Intriguing championship draws
Last week it was the Allianz National League fixtures although the exact details have to be finalised, and this week the championship draws for all four provinces were made, so when the counties returned to training on Monday night, their season would have been mapped out in front of them.
All that remains now is for the camogie and ladies football to outline their championship plans. Their leagues have been scheduled, and the expectation, although not certain, is that they will adopt the split season, in line with hurling and football.
Munster Hurling Championship
Cork v Limerick is a mouth watering semi-final, with the reigning league, Munster and All-Ireland champions favoured by many to retain their titles again this season.
That said, Cork’s record against John Kiely’s men in recent years has been as good as anyones. The last three championship outings has seen Cork win in the Gaelic Grounds, Limerick win after extra-time in Croke Park, while the third was a draw in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
The sides also met in last season’s league and Limerick were narrow winners.
There’s no advantage for either side in terms of being up to championship pace as it will be a first outing for both sides.
They will of course meet in round 4 of the league in the Gaelic Grounds where I would expect a little bit of shadow boxing by both managements, not wanting to reveal anything ahead of the big game.
Predicting how a championship game to be played in June will pan out right now is a bit of a lottery as a lot can happen between now and then. Injuries and form will obviously play a part.
Limerick are without question the top team in the country right now, with a settled starting 15, strong squad and a game plan that is carried out to a tee.
Cork have had a bit of a reshuffle on and off the field. A number of experienced players, particularly in defence, are no longer part of the panel, but the addition of Donal O’Grady brings a new dimension to the backroom team. The St Finbarr’s man who has won an All-Ireland as a player and coach, is generally acknowledged as one of the game’s shrewdest tacticians.
That of course doesn’t guarantee anything, apart from the fact that whatever game plan is adopted will be carried out to perfection - nothing else will be acceptable.
Cork will also need to nail down key positions, principally the spine of the defence; sort them out and the rest should fall into place, hopefully.
It’s a big game, but Cork will relish the challenge and right now the players and selectors will be invigorated by that challenge.
Limerick also have extra incentive, the Munster Cup is now called after their greatest hurler Mick Mackey and they are also hoping to make it three in a row, something the Treaty County have never achieved.
The other side of the draw is equally interesting, Clare v Waterford with Tipperary awaiting the winners in the semi-final.
Waterford surprised many last year and Liam Cahill certainly got the most out of his squad, but at the end of the day, it was defeat in both the Munster and All-Ireland Finals to Limerick, and for all their effort, they never looked like winning either contest.
Can Cahill get anymore from his squad? That’s the big factor now as he begins his second season as manager.
Clare are in the news lately for all the wrong reasons, but they have a good squad and will be keen to reverse the result of last season’s quarter-final loss to Waterford, and with the possibility that Peter Duggan could be back it will make them stronger.
It’s also a big year for Tipperary and their boss Liam Sheehy, possibly his last one, and with the semi-final being their first championship outing, the league will be important.
They are still a formidable team even if some of the players are in the twilight of their careers.
This year’s championship is different to last year, it’s summer rather than winter hurling, but again the lack of crowds will not help.
All games will be played at neutral venues and, unlike the football championship, there will be a second chance, but it should not lessen the fare on offer. Without doubt an exciting few months ahead. Bring it on.
Munster Football Championship
Given that outside of Cork and Kerry, and it’s been mostly the Kingdom in recent years, only Clare in 1992 and Tipperary last year, have won this championship it is easy to see why the draw generally doesn’t excite to many.
From a Cork perspective, it should pave a path to the final as they await the winners of Limerick or Waterford in the semi-final, both ply their trade in Division 4, and hopefully Cork will be in Division 1 by late June when the last four tie is down for decision.
Cork’s recent championship meeting with Limerick was an easy win two years ago in Páirc Uí Rinn, yet the visitors should have gotten a goal in the first minute that might have changed the dynamic of the game.
As for Waterford who are now managed by Shane Roynane, they almost pulled off a shock result in 2017 when Cork scrapped home by 1-12 to 1-11 on a fraught Saturday night in Dungarvan.
However if Cork are to be considered genuine contenders, this is a game they should win and comfortably, even allowing for the improvement especially by Limerick who will be fancied to beat the Deise.
In fact only a late spectacular point by Colin O’Riordan denied them a win over Tipperary in the semi-final last year. If Limerick win, they will have home advantage, while should Waterford prevail, the game will be in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
The other side of the draw is interesting and might actually suit Kerry as two good games will have them in fine shape for the expected showdown with Cork.
Clare are first up in Killarney and Colm Collins must be asking himself what has he done wrong as the draw always seems to work against him. They are a good side, consistent in the league, but with this been straight knockout, it could be their only championship outing of the year.
Champions Tipperary will then welcome Kerry to Thurles and already their manager David Power has said the league is their priority, learning from the masters at deflecting the pressure.
Pressure is surely on Peter Keane in the final year as Kerry boss and only an All-Ireland win will satisfy the supporters.
It all points to Cork v Kerry Final in Fitzgerald Stadium in late July. How ironic if it’s played behind closed doors and yet just down the road, the surrounding streets and bars could be packed to capacity!
The draws for all the provincial championships are now complete, with little to enthuse about in some.
Dublin should ease to whatever it is, I have lost count, to another Leinster football title, while in hurling on the east coast, a Kilkenny v Galway decider looks on the cards.
Mayo and Galway look set to make it to the Connacht Final, in a year when both New York and London are not competing.
Ulster is by far the most difficult and unpredictable championship and this year should prove to be just as competitive, and picking a winner from most of the games is never easy.
Down v Donegal is a coin toss, with Derry awaiting the winners. Armagh should be too good for Antrim, while Monaghan will be expected to defeat Fermanagh. Champions Cavan face a Tyrone side who will for the first time in 18 years won’t have Mickey Harte patrolling the sideline, an interesting quarter-final in prospect.
Monday is a big day for all underage players in the country as they for the first time in a number of months, they can return to the playing fields for non-contact training and not before time.
In similar circumstances last year, clubs the length and breadth of the county managed the ‘return to play’ brilliantly and I have no doubt they will do so again.
Now is the time for all sports to return to the playing fields in a safe environment, numbers are falling, vaccines are rolling out, the weather is improving, but patience is wearing thin. Let’s get back to playing and training and make life easier for everyone.
Best of luck to all returning to training next week, enjoy it and stay safe.