The debate as soon as the new Munster hurling championship format was introduced was that teams with the bigger panels will likely take advantage of the situation, rotate their strength in depth, and eventually come out on top.
Backing up this theory, Tipperary focused keenly in the league on blooding fresh faces to enhance their options going into Munster. They were able to reach the league final having rotated every game and often fielded under-strength and unfamiliar starting fifteens. On the other hand, Cork and Limerick had to be more economical with their panels, and the latter had the benefit of playing against some inferior opposition in Division 1B. Limerick were superb in beating Galway, but the Tribesmen had considerably less hurling done in 2018.
Waterford pretty much wrote off the league as a means of pre-seasoning their Munster championship. In the end they paid the price, losing to Cork in the relegation play-off and getting sent down to 1B for next season. This will be Derek McGrath’s last year in charge in the south east, so he won’t have to worry about that, his focus is entirely on going one better than last year and winning an All-Ireland. Waterford’s panel is strong, however, and it will be interesting to see if they can overcome the taste of relegation and reignite their 2017 form.
Cork were dismal in the league but didn’t have to get out of second gear to overcome Waterford that day in Páirc Úi Rinn. They were a surprise package in Munster last year, beating Tipperary against the odds in the opening round with an expansive gameplan that Tipperary didn’t seem overly prepared to handle and then Waterford in the semi-final, for which the Déise enacted revenge in the All-Ireland semi.
In last year’s Munster final, Patrick Horgan scored 13 points on their way to a 1-25 to 1-20 win against Clare to win the title, but 2018 form so far suggests that Cork have nothing much new to show and their league misgivings could linger into the summer.
Clare hit 13 wides in that final and pointed a penalty, the loss extendng their Munster drought to nearly 20 years.
Time feels like its ticking on the Clare contingent that won the 2013 All-Ireland against all of the odds under Davy Fitzgerald. It’s already five years since they took the throne and a chunk of that panel has been forced into retirement or been battling with injuries lately.
Having said that, a very talented core of that team remains; Tony Kelly, Podge Collins, Shane O’Donnell, Colm Galvin, David McInerney, Conor McGrath and Séadna Morey are all still 26 and under, which highlights how well Davy did that year with such a young team.
Since then, underachievement has blighted their initial success. Last year was the first Munster final they had reached, up until then they hadn’t come close. 1998 remains their last provincial win – a depressingly long time for such an established county.
It will be interesting to see how the new format treats Clare. They visit Páirc Úi Chaoimh on Sunday evening, with Ed Sheeran still echoing through the stands. Clare will have to quickly put their own tune to proceedings and overturn last year’s result and set their campaign up on a bright start, similar to their opening day league win over Tipperary.
If they can escape the Rebel County unscathed, Clare have a new weapon in their ranks this year: Cusack Park. A notoriously difficult away ground will become a cauldron of fire on championship Sundays. Clare welcome Waterford and Limerick to Ennis either side of a trip to Semple Stadium. They might have preferred bringing Tipp down to Ennis, and fancied their chances of repeating the league result, but Limerick won’t have it easy if the Bannermen can build up an atmosphere worthy of the bordering rivalry and put Limerick to the sword.
Waterford will begin their campaign in Ennis with no hurling beyond their relegation defeat, hardly a comfortable means of getting your season back on track. It’s not outlandish to suggest Clare should be winning their two home games but Sunday’s opener down in Cork will help guide that opinion.
It’s a wide open race and on the day, each team will fancy their chances of beating any of the rest. But there’s question marks hanging over every team, even across teams with the perceived strength in depth which, as the weeks go on, may prove to have less of a bearing than originally anticipated.
Indeed, with the aforementioned crew of Clare talent who we should now be expecting to be entering their prime, in addition to a slew of young additions such as the imperious Peter Duggan in the forward line, this year is a perfect opportunity to dispel the disappointing performances of recent years and lay claim to perhaps the toughest Munster title any team will have won in modern GAA.
As each side fights for scraps of glory in the new round-robin format, Clare could go under the radar and come away with the biggest feast of all once everything is said and done.