Hurleys at the ready - Tipp and Cats armies prepare to battle it out
Published 02/09/2016 | 02:30
Kilkenny publican Seamus Delaney still holds his tattered copy of the first colour match programme printed by the GAA.
It was for the 1967 All-Ireland final between Kilkenny and Tipperary - the first time the Cats beat the Premier county since 1922, ending a drought of 45 years.
Fast forward another 49 years and the colours of the hurling championship are still defiantly blue and gold and black and amber, making it a lazy job for the printers - and rendering both sides unbackable in the bookies' eyes. There isn't the width of the county line between them.
The old rivalries are just as strong as ever. "But I wouldn't mind if Tipp won this time," mused the sprightly 76-year-old pub owner, who hasn't missed an All-Ireland final since 1950 - when at the age of 10 he was first taken to Croke Park by his father.
"Tipperary beat us in the league final," he recalled.
Behind the counter of his famous, properly old-fashioned pub which sells groceries, he has an old burnished brown sally-wood hurley from 1890.
The walls are lined with Kilkenny memorabilia - including a photograph of Michael Collins inspecting the Kilkenny team before their 1921 clash against Dublin - the last All-Ireland final he would live to see.
On Sunday, it could all come down to the púc of a ball. And like all armies, both teams rely heavily on their weapons. In both counties, the hurley makers lie at the very heart of this hotly contested battle.
From his workshop in Priestown, Drangan in Co Tipperary, hurley-maker Jim O'Brien can survey the opposition like few can.
"You're looking into Cats country there," he says, with a sweeping arm taking in the panoramic view over the fields.
By default, he has made a hurley for Usain Bolt - after Liam Sheedy handed him over one of his own.
"It would be great if they got him over to play for Tipp - the defence would never manage to catch him," he laughs.
He makes hurleys for a large chunk of the Tipp team - rattling off a list that takes in John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer, Niall O'Meara, Seamus Kennedy, Michael Breen, Dan McCormick and Seamus Callanan.
"Each hurley maker wants theirs to be the one that scores the winning goal. This is what we're in it for," says Jim, explaining how each player has their own requirements - down to the taper of the handle and the weight and 'bounce' of the stick.
"They'd be fairly fussy," he says, as he sands down the most precious weapons in the hands of the Premier county.
On the outskirts of Kilkenny town, Mark Dowling of Star Hurleys says he makes sticks for "most" of the Kilkenny team.
And he also does repairs. Midfielder Richie Hogan has left one in to be fixed.
"This was one he really liked and it went in half," he says.
"A hurley might last a player a few minutes or he might get a year out of it."
An old hand-painted poster on the wall reads 'Two in a Row, 2002, 2003'.
"Could be time for another poster," says Mark.
In the middle of Thurles, flags and bunting are fluttering in the breeze as Patrick Maughan sets up his stall.
"I'll be here til Saturday," he declares, adding that business isn't as good as it once was.
"People still have their bunting left over from last year," he adds.
"What we'd need is a Leitrim in the final or some county that never gets a chance."
Michael Costello and his wife Anne have struck a deal on the bunting for their house in Twomileborris and go home immediately to put it up.
"We decorate every year. It's nearly not worth our while taking it down at this stage," says Michael.
They'll watch the match at home with their grandchildren, says Michael, showing off Jack the big stuffed dog, all dressed up in the Tipp colours, who goes "everywhere" with him.
Over in Kilkenny, top Cats fan Miles 'Elvis' Kavanagh and his dog Priscilla are attracting tourist attention.
Deirdre Watson has driven American visitor Jim Bodhi from Detroit over for a look. "Tipperary are going to be checking into heartbreak hotel after the weekend," Miles shouts over to them.