Monday 25 September 2017

Aristocrats and artisans, and a date with destiny - All-Ireland hurling final is a dream come true for the neutrals

The Liam MacCarthy Cup ahead of the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final between Galway and Waterford at Croke Park. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
The Liam MacCarthy Cup ahead of the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final between Galway and Waterford at Croke Park. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

We're blessed with this All-Ireland hurling final. It's one of a kind, a unique occurrence in championship history.

That's because the two teams have gone a total of 87 years without lifting the Liam MacCarthy Cup, a figure unequalled in GAA history. Only once before, in 1955 when Wexford beat Galway, has the final been contested by two teams who've gone over a quarter century without a victory. Yet between them this year's finalists have an even longer combined fallow spell.

This means that, whoever wins today, we will be greeted by that greatest of All-Ireland final day sights, the jubilation which follows a victory that's been decades in the making. Whoever wins - Galway or Waterford - the neutral can't lose. Whatever happens, this will be one of those special Croke Park afternoons.

The famines endured by both teams have been very different ones. Sometimes it seems as if everything changed for Galway at half-time in the 1990 final. They went into the dressing room five points up on Cork and looking odds on to win a third All-Ireland in four years. Their second half collapse earned the Tribesmen a reputation for flakiness which has only grown. Five more finals have been lost since.

What's been most frustrating for the Tribesmen is that, senior championship aside, no county has been better than Galway since 1990. There have been nine All-Ireland minor titles, six under 21 crowns and a dozen All-Ireland club titles as well as five National League victories. The championship underachievement of Galway's hurlers has been perhaps the greatest mystery in Irish sport.

Two years ago the Galway players decided Michael Donoghue was the man to solve that mystery. Now the player revolt which put him in power looks like the most successful Irish uprising since Michael Collins.

Since defeating Tipperary in the league final, Galway have looked like a team which feels the hand of destiny at its shoulders. They cruised through Leinster before dethroning Tipp in an epic encounter, their sang-froid in those nerve-wracking final minutes something we haven't often seen from Galway teams. It seems like their year.

Waterford's progress has been more problematic. Derek McGrath may be the most tactically inventive manager in the game, perhaps even the best considering the resources available to him, yet the sharks circled when the Deise lost to Cork in the Munster semi-final. The historic nature of their win over Kilkenny can't mask the memory of how they threw away a huge lead. Their semi-final against Cork was in the balance when a sending off turned things. Waterford are underdogs for a reason.

Things have never been easy for Waterford. In the 1970s and '80s they were the afterthought of Munster hurling, concerned with keeping ahead of Kerry as much as catching up with Cork. Their rare provincial decider appearances resulted in abject humiliation. Yet since the renaissance of the mid-'90s Waterford have hung on in the top echelon. Today won't be their first final appearance since 1963 but it will feel like it, the nature of their destruction by Kilkenny in 2008 making it seem like they'd hardly turned up at all.

If Galway are the game's overachieving aristocrats, Waterford are its ambitious artisans, convinced that they have, as Cyril Farrell used to say when the Tribesmen broke through, "a right to win."

Maybe this final will become a shoot-out between two of the most spectacularly gifted players in the history of the game.

Joe Canning is an undoubted great but a great without an All-Ireland medal. His previous final appearances have not shown the Portumna man at his best. There remains one question he hasn't answered. Yet his semi-final display has fashioned this championship in Canning's image. One more great performance will set the confirm that 2017 as The Year of Joe.

Austin Gleeson gives the same impression as Canning of being able to do things other players can't essay let alone achieve. He is, as befits a younger man, a more turbulent talent, given at times to frustration and unpredictability but with the potential for the spectacular always within him. He too has the ability to make himself the most memorable thing about this final.

There are other potential stars. Canning's more relaxed demeanour this season may be due to the stellar nature of his supporting cast in the attack, Conor Whelan and the Cooneys, Joseph and Conor, having been consistently lethal. Waterford's trump card is their midfield where Jamie Barron and Kevin Moran have run the legs off not just opposition midfielders but opposition defenders also, taking up the slack from an attack which has yet to fully flower. Galway have a wonderful full-back line where Daithi Burke and John Hanbury have often looked unbeatable, Waterford would not be here without the efforts of the evergreen Brick Walsh and the unerringly accurate Pauric Mahony in the half-forward line. The goalies Colm Callanan and Stephen O'Keeffe are the best two in the game. There will be an awful lot of excellence on show today.

This is it. This is the greatest day in the greatest championship in Ireland's greatest sport. This is no billion dollar hype, this is Real Sport. This is what it's all about. This ain't nothin' but a GAA thang.

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