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Seán Moran: Unexpected flourishing of provincial champions lights the fuse on explosive finale


Another 16 votes last October and they would have been championship history. The special congress that failed to find a way forward for the football All-Ireland actually supported Option B.

This moving of the provincial series to the spring and the importing of the national league into the summer’s championship structure didn’t, however, secure the required 60 per cent majority.

The charge sheet against the provincial championships is well known: lack of competitiveness, mind numbingly repetitive fixtures, the demoralising of less successful counties and discrepancy of scheduling.

For all that they retain specific strengths in the enduring appeal of local rivalries as well as making available four additional intercounty trophies, a mezzanine achievement of worth for many counties, the provinces have equally failed to provide a fit-for-purpose link between their championships and All-Ireland competition.

Yet they are currently enjoying an upsurge in relevance. Over the past two weekends in both hurling and football, we have seen emerge – for only the second time in 23 years – a situation where both hurling and football All-Ireland finals will be contested exclusively by provincial champions.

Motions to congress in later years zeroed in on the one obvious disadvantage for provincial champions, which was that unlike beaten teams, they got no second chances

As yet, we don’t know who the football finalists will be but despite all the hand wringing about the four-week gap in the schedule between provincial finals and All-Ireland quarter-finals, all four local champions made it to the last four.

“We were four weeks without a game and Mayo played two games in the interim,” said Jack O’Connor after Kerry’s quarter-final. “Plus the slippery conditions made it difficult to get up the pace of it. Not taking away from that, I thought we were rusty in the first half. We gave away an awful lot of ball.”

The idea that being provincial champions is a drawback hasn’t always been accepted. Strikingly, at the special congress that greenlighted the All-Ireland qualifiers in October 2000, one of the sponsoring work group’s few rejected recommendations was that provincial champions should have home advantage in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Clare’s indefatigable Noel Walsh more or less argued that Kerry got enough as it was.

Motions to congress in later years zeroed in on the one obvious disadvantage for provincial champions, which was that unlike beaten teams, they got no second chances. One proposal with the support of Tyrone and Dublin sought to build in a further round in which the four winners could play and survive defeat but it didn’t attract support.

Of this year’s provincial champions, Galway came closest to slipping up, which would have seen Armagh reach the semi-finals. Like Kerry and Dublin, they started slowly and looked in trouble before asserting themselves. Yes it was tight, requiring penalties but they had been comfortably the better team in the second half.

The two-goal injury-time deluge was a gift to Armagh from goalkeeping errors and whereas they all count, Galway steadied remarkably in extra time – maybe driven by indignation at the fracas – when by rights they should have been damaged beyond repair.

They were also playing the best of the qualifier teams. Their reward is to play Derry – the first time the Ulster and Connacht champions meet in an All-Ireland semi-final since the same counties played in 1998. It’s the same semi-final opposition that preceded both of their most recent All-Ireland wins.

Kevin McStay in last week’s column in this newspaper, reiterated his view that counties were far better off coming through as title holders.

“Winning will always provide the best route to All-Ireland success. This is based on the confidence gained from lifting your local trophy both for the squad and the supporters; the extra weeks to prepare for the opposition; no chance of running up new suspensions and generally, fewer injuries.”

That view received further validation at the weekend in the hurling semi-finals. The dramatic blitzing of Clare had been flagged in Kilkenny because of how well training had gone. This prompted some scepticism given that reports of teams ‘flying it in training’ have proved misleading in the past.

We should have known that Kilkenny of all counties would be unlikely to claim such a thing for the sake of bravado were it not actually true.

Manager Brian Cody’s explanation on Saturday shed light on the claim – as initially did Patrick O’Sullivan’s preview column in the Irish Examiner. For the first time this championship, there was an opportunity to train rather than simply make running repairs during the rapid sequence of matches in the provincial round-robin.

The four-week gap allowed improvements to be made and the competing claims of players to be monitored and reviewed. Far from worrying about the interval between matches, Kilkenny were putting it to good use, including a weekend away in Johnstown House.

There is also the fact that no one on Earth has more experience of exploiting a decent interval in the lead-in to an All-Ireland semi-final, than Cody. Any time he’s had the team for at least four weeks before a semi-final – with one exception (out of 13) in 2001 – Kilkenny have reached the final.

Significantly or not, the only years the county has lost back-to-back All-Ireland semi-finals has been the two recent, pandemic-affected championships with tighter schedules and just a fortnight between provincial final and the next match.

Cody also had a crack at those who had compared the Leinster championship unfavourably with its Munster counterpart but as pointed out by Irish Times analyst Nicky English on Monday, the lower intensity of the Leinster campaign means that whoever comes out of the province has more in the tank.

Given that in three years of round-robin format the unchanging top four – Kilkenny, Galway, Wexford and Dublin – have dropped just a single point to the various lower-ranked teams, Offaly, Carlow, Laois and Westmeath, it’s not an unreasonable theory.

And Galway’s fine display against champions Limerick did little to undermine it.

Anyway, this unexpected flourishing of the provincial champions has set up a vibrant final three weeks of the season.

sean.moran@irishtimes.com



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