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Monday 26 September 2016

Devout disciples on a pilgrimage to Croke Park seeking holy grail

Michael Verney

Published 04/09/2016 | 02:30

Passion: Mairead Frisby, from Tipperary, a special needs assistant at Grennan College in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, with students in Cats colours ahead of today's All Ireland Hurling clash with Tipperary Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Passion: Mairead Frisby, from Tipperary, a special needs assistant at Grennan College in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, with students in Cats colours ahead of today's All Ireland Hurling clash with Tipperary Photo: Dylan Vaughan

For disciples of hurling, the first Sunday in September is like Christmas day. It's what you've been waiting for the past 12 months, the culmination to a year of blood, sweat and tears, and until it comes, it consumes your mind.

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The anticipation, the slagging and the predictions all dominate air time in the build-up and justifiably so, as some of the greatest sporting battles of all time have been waged in Croke Park with the Liam MacCarthy Cup hanging in the balance.

Tipp's Michael Breen Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Tipp's Michael Breen Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Hurling folk will have had September 4 circled on the calendar since the turn of the year. On that day there's only one show in town, only one place to be, and only one thing on your mind, as 30-plus men pour their hearts out for 70 minutes.

If your county is involved, the previous days and weeks have been filled with the nervousness of trying to lay hands on the best seats in the house and the giddiness of erecting the bunting akin to decorating the Christmas tree.

If you're not involved you can sit back, soak up the atmosphere and just become immersed in the spectacle.

Expats will unite in far-flung regions of the world to watch and discuss the greatest Irish tradition they left behind. For the supporters of Kilkenny and Tipperary, today is a privileged position to be in, but it's one they've become familiar with.

If familiarity does indeed breed contempt, then these two must despise each other, particularly the Premier men, who have come up short against the Cats time and time again since Kilkenny boss Brian Cody commenced his epic odyssey in 1998.

Cody is the Alex Ferguson of hurling, the man with the midas touch, the man who can inspire men to do things which others can only dream of. Under his watch, Kilkenny have been crowned kingpins on 11 occasions.

His counterpart Michael Ryan was on the victorious Premier side that toppled the Cats in 1991. The silver jubilee of that success will be honoured during today's festivities, but Ryan will have more pressing matters at hand. With 62 All-Ireland senior crowns between the two counties, the battle for the 63rd will be as keenly contested as anything which preceded it. Tipp and Kilkenny are two of the true hurling aristocrats, rarely matched for their craft.

They have played out some absolute thrillers, most notably two years ago, a 3-22 to 1-28 All-Ireland final draw, which is regarded as one of the greatest games in the game's illustrious history. Today is likely to be no different.

Not even the odds compilers can separate the sides, with both priced up at 11/10 while the draw, which amazingly occurred in the finals of 2012, 13 and 14, and the possibility of another €3million bonanza for the GAA, is available at 8/1.

Paddy Power expect just shy of €4million to be wagered on this game alone, while music revellers at Electric Picnic in Stradbally can keep up to date with the action at GAA headquarters.

Weekend ticket holders can leave the grounds and watch it in the local town if they wish to escape the madness, while Puball Gaeilge, the Irish language tent, will also broadcast the game to cater for all diehard dual supporters.

When referee Brian Gavin throws in the ball at 3.30pm in front of some 80,000 spectators, nothing else will matter, only hurling's holy grail as the greatest game on earth.

Blink and you'll miss it.

Sunday Independent

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