Vincent Hogan: Game aches for cabaret but it's in the Cats nature to play it straight
Published 13/02/2016 | 02:30
So where's the revolution coming from? Or is everybody just fighting for second? The scariest thing about Kilkenny's hold on hurling isn't even registered in the greyness of statistics.
It's writ large across the story of what-might-have-been. Imagine Henry's cruciate hadn't snapped in 2010 or Brian Hogan didn't bust his hand? Say Brian Cody's spell of coronary care hadn't sidelined him for three months in 2013?
Now think about that. If Kilkenny's dominance seems suffocating today, imagine they weren't back chasing another three-in-a-row this year, but a bewildering 11? Hand on heart, how could the rest of hurling even show its face?
I know plenty of people who look on Cody as some class of Beelzebub. It's probably human nature to grow tired of a single story endlessly re-told, but I suspect it's the way he wears his glory like a hair-shirt that really gets up noses.
Kilkenny are dominating the game like no GAA team has done in history, yet they do so almost surreptitiously. Outside the white lines, they are unobtrusive as birds on an overhead power-line.
And, in their shadow, the game aches for a little cabaret.
In Cody's 17 seasons to date, they've won 11 All-Irelands, eight National Leagues and 14 Leinster titles.
Their 11 All-Irelands in 17 seasons is just two short of the number of La Liga titles accumulated between Barcelona and Real Madrid over the same period. They are more dominant in hurling today than Liverpool were in English football between 1973 and 1990.
Where will it end? Well, given Kilkenny practically won last year's All-Ireland from a field hospital, tarot cards anyone?
It's easy to forget where this story sprang from, the fear of humiliation that stalked them in September of 2000 (no county had ever lost three All-Ireland finals in a row), the personal responsibility Cody himself took for their meek submission to a bullying Galway in the '01 semi-final.
After that, Kilkenny chose to set their own physical agenda. And that's when the rest of hurling became cursed to play a game of catch-up.
The captivating democracy of the '90s had been possible largely because hurling's bluebloods were complacent. Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary assumed things about those for whom history was oppression. Hurling, in their minds, was about entitlement and lineage and the inevitability of tradition having a final say.
So Offaly, Clare, Wexford, Clare and Offaly again won All-Irelands between '94 and '98, the supposed 'big three' of the game left with only the straw of one Kilkenny Leinster title as an assertion of old assumptions through that period.
Clare, especially, pushed physical force to the forefront of business. They hurled with a lust for the collision, an absolute willingness to subordinate the individual to team. But that ferocity had, inevitably, blown itself out by the end of the decade and, without it, they slipped back into the pack.
And the 'Revolution Years' disappeared into it with them.
Since then, Kilkenny (11), Cork (3) and Tipp (2) have claimed the Liam MacCarthy Cup, with only Clare in 2013 defying this re-assertion of oligarchal self-regard. The maths are deadening. Even Tipp or Cork winning in 2016 would probably be interpreted as refreshing in some quarters now, the game is so hungry for change.
But, given hurlers all but flower under stones in Kilkenny; given Cody looks like he could still be barking that same stony gospel when Joe Brolly is into his second term in the Aras; given Henry hurled county to 35 and Richie Hogan and TJ are eight and seven years younger respectively, is it tantamount to idiocy to think that this year could be open?
It shouldn't insult Kilkenny that the game they so ennoble has grown tired of their story. It's just a human reaction to an almost inhuman run. Last year's Championship was poor and the sight of black and amber tassels on silver at the end fed a sense of lethargy. With the weight of retirements and injuries, they should have been sitting ducks.
Instead, they cruised it.
Management changes in Tipp, Cork and Galway make it difficult to know what to expect now from three of those maybe best equipped to get under Kilkenny's skin.
Early indications suggest Michael Ryan may be looking to give his charges a bit more steel and self-sufficiency, and it would be a surprise if Kieran Kingston and Micheál Donoghue aren't of similar mindsets.
Dublin have already won the Walsh Cup but lost their best forward in Danny Sutcliffe; Waterford must write that endlessly tricky second album. So if you were picking the team most likely to top Division 1A of the new League commencing this evening. . . well let's not bother enumerating the obvious.
Division 1B may be where the second-guessing thrives.
Davy Fitz and Donal Og will draw a degree of scrutiny with which second-tier hurling is unfamiliar and Clare, you have to suspect, will be a team upon which Cody might be inclined to keep a weather eye.
They haven't been anywhere as far off the pace as some within their own county imply, Fitzgerald himself suggesting that a 5pc improvement could be transformative.
Clare and Kilkenny played two of the best games in last year's League, Cody's charges edging both by a single point. A fresh collision in the latter stages of this year's competition or, better still, Championship would not need much selling.
Limerick will be looking to make up for a lost year; Offaly a lost generation.
Wexford are, surely, still mentally gored by the odd deference with which they hurled against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park last summer.
Getting pitched straight into the Gaelic Grounds tonight won't feel like the most accommodating of openers, but imagine the hope Liam Dunne might harvest from a win?
Laois will feel they have a real shot at a quarter-final spot, but all of this is small-print stuff. Just the same old dilatory ritual we indulge in before nominating our favourites for the likely Oscar.
And that's where hurling has a difficulty. It keeps pushing the same face in the same tuxedo up to make the same acceptance speech.
The '90s revolution was born of evangelist leaders and teams simply changing the physical terms of engagement. But what do you change to rein in Kilkenny now?
Waterford were wonderful last year, winning the League through a style ablaze with game-intelligence and high energy. But on the August day of their Championship eviction, it looked as if they might have been five years behind Kilkenny in the physical cycle.
And Galway? Three points up at half-time in the All-Ireland final, hurling up a storm? Vanished without trace thereafter.
Yep, the game still aches for cabaret, but that's not Kilkenny's problem. It's ours.