By Brendan McTaggart
I wasn’t exactly kicking and screaming, more coerced into making the journey to the Balmoral Show last Thursday with my father-in-law and brother-in-law. My third daughter of four is mad about farming and that carry on so I thought why not?
For the record, it’s a top day out and I’d thoroughly recommend anyone who has considered it, make the trip. Great day. Seánín was loving life and the sun was out so the job was a good’un. As we were making our way around the different exhibitions – at this point I should say the foody tent with all the samples was my particular favourite, we came across Lar Corbett Sports stand. I wondered if the great man would be there. A quick scooly and a rummage around some of the fine hurls but no Lar. Gutted but my disappointment was short lived as I watched my four year old dance to Marty Mone singing ‘Slip the Clutch’ and ‘Hit the Diff’ at the adjoining stall. Quite the sight.
While I watched in utter amazement, one last look around and there wouldn’t you know, sunglasses and all was one Lar Corbett. My brother-in-law said that my “journalist head took over” but to be honest I couldn’t help myself. I went over and had a yarn with the two time All-Ireland winner.
After a brief discussion about the weather and his hurls, I went in for the jugular and probably asked him something he’s been asked a hundred times already: “What do you make of the round robin format?” I got more than I bargained for.
I was expecting the text book answer of “More games is good for the public etc” but his answer was more honest: “I’m undecided if I’m honest. I think we need to wait until the weekends matches are over to see how the public react and attendances. The crowd and passion in the Munster championship is incredible and a lot of that is down to the intensity but also the knockout nature. It’s going to be a strange atmosphere I reckon in a game where there’s nothing more than a poc of the ball between the sides. I think there could be dead rubbers in the last round of games and no-one wants to see that in championship hurling.”
He wasn’t far wrong. The crowd and atmosphere just weren’t the same. That could have been down to Tipperary not firing on all cylinders, but these two teams played an epic contest in the semi-final of the league not that long ago. That alone should have been giving the Munster opener an edge. Not so.
Then there was Cork and Clare. The Rebels playing their first championship hurling match in the redeveloped Páirc Ui Chaoimh, yet it was a little over half full as they played Clare. A repeat of last years Munster final in a superb new stadium with a capacity of 45,000 yet 24, 950 patrons made their way to the banks of the River Lee. Corbett mentioned the toll it would have on the pockets of the public. A string of championship matches and expecting sell-out crowds A fair point, one that we both thought would have come to play when the ‘dead rubbers’ might materialise.
Was the attendance and atmosphere a knock-on effect of the round robin? It certainly looks like it. A crazy schedule won’t help matter either. A bit closer to home, I think Antrim had suffered as a result of the same problem. I’m not talking about the crowd, Christ it would be class to see half the amount there was at the Páirc on Sunday at an Antrim venue, no – I’m talking about player fatigue. Three matches, battles, wars, in just 14 days seemed to have taken its toll on Antrim on Saturday afternoon. A poor first half gave Laois the upper hand and despite an improved second half, it was too big an ask against a determined Laois side. ‘Flat’ is how I described Antrim’s efforts in my match report from the first half in Pearse Park. The Saffrons looked like a team that couldn’t get to the levels they had reached previously, and it was the same but to a lesser extent against Carlow amidst the craziness that took place during the chaos.
Speaking with Neal Peden after the match in Dunloy, he told me that he was proud of his side’s efforts in the second half but described the opening 35 minutes as ‘one of those things that can happen.’ Looking for silver linings after a defeat is a way of keeping positive energy within a camp and admirable of the Antrim coach. After a league campaign that brought mixed emotions, the Antrim performances in the Joe McDonagh Cup have had the die hard Antrim fans amongst us dreaming again. I put the question to Peden that he would have taken two wins from three at the start of the competition, with a smile on his face he told me: “We try to win every game we play no matter who it’s against and always feel like we’re capable.” From before a ball was thrown in against Meath in Páirc Tailteann, we were told the Saffrons were never looking any further than the next match, their attentions turn to Westmeath now in Mullingar. A place where Antrim and our clubs haven’t had much success in the past. Dunloy came a cropper against Joe Cooney and Sarsfields while Cushendall were chinned by a late Vinny Maher goal against Loughrea some ten years later. Antrim’s fortunes haven’t been much better with a heavy defeat coming at the winter of Kevin Ryan’s rein at the helm while PJ O’Mullan’s team tasted defeat for the first time in Cusack Park.
Westmeath are a strong side and just two years ago they defeated Kilkenny in the Leinster U21 championship. It’s going to take undoubtedly an improved performance from Antrim but they have this two weeks to recover and recuperate. A break that both management and players will have welcomed. It will be required before making the journey to Cusack Park on June 2.
Before I left Lar to his own devices and made my way around the rest of the Balmoral Show, he said the GAA should look into a Champions League format and forsake the provincial championships for the good of the game. The round robin format in both Leinster and Munster could be the stepping stone to some more radical changes in the future.