Anytime the term ‘Golden Age’ is mentioned in hurling, that period inevitably involves different, more novel counties.
Despite Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary winning seven All-Ireland between 1950-’60, that period is still heralded as hurling’s first ‘Golden Age’, primarily because of the emergence of Wexford as a serious force.
Wexford won three All-Irelands during that time (1955, 1956 and 1960) but Waterford’s annexing of the 1959 All-Ireland cemented that period as one of glorious breakthroughs. The next ‘Golden Age’ didn’t arrive until the 1990s, when Offaly, Clare and Wexford won five All-Irelands between 1994-98.
Hurling thrives on such years and eras, especially in a sport that has been dominated by three counties winning 72% of the championships. There is always an element of excitement and electricity when the ‘Big Three’ are no longer dominating.
Last year’s Galway-Limerick All-Ireland final was even more novel considering it was the first time in 22 years that none of the Big Three have contested an All-Ireland for two years running.
That statistic was even more revealing given that Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary have been absent from two consecutive All-Ireland finals on just three other occasions in GAA history.
Hurling is now living through another ‘Golden Age’, and maybe its greatest period ever. Last year’s hurling championship was the most remarkable in living memory.
The quality has been nowhere near as high to date this year but the Round Robin provincial championships has still been enthralling; Saturday evening’s knife-edged drama at the end of the Dublin-Galway and Wexford-Kilkenny games created the most chaotic fusion of suspense, excitement, joy, anxiety, fear and devastation ever experienced amongst players, management and hurling supporters inside the space of three minutes.
At the final whistle in Cusack Park on Sunday, the Clare supporters gave their players a rapturous response for the honour and bravery of their display, and for restoring Clare hurling’s good name after the heavy defeats to Tipperary and Limerick.
Yet the mood was still anticlimactic because both Clare and Cork – and the crowd – knew their fate through the news from Thurles, where Tipperary’s win saved Cork and knocked Clare out on scoring difference.
The damage had been done to Clare in their two previous matches but that sense of inevitability still didn’t soften the blow of departing the championship after such an impressive win.
The pain was just as acute for Galway the previous evening, but this championship is so tightly balanced this was always bound to happen to someone sooner rather than later.
Before the new championship began in 2018, Clare joint-manager Gerry O’Connor said that he expected the top three places in the provinces to be decided either by score difference or head-to-head.
O’Connor compared that year’s league to the new system, where four teams – Clare, Wexford, Kilkenny and Tipperary – ended up on six points, and the quarter-final placings were decided by scoring difference.
"A lot of maths will have to be done at the end of the four games," said O'Connor. "Why would we think that it's going to be straightforward in the Munster championship when it wasn't in the league?"
That didn’t come to pass last year because the top three in both provinces were decided before the last round. Two of the top three were decided in Munster prior to Sunday but Leinster was on such a knife-edge because four teams – Galway, Kilkenny, Dublin and Wexford – could all either qualify or be eliminated.
Prior to Saturday, Galway were top of the group but playing Dublin in Parnell Park six days after such a tough battle in Nowlan Park was always going to be a huge mental and physical challenge, especially when Dublin had a two week break since beating Carlow.
Dublin were always going to be difficult to beat at home, especially when they were fighting for their lives. Moreover, the odds of a draw in Wexford Park was shorter than normal because there has been so little between Wexford in Kilkenny over the last two years – just one score had separated the sides in their championship matches in 2017 and 2018.
Nobody wanted to envisage that nightmare scenario of teams being eliminated on scoring difference until it actually happened. O’Connor was right in what he said 13 months ago but being proven correct must be harder again to accept when his own team were the victims of such an unforgiving system.
That’s just the reality which has now seen last year’s All-Ireland finalists, Galway, and the Clare team they narrowly beat in an All-Ireland semi-final replay, already gone from the championship. Waterford, All-Ireland finalists two years ago, are long gone after failing to win a single game.
The last time the championship pack was so strong was back in 1999, when nine teams would have set out believing they could win an All-Ireland. The big difference back then though, was that the championship was still a knockout system and most of the contenders had fallen by mid-June. Many of those teams could have won an All-Ireland if they had the opportunities to recover, regroup and organically develop like teams can in the current system.
Cork would have set off in that 1999 season believing they could win an All-Ireland, not just because they always did, or because they had a young team based around successive All-Ireland Under-21 teams, or because they had won a League title the previous year. But primarily because tradition suggested that, despite their youth, Cork could always win an All-Ireland, no matter how open the race was.
Despite that first ‘Golden Age’ in the 1950s, Cork won three-in-a-row during that period. They endured one of their most barren periods in the 1990s, but Cork still muscled in on that ‘Golden Age’ by winning the first and last All-Irelands of that decade.
The current ‘Golden Age’ though, has been a totally different experience for Cork. They have been highly competitive, winning three of the last five Munster titles.
Cork could have won the 2013 All-Ireland title but they now have another level of pressure to the one already heaped on their shoulders; if Cork don’t win the 2019 All-Ireland, it will be the first time that the county has failed to win an All-Ireland in a single decade (apart from the 1880s but there were only two All-Irelands played in that decade).
Cork could have won last year’s All-Ireland. They are still good enough to win this year’s title. And the pathway they will now have to negotiate to get there may yet suit them.
At a preview event in Galway in May 2018, Cyril Farrell, the former Galway manager, said that the third placed team in the provinces, particularly in Munster, was ideally placed to win the All-Ireland. It was only conjecture at that point, especially when nobody knew what to expect from the new championship system, but Farrell was subsequently proven right.
Limerick didn’t want to be that third team last year. They were desperate to reach a Munster final. The team and management shipped some stinging criticism from within their own county after losing so heavily to Clare in their final match, which was effectively a Munster semi-final.
Losing so heavily to their arch-rivals made the defeat harder again to take but that loss, and the subsequent pathway it created for Limerick, was critical to them winning the All-Ireland.
Much of that theory is still relative though. Kilkenny – whose All-Ireland quarter-final was their third tough game in 14 days - could have beaten Limerick. Cork should have beaten Limerick in an All-Ireland semi-final but they coughed up a six-point lead with eight minutes remaining.
There is no right path to negotiate in the new championship system but Cork won’t be unduly perturbed by failing to qualify for another provincial final, especially after losing successive All-Ireland semi-finals as Munster champions.
Last week, former Cork player Lorcán McLoughlin said that the county would be better served by finishing third in the province, rather than progressing to yet another Munster final.
"There is so much hype around a Munster final that win or lose, there is a comedown from it, and a break," said McLoughlin. "Third place allows you to come in through the back door, where there is no hype, and then build for the latter stages of the All-Ireland championship.
"So third position would suit Cork better than getting to a Munster final this year. Third position suited Limerick last year. You get that extra game, you can build that extra momentum, test your panel, and see how strong it really is."
Limerick will always want to win Munster titles but, given the team John Kiely picked at the weekend, and the subsequent performance, Anthony Daly questioned on The Sunday Game Live if Kiely wanted to reach the decider.
Daly expanded on that point in his column in Monday’s Irish Examiner. "It’s only my opinion, but I reckon Limerick would have preferred to have gone through as the third team," he said.
"As well as having to play Tipp again, they could have to face them a third time yet before the year is out. Of course, Limerick will want to win a Munster title but it’s hard to know if Limerick want all those big battles either if they are to retain the All-Ireland? The evidence from yesterday suggests that they may not."
In any case, Cork are now in that third placed spot. It’s a whole new starting point for this team but Cork still need to be more consistent, to work harder than they did against Clare, and to be defensively better if they are to win an All-Ireland.
And if they can, it would be one of the most treasured All-Irelands Cork could ever win. Especially in this Golden Age.