties: one has a long and relatively uninterrupted tradition of winning and the other defied a tiny population and won four All-Irelands in 17 years.

In one case the hurling community was used to renewal happening on a regular basis and in the other it simply had no long-term experience of consistently regenerating the game at the top level.

Diarmuid Healy, the Kilkenny man who drove the hurling emergence in Offaly and its initial successes of the early 1980s, famously stressed that the project would only be complete when the county won a minor All-Ireland – an achievement delivered three times in four years at the end of the decade, a sequence that provided the foundations for the senior successes of the following decade.

Unfortunately for Offaly there was no comparable process in the 1990s. In fact the only minor achievement since the All-Ireland title of 1989 has been one Leinster in 2000.

The strength of the club game – Birr’s four All-Irelands – to an extent concealed the drift but by the time the great generation of current manager Brian Whelahan had walked from the fields for the last time, it was clear the county was beginning to run on empty.

Supreme achievement

If there was an anomaly at the weekend it was the further evidence that Dublin are experiencing turbulence in turning their efforts at underage over the past 10 to 15 years into All-Ireland silverware. The county has hit some targets in one league title and a Leinster championship but so far hasn’t made even an All-Ireland final.

smoran@irishtimes.com

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