Something happened in the Leinster senior hurling championship four years ago that hadn’t happened for 70 years – and no one remembers it. Galway went to Nowlan Park and inflicted a first championship defeat on Kilkenny, in Nowlan Park, since Laois beat them in the 1949 Leinster hurling final.
Galway won 3-20 to 2-22 in 2019, there were three red cards shown, and it was an utterly thrilling game of hurling, one which appeared to copper-fasten that Galway team’s stranglehold on the province, and their newfound, extremely enjoyable, domination of Kilkenny.
In the end, the game meant absolutely nothing. Galway were in pole position to qualify in first place that year – all they had to do was go to Parnell Park the following week and win, and they would have safely qualified at the top of the group for the Leinster final.
Now, the boffins down in the lab came up with some wild theory in the days before that game in Parnell Park – something about Dublin winning, and Wexford and Kilkenny drawing, but no one in Galway was paying any attention to that.
That is, right until Dublin won, and Kilkenny and Wexford drew, and despite the brilliance of their performance in Nowlan Park, Galway were gone – out at the first hurdle, having been in the previous two All-Ireland finals.
I remember being at that game, watching in slack-jawed amazement as the Kilkenny-Wexford result came in. There was a bunch of Galway lads in front of me who stood up at the final whistle, and breezily chatted among themselves about who they’d like Galway to get in the qualifiers, now that they’d blown a chance to win a third Leinster title in a row.
I had to tell them Galway were out on scoring difference – they wouldn’t believe me. In Kilkenny the week before Galway had looked like the best team in the country, with Joe Canning still to make his comeback from injury that season. Six days later, they were out. It was Michéal Donoghue’s last game in charge, Johnny Glynn’s last championship game (of hurling, at least), and it turned out to be the last day of round-robin action in the province for three years.
The brilliance of Galway’s performance in Nowlan Park was now nearly a rebuke. How could a team capable of playing at such a standard allow themselves to go out?
No other team that has lost out on advancement in the All-Ireland championship has played remotely as well as that Galway team did in 2019. In the end they lost out because they didn’t put enough of a beating on Carlow.
We talk all the time about Munster being a bear pit, but in the three seasons of the round-robin so far, no team that played anywhere near to their capabilities has lost out unluckily. Tipp and Waterford couldn’t win a game between them in 2018. Waterford didn’t win a game in 2019 either, and even when Clare won a dead rubber against Cork in the final round of fixtures that year (with Cork already qualified), Clare’s scoring difference was minus 25. They had been fairly woeful all season too.
Last year Tipperary were a winless rabble, and fellow bottom feeders Waterford could only beat Tipp when it came to the crunch – and were execrable against Cork at home and then a half-strength Clare in their last two games.
In last year’s Leinster championship, fourth-placed Dublin did at least manage to beat a team that eventually qualified for the All-Ireland series, in a game that mattered. Their one-point win away to Wexford probably qualifies as the second best result by a team that couldn’t qualify from their group in the history of the round-robins, after that 2019 Galway win in Kilkenny.
There isn’t a comparable single performance by a team in Munster in the 2018, 2019 or 2022 seasons. We call the Munster championship a rollercoaster, but in reality, the teams that have missed out have been playing terribly. They’re playing against higher quality opposition, it’s true – but every team that hasn’t qualified has got exactly what they deserved.
That’s the uphill task now facing Clare. They were so profligate in front of goal, and so generous in front of their own goal, against Tipperary on Sunday that they will feel enormous pressure going into the Gaelic Grounds this weekend.
Some might say that the Leinster championship offers teams a chance to regroup, maybe put a bit of a beat-down on Laois or Westmeath, or whichever county came up from the Joe McDonagh Cup the season before. Do these games act as a kind of palate cleanser for the so-called bigger county, a chance to press the reset button, and go again? Is that what these Munster counties are missing?
Cork lost their first two games last year, but they were able to turn it around and beat Waterford and Tipperary in their last two games. That had less to do with Cork’s remorseless excellence, and more to do with the internal crises that were ripping Tipperary and Waterford apart ... but at least they were able to capitalise.
I’ll be curious to see which two teams miss out in Munster this year, and I’ll be even more interested to see if they will have raised any kind of a gallop at all, even if they fall short. If they do, they’ll have broken the mould.