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FINAL COUNTDOWN For all the talk of Dublin’s football dominance, hurling's 'big three' have ruled the roost for decades

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Limerick and Waterford will face off for the first time in an All-Ireland hurling final

Limerick and Waterford will face off for the first time in an All-Ireland hurling final

Limerick and Waterford will face off for the first time in an All-Ireland hurling final

LIMERICK were the first recipients of the Liam MacCarthy Cup. They beat Dublin in the delayed 1921 All-Ireland final.

Due to the War of Independence and Civil War, the game wasn’t played until March 1923. For Limerick, it’s wasn’t a portent of things to come – they have won just five titles since.

The exclusive nature of the All-Ireland championship is illustrated by the pairing for the 2020 final – which features a first-ever clash between Limerick and Waterford.

Since Limerick’s first Liam MacCarthy triumph, this is only the thirteenth final which hasn’t featured at least one of the game’s super-powers – Kilkenny, Cork, and Tipperary.

Between them, they have won 94 All-Ireland titles (Kilkenny 36, Cork 30, Tipperary 28). The other counties who have won All-Ireland titles (Limerick 8, Dublin 6, Wexford 6, Galway 5, Offaly 4, Clare 4, Waterford 2, Laois 1, London 1, and Kerry 1) have managed a paltry 38 between them.

Those who anticipate the GAA taking radical action to make the Leinster football championship more competitive don’t know much about the history of the Association.

As an organisation, the GAA are disciples of the ‘free market’ approach, with minimum interference from the regulator.

The GAA has failed hurling, though the situation has improved marginally in this generation.

Witness what happened between 1938 when Dublin won the title for the last time and 1980 when Galway secured a first All-Ireland since 1923.

There was only ONE All-Ireland final – when Waterford beat Dublin in 1948 to win the McCarthy Cup for the first time – in which Kilkenny, Cork or Tipperary did not feature.

The situation improved dramatically in the 1980s when Offaly emerged from the shadows to become the first new county to win an All-Ireland since Waterford’s breakthrough win in 1948.

Galway and Limerick set the ball rolling in 1980 and there were two more finals in the decade, in 1981 and 1985 – both featuring Offaly and Galway – in which the big three were not involved.

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Galway captain Joe Connolly lifts the Liam MacCarthy in 1980

Galway captain Joe Connolly lifts the Liam MacCarthy in 1980

Galway captain Joe Connolly lifts the Liam MacCarthy in 1980

The 1990s have been depicted as hurling’s revolutionary years.

Granted, the decade was book-ended by All-Ireland wins for Cork in 1990 and 1999, while Tipperary won in 1991 and Kilkenny secured back-to-back titles in 1992-93. But between 1994 and 1998 the game belonged to the so-called minnows.

For the first time since the foundation of the State, three successive All-Ireland finals (1994 Offaly v Limerick, 1995 Clare v Offaly, and 1996 Wexford v Limerick) did not feature the big three. And just for good measure, when they did reach subsequent finals Tipperary lost to Clare in the 1997 final while Offaly beat Kilkenny in the 1998 decider.

Order was restored during the first 16 years of the new century during which Kilkenny dominated, winning 11 titles under Brian Cody. Tipperary (3) and Cork (2) shared the rest.

Taking today’s final into account, this is the third decider in four years that hasn’t featured Kilkenny, Cork, or Tipperary.

Galway beat Waterford in 2017, while Limerick ended a 45-year wait for silverware when they dethroned the Tribesmen in 2018.

Now they are bidding to win a second title in three seasons, while Waterford are aiming to bridge a 61-year gap.

But the exclusive nature of the game is underlined by the fact that Offaly and Waterford are the only new counties to win the Liam MacCarthy Cup in the last 72 years.

Realistically, there is not a snowball’s chance in hell of any first-time recipients joining the Roll of Honour in the next 20 years.

For all the furore about Dublin’s football dominance, it is worth noting how many counties have made the breakthrough in the All-Ireland series in the last 60 years.

In 1960 Down made their mark – they were the first ‘new’ winners of the Sam Maguire Cup since Meath in 1949.

Offaly won their first football All-Ireland in 1971 and then came the Ulster revolution with Donegal (1992) and Derry (1993) achieving breakthrough wins, followed by Armagh (2002) and Tyrone (2003).

What’s rare is wonderful, so we ought to celebrate the presence of Limerick and Waterford in the final.

Unfortunately, it will not become the norm. Rest assured what constitutes normal service in hurling will resume before long.

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