There’s not much point in trying to predict a competition like the Munster championship which has only four contests. Getting one game wrong skews every other prediction, which is what happened to me in 2008. And even if you get it totally right like I did in 2010, wild card choice of Cork to catch Tipperary on the hop included, events in the All-Ireland series can deflate any sense of smugness.
Still, it’s probably useful to try and put the League performances into some context. In addition, writing about this in a general context allows one to go off on a GAA-wide tangent that otherwise wouldn’t ordinarily be possible in a blog that tries to keep things Waterford-specific. And the thing that has struck me most forcefully as we prepare for the 2011 Championship is the malaise affecting Cork hurling. The steely aura of omnipotence that is enveloping their footballers seems to be distracting Cork Gaels from the problems at what they habitually tell us is their preferred sport. Denis Walsh aggressively stamped his authority all over the senior team by putting Seán Óg Ó hAilpín out to pasture, but their poor League campaign – they weren’t doing much before they lost to Wexford, then they lost to Wexford – leaves him open to the rumblings that seem to attach themselves to the militant-in-chief. What should be really alarming for Cork supporters is their problems at Minor level. Well beaten in both their top-order games against Limerick and Tipperary, the production line looks like a 1970’s British car factory. Any expression of dismissiveness towards Cork should always be qualified by the prospect of their incredible capacity to come from nowhere (see: 1999 All-Ireland) but this feels rather perfunctory in the current context. The rage of the strike undoubtedly reflected an underlying concern at the systems in Cork GAA, but it could be argued that the bitterness generated by the strike has exacerbated the flaws. Last year I had a feeling in my waters that Cork would beat Tipperary. Despite the dislocation of the transition from Liam Sheedy to Declan Ryan, this year’s waters are running smoothly.
This would lead Tipperary to a semi-final clash with Clare. Omar Chadhari, the man responsible for the outstanding soccer blog 5 Added Minutes, recently had a very wry take on how Harry Redknapp’s attempts to moderate the expectations that were attaching themselves to Tottenham Hotspur inexorably took on the status of self-fulfilling prophecy. Much the same could be said of Clare, where the struggle to get out of Division 2 is leading them to be overwhelmingly defeatist. It’s not right that only one team gets promoted from Division 1, but the bleating that has accompanied another failure to get back into the supposed elite – here was me thinking all these years that the League didn’t matter – is undignified. What hope is there to beat the All-Ireland champions if there is no hope of any stripe? Tipperary to win, and Clare to hope they get a soft draw in the qualifiers to allow hope to be kindled.
Back to the other side of the draw, where for the third year running we find ourselves getting a soft one, i.e. avoiding Cork and Tipperary. If Clare are guilty of talking themselves down then Limerick are their mirror image. Christy O’Connor had an excellent article in the Indo a few weeks back which is worth reading in its entirity to get a handle on their last few years. Like Cork, the disturbances at County Board level seem to be at the heart of all their woes. It was the very great misfortune of the two McCarthys, Gerald and Justin, that they were appointed at the point when the respective rebels against the perceived machinations at County Board level were at their most determined to see any appointment as that of a yes-man. The idea that Justin in particular would be the bitch of any Board is ludicrous – his crabby “it wasn’t a f***ing creche” attitude wouldn’t just stop at players. It seems improbable that Donal O’Grady’s management is a grand exercise in Madisonian collegiality yet he, like Denis Walsh, has the benefit of being the guy who was appointed after his predecessor was removed – plus ça change . . .
A part of me would love to say that Limerick are to Waterford what Cork were to Tipperary last year. Filled with brio under their new man and encountering a team going slightly stale under their long time (relatively speaking) manager, Limerick catch the arrogant Déise on the hop. After 2007, it’s hard-wired into Limerick’s DNA that they won in Croke Park entirely – ENTIRELY – because we underestimated them and will carry on do that forever. Or, at the very least, they will carry on assuming we will underestimate them thus allowing them to reach into a fathomless reservoir of self-righteousness. That ‘part of me’ then sees us following Tipperary’s path through to All-Ireland glory. Simples, eh?
Not quite. A larger part of me sees that we are not Tipperary. They could afford to lose to Cork, shrug it off as one of those things and recover from the shock in the same calendar year. If we lose to Limerick the blow to our egos could be terminal. Yes, we came back from losing to Clare in 2008 to reach the All-Ireland final, but in retrospect we can see that amounted to one Hail Mary win over Tipperary in the semi-final which led to the horror show against Kilkenny. For us to seriously think of winning the All-Ireland, we need to be able to turn Limerick over. And I think we will. Our decent League showing suggests we have improved over the winter. It’s hard to see Limerick closing the gap that quickly under the new regime. And Limerick can feel free to put that on their dressing room wall. Just remember, it’s not Up the Déise, it’s Come on the Déise.
It’s incredible that reaching what would be our seventh Munster final in ten years wouldn’t feel like something worth celebrating. Last year’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat contained within its bitter fruit the teeth-cracking seed of despair about how we were ever going to make that elusive McCarthy Cup breakthrough. Kilkenny were just too good through the Noughties, but once they faded we’d be in pole position or at the very least on the front row, right? Yet no sooner do Kilkenny finally trip up, and Dublin swept the other leg from under them in this year’s League final, than someone else comes forward to take their place. If we beat Tipperary the feckers will only come right back at us via the back door while we might end up – merciful bloody hour! – meeting Kilkenny as losing Leinster finalists in the semi-final. It makes you wonder why you’d bother giving the Munster final our full attention. And yet, the principle that makes me say we need to beat Limerick still applies. Lose a game at any point and we’re not good enough to go all the way, so we should go all out to beat Tipperary. It’s a moot point though. Tipperary were stupendous in dethroning Kilkenny last year, and the abiding memory from this year’s League encounter, apart from Clinton Hennessy’s clothes-line tackle, was the performance of Noel McGrath. Their firepower will surely be too much for us. Tipperary to win the 2011 Munster championship.
What would the back door hold for us? We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.