Tuesday 22 August 2017

Billy Keane: On the feast day of the greatest game, let us give thanks for hurling

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

We are on the eve of hurling's holy day. The first Sunday in September is All-Ireland hurling final Sunday, the day when we play the greatest game that has ever been played.

I'm still the little boy who scans the skies for signs of Santa's sky tracks on Christmas Eve. Tonight, on hurling's eve, we dream an autumn dream of high-flying sliotars and selfless deeds of great valour.

These are the hurling days.

Older folk will say the year flew and the kids going back to school will wonder if the summer was just one long day.

There were days, a while ago, when there was a rhythm and a rhyme to all of our lives, a season for everything, a slowness, a ripening, all in its own place, all in its own time.

The world is moving and changing too fast. There is no time to think.

We need the red-ringed All-Ireland hurling final to remind us there are constants we can rely upon. There is a basic human need for order among the chaos. The chaotic game of hurling brings us stability.

Hurling is built to last and last it has, for thousands of years. Tomorrow Tipperary and Kilkenny will renew our vows with the unmistakeable thud of ash on leather.

A Cork hurling star who was before his time in the bedroom told us in a sleepy early-morning bar-room clinic that "the clash of hurl on sliotar sounded like the slap of a bedroom slipper on a plump bottom". Each to their own. But hurling is our own. All our own.

Hurling renews the Irishness in us, not in any jingoistic way, or by way of excluding any of the new Irish, but by the sheer joyous quality of the skill, the every second thrill and the unconfined passion of the play.

That's the thing about hurling, isn't it? We are over-regulated and rules rule us. It's the sense of freedom we get from hurling. The sense we are not caged in, the sense that deep within we are still free.

For most of the year, the hurling people had 2016 written off as the season of the sweeper. Cromwell got better press than the sweepers.

Finally, the wildness had been regulated, or so we were told. Tactics, it seemed, had killed Cúchulainn for the second time.

But then hurling was set free. The game was saved by three mighty semis. The madness in us and the fire in us, the Irishness of having a cut in us, won out. Heart defied logic. Heroism defeated controls. Skill beat confinement.

The hurling coaches finally realised they were about to kill the thing they loved the most.

But before the next puck-out we must congratulate Dublin on their win over Kerry last Sunday. You will be known forever as the team that refused to die. The referee has suffered enough this week. It will come as a terrible surprise to most of you but I too have made mistakes.

We should have had a €3million free for that tackle on Peter Crowley and we would all be back again in Dublin this evening.

Dublin would have won the replay that never happened because they are the better team. Kerry would have lived to die another day. Dublin played without fear and in the end it was courage that won it.

That said, I was proud of Kerry. You honoured the jersey, boys. To Dublin and Kerry jointly I would say thank you for saving the game or maybe it was a stay of execution.

Hurling, though, is alive and pucking. Kilkenny people tell us they are worried about Tipp who have bulked up considerably in the last year. If you want to beat the Cats you have to sign away bone and tissue like the altruist who donates his body to science.

But Kilkenny can play hurling with incredible skill and cuteness. The game is a legacy in Kilkenny and is passed down.

We met with Brian Cody, the trustee, in Langton's over the winter. Brian has won 11 All-Irelands as a manager and three as a player. Even though he didn't say as much, I believe there is one last quest driving him on.

It's a secret quest that hasn't been spoken of for fear of taking away his boys' focus. Kilkenny play tomorrow for three-in-a-row and we all know three comes before four and four comes before five.

It's six years now since Tipp denied Kilkenny the record-breaking five-in-a-row. The Tipp men have no fear of Kilkenny. Tipp are harder this year. Honed by hurt they are. Their hurls are harvest sickles.

Every clash will be contested like it's a mountain stage in the Tour de France.

There will be no time to think. Instinct will do the thinking. Contemplation will come in many years' time on long walks by the banks of Suir and Nore when the players think back on what has been and what might have been.

I cannot pick a winner. I just know the game will be very close. The pride in the jersey will reign in the team that goes too far ahead.

The feast day of the holy game is upon us. We give thanks for the gift of hurling. And on All-Ireland hurling final Sunday, we will once again swear allegiance to the oldest game of the ancient Gael, a game we can truly claim as our very own.

Irish Independent

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