By James McMahon
The quest for hurling supremacy in the southern province remains an indelible part of the Irish sporting summer. Those of a certain age will recall the exploits of Christy Ring, Mick Mackey, John Doyle and Jack Lynch, along with countless others.
Such men remain part of the hurling folklore, not only within Munster, but beyond.
The province continues to produce gripping contests and no shortage of heroes. Ahead of the 2014 renewal, picking a winner is no easy task.
Sunday next sees Cork face Waterford in the quarter-final at Semple Stadium. All-Ireland champions Clare await the winners in the semi-final on 15 June.
As was the case last year,Tipperary and Limerick will meet in the last-four, with Tipp this time having home advantage.
The Munster final is scheduled for 13 July. An All-Ireland semi-final date on 17 August is the prize for the victor. For the vanquished, a place in the quarter-final against a back-door winner is in store on 27 July.
Maybe it was ahead of schedule, but Clare’s All-Ireland win last September was nevertheless fully merited. The Ger Loughnane side of the 1990s failed to put All-Irelands back-to-back, so Davy Fitz and company won’t lack for motivation in their bid to have Liam MacCarthy once again residing in the Banner over the winter months. What should also drive them on is the desire to win back the Munster crown after a gap of 16 years.
Clare have definitely brought a new dimension to the game of hurling in terms of their fluid approach. Players move all over the field; those in the full-forward line can readily pop up in their full-back line and launch the charge from there. They then have the ability to create space in the forward division and get the scores.
Clare really prospered in Croke Park last year against Limerick and Cork (All-Ireland replay); the Jones’ Road pitch really suits their game. A year on, however, and teams will be out to deny space to their forwards.
Cork or Waterford are first up for Davy Fitz’s troops. If it’s another date with the Rebels, then that could be a match to savour after the wonderful drama of last autumn.
Quite simply, Clare are genuine contenders to win both Munster and All-Ireland titles this year.
It’s eight years since the Rebels last ruled the roost in Munster and many in the county would deem that too long of a wait. Now in year three of his second coming as manager, Jimmy Barry-Murphy knows that after the exploits of last year, lifting the MacCarthy cup must now be the goal for his side.
Winning a provincial crown would obviously remove a few hurdles on the journey to September.
Of course, the big question is whether or not Cork can kick on from 2013? They did gain promotion back to the league’s top flight, but didn’t set the world alight along the way.
The subsequent Division 1 quarter-final against Tipperary was a thriller and Cork recovered from a poor start to really make a game of it before going down by a point.
Eight weeks on and it’s time for the serious stuff. At RTÉ’s launch of the hurling championship, both Ger Loughnane and Eddie Brennan talked up Cork’s chances this year. Loughnane commented that if Paudie O’Sullivan and Aidan Walsh start in the forward line then Cork potentially could have the best attacking unit in the country. Brennan added that JBM’s squad are capable of getting to another All-Ireland final.
That said, question marks about the defence and midfield remain: Would Aidan Walsh be best deployed at number eight? Their opening joust with Waterford will tell us whether or not any concerns about their well-being are still justified.
Not for the first time, Limerick hurling was embroiled in controversy when co-manager Donal O’Grady quit his post on Easter Sunday. The reason for his departure stems from a league campaign that looked for a long while it would result in promotion from Division 1B.
However, a draw against Offaly and the concession of that valuable point, would prove costly as Cork gained a ticket back up.
TJ Ryan is now in sole charge of the Limerick squad and recently told RTÉ Sport that minds are now focused on the clash with Tipperary and that preparations are going well. However, he did add that the O’Grady affair could have been handled better.
Limerick are the defending champions.Their success last summer, illuminated with a joyous rendition of ‘Limerick, You’re A Lady’, was a standout chapter in last summer’s hurling story.
Are the Treatymen good enough to do it again? Well, anything is possible. The upheaval of a month ago won't have helped but conversely it should galvanise them. The fact that many of the squad saw off the Tipp challenge last June is sure to give them even greater heart ahead of the re-match on Sunday week.
Revenge will be on Tipp’s mind when Limerick come calling to Semple Stadium in the Munster semi. Eamon O’Shea’s side looked to be in control at the crucial period in the second half when the counties met at the same stage last June.
However, a Limerick surge that saw them win the last 20 minutes 0-09 to 0-02 turned the game. Tipperary’s subsequent retrieval mission through the qualifiers only lasted 70 minutes after the vagaries of the draw pitted them against Kilkenny.
2014 is all about making amends. A poor start to the league had some wondering whether they would slip down the pecking order. However a narrow win over Dublin was the kick-start to their year. They reached the Division 1 final, but not for the first time they lost out narrowly to Tipp in a match of significance.
Former player and manager Liam Sheedy expects Tipperary to bounce back strongly this year.
Speaking recently to RTÉ Sport, he said: “I think Tipperary are in the best position they’ve been in for a while. Things are moving well for them now. I think they are going to win the All-Ireland.”
Mr Sheedy is confident. Yet, you suspect the team are going to have to find an extra couple of gears in the months ahead if they are to climb the steps of the Hogan Stand on 7 September.
That said, Tipp are shaping up nicely and the spine of the team in the shape of Pádraic Maher, Brendan Maher, James Woodlock , Kieran Bergin, Patrick Maher and Noel McGrath is really strong.
They are good enough to atone for last year’s defeat against Limerick and reach the provincial decider.
The Déise are a side in transition and will face Cork on Sunday minus the some key players through injury and suspensions. Manager Derek McGrath includes four debutants to face the Rebels.
The league campaign was a disappointment as they dropped out of the top tier. Still they should have beaten Tipperary in their opening outing and the points won would have guaranteed them safety.
Traditionally Waterford don’t have any fear of Cork and more often than not have beaten the Rebels in key provincial games over the last decade. In attack the likes of Jamie Nagle, Pauric Mahony and Jake Dillon will be looking to make hay on Sunday against a defence that is vulnerable.
I don’t see the upcoming games being won by wide margins. Cork get the nod to get past Waterford this weekend. As mentioned above, Tipperary can see past Limerick. Cork will benefit from having played 70 minutes when they face Clare but they may just come up short.
That leaves a Clare v Tipperary decider. They met in the league semi-final – a match that Tipp won with a degree of comfort. However, it’s best to disregard that outcome. Clare’s focus was on the bigger picture. They have more leaders and even more importantly a greater ability to extract themselves out of tight situation.
The Banner to regain the crown.
MUNSTER SHC FIXTURES:
Sunday 25 May
Quarter-final: Cork v Waterford, Semple Stadium, 4pm – Live on RTÉ & GAAGO
Sunday 1 June
Semi-final: Tipperary v Limerick, Semple Stadium, 4pm – Live on RTÉ & GAAGO
Sunday 15 June
Semi-final: Cork/Waterford v Clare, Semple Stadium or Gaelic Grounds, 4pm – Live on RTÉ & GAAGO
Sunday 13 July
Final: Semple Stadium, 4pm – Live on RTÉ & GAAGO
TV: Watch live coverage of Cork v Waterford (4pm) on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie on Sunday 25 May - available worldwide
Radio: Live radio coverage of Cork v Waterford (4pm) and all of Sunday's Championship action on Sunday Sport from 2pm onwards.