Tomas Ó Sé: Nowlan Park visit a reminder of hurling's enduring beauty
Lack of histrionics a refreshing change from football's constant pulling and dragging
I crossed the border into a foreign country on Sunday and it proved an education. I took the weekend in Kilkenny to celebrate my birthday and so pitched up in Nowlan Park for a game that, in time, took on the feel of Christians being tossed to the lions.
I never hurled in my life, but I adore the game. Always have done since childhood days in Ventry when the great Cork hurler Seanie O'Leary would holiday with his young family in our B&B.
Sometimes they'd leave a hurley behind, sometimes we might accidentally take one! The morning they'd be going home, two could get thrown behind a bush and we'd all help search for the lost property on the far side of the garden.
Over time, our friendship with the O'Learys meant there were always hurleys in our house and, to this day, Darragh and I would still carry them in the boot of our cars.
I used be greatly entertained by the expressions on tourists' faces in Paidi's pub, their attention drawn to TV pictures of a Munster Championship game that'd leave them wondering if what they were watching was actually legal.
Last Saturday night, the amount of children out on The Parade in front of Kilkenny Castle, hurleys in their hands, was incredible. They were there till dark and I remember thinking it was like a throwback to pre internet days when kids just played outside from dawn to dusk.
I suppose they're not inclined to complicate things with the nurturing of other sports in Kilkenny, and some people, naturally, resent that.
But there's still something fundamentally beautiful about a child at almost poetic ease with a hurley. And Kilkenny will always be strong because of it.
In Ventry, we tended to take a multi-purpose approach to the hurleys in our possession.
We always had seven or eight cows out the back and we'd use the camans to drive them.
Sometimes, we might take them out just to unclutter our minds too. Maybe at the height of Championship, the simple, tactile thing of just going out the back and pucking a ball over and back could be oddly comforting. Darragh, Marc and myself, we'd all do it. To this day, I sometimes go up the field behind the house in Fota Island just for the escape of a few pucks.
Hurling lingo makes no sense to me. When someone talks of 'a lovely, wristy hurler', they might as well be speaking Latin. I don't really know what that means. But I was watching TJ Reid and Jackie Tyrrell pucking over and back to one another before Sunday's game and I suppose the purity of their striking was self-explanatory.
It was a privilege just sitting there within touching distance of two greats of the game, their connection with the sliotar so clean and crisp, over and back from maybe 40 yards apart. It reminded me of watching professional golfers on the driving-range.
Like, I can strike a sliotar and I can hit a golf ball. But I can't do it like they do.
Funny, I was just two rows back from the pitch and TJ happened to let one ball go fizzing between his legs and run across towards the toes of the stand. As he came over to retrieve it, a bould Wexford voice shouted "Jayzus TJ, that went past you fairly handy!" TJ smiled.
And I thought, 'Lord Jesus lad, don't be pulling the lion's tail now!'
There's an atmosphere to being at a Kilkenny hurling match that I can easily reconcile with Kerry football. The crowd is demanding in a largely respectful way. They expect things of their players, they demand standards.
Over the years, I've loved watching men like Henry Shefflin and Tommy Walsh and JJ Delaney honour those standards. Now the likes of Michael Fennelly and Richie Hogan and TJ are simply following suit. You get no histrionics from them, no hint of melodrama. Just unending brilliance.
I couldn't take my eyes off Kilkenny in their warm-up. Pretty much everybody can strike a ball or solo a ball; the difference is the pace they do it at. And there was bite to everything Kilkenny did. It seems as if they just do things with an edge.
And, through the game, Brian Cody standing there, unreadable. Those big arms folded and not as much as a glimpse in the direction of a player he might be substituting. There's a general feeling that he's cold and a little ruthless and that reputations don't mean a thing to him. Everyone knows he's not down on that field looking for friends.
In my eyes, the man is the greatest GAA manager of all time.
Gaelic football and hurling exist under a single umbrella, but the games are poles apart.
A hurling referee must look on his footballing counterpart in the way a sports reporter looks on a war correspondent. The only conspicuous fouling you see in hurling is the occasional chop. In football, it's like everybody's constantly wrestling.
Kilkenny's cuteness in that regard was impossible not to admire. They didn't feel the need to make big hits, because their ability to hook and block is so finely tuned. Their way of hurling was clinical and undramatic.
I wouldn't say they were machine-like: their hurling was far too skilful, far too expressive for that to be the right description. But there is a control about what they do. It is as if they shut out all needless emotion and trust in process.
Compare that to some of the football games we see where there's so much pulling and dragging, you'd sometimes wonder is there any need for a ball at all.
I know Sunday in Nowlan Park lacked intensity. Kilkenny did to Wexford what they're capable of doing to anyone. They put them to sleep with early goals. They took them out with two quick bullets to the head. It was ruthless.
The telepathy between the Kilkenny players, the instant understanding, say, between Tyrrell collecting a ball in his own full-back line and young Ger Aylward making the run 80 yards away was phenomenal to see.
The style was direct and traditional, moving the ball instantly, everybody tuned to the one wavelength.
I felt sorry for Wexford. They're a far better team than they looked on Sunday but, short of arming themselves with a few elephant guns, I'm not sure what they could have done.
A lot was made of the Jack Guiney story, but I could sympathise with Liam Dunne's position. You have to set some kind of standards as a group and, if someone doesn't adhere to them, they can't be seen to be indulged.
Bottom line, Guiney wouldn't have made the difference last weekend. One man never could against a force of nature.