It is a weekend that everyone has been eagerly counting down to since the end of the National League.
A weekend when the smell of freshly cut grass lingers in the nostrils and the piles of sandwiches are made in anticipation of the road trip. A weekend where you rush home from the game to watch the highlights again on the Sunday game, and ring the neighbour to tell him you were right and the replays prove it.
That is the reality as you would like to have it. In a football sense, it is about as far removed from reality as you could get. It has been without question one of the most low-key build ups to a Munster championship campaign for some time, and the fact is that you can understand why. To borrow a phrase, the provincial championships are dead and gone; they’re with O’Leary in the grave. Not only that, but they have been keeping him company for some time now.
Last year saw the GAA world wrapped up in the euphoria of the most memorable hurling championship of recent times, and make no mistake about it; the new format was one of the main factors in that. There were more games, more exposure and more interest. It was new and fresh and everyone bought into it and got the most out of it. Hurling is alive and kicking and that is to be applauded. But what about the big ball?
Let’s call a spade a spade here. Barring the biggest upset since Jon Snow was killed in season five of Game of Thrones (sorry, spoiler alert), Clare will beat Waterford on Saturday evening and will likely beat them well. What is their prize for that? Another showdown with Kerry. It is boring, predictable, and in reality a farce of a championship. It has long outlived its sell-by date and it will take real leadership to make the necessary changes. It is much the same in every other province bar Ulster. Dublin will still be winning Leinster championships at a canter long after you and I depart this world, and Connacht is a two-horse race.
It would be a case of turkeys voting for Christmas, but the provincial councils taking the bullet for the greater good is what it will require. Almost everyone involved in the inter-county game now will tell you that the need for some form of a tiered open championship is at its greatest. Imagine the spark you would have it the championship format mirrored that of the league. Give everyone their fair chance in a four team group, and have the top two go through to the knockout stages of the McGuire Cup, and the bottom two battle it out in a Tommy Murphy equivalent. That way the dream is alive for everyone, but you will find your level and still have a competitive championship. It is the only way players can develop. What good will it do the likes of Waterford or Limerick who may only have two games in the current model in the 2019 championship? That doesn’t foster ambition and it certainly doesn’t peak interest.
All that being said, you can only operate within the parameters that are there, and for Clare this weekend the sole focus is on Waterford. Hopefully the fact that the game is at home will mean a good crowd will make their way into Cusack Park on Saturday evening, because it is the least the lads deserve. Maybe it is a case of taking it for granted, but it cannot be forgotten just how far this group has come. There is an expectation, and justifiably so, that this game is a tune up for the clash with Kerry in June. While no one in the camp will be thinking like that, it speaks volumes for the level that Clare are currently operating at.
This time of year also sees the club v county debate come to the fore. Here in Clare, we have had recent controversies and protests in relation to the county men not being made available to their clubs for league games. There is no point going over old ground on that one, but it has to be pointed out that it is a debate that divided opinion across the board. The plight of the club player is an oft lamented one, with long periods without games and no certainty as to when championship might roll around. It is not easy keeping a squad going with no fixture in sight, and there is no doubt but remedial work is needed on the GAA calendar as a whole. All that taken into account, it makes it all the more incredible that the level of apathy toward the O’Gorman Cup has probably never been greater. It was highlighted last weekend when all six of the fixtures down for decision fell by wayside for one reason or another. Here is a competition designed exclusively for club footballers, yet no one seems to want to engage with it. It just does not make sense. How can clubs play the poor mouth of not having any games, and then shun the one competition that is set up to cater just for them?