T here haven't been many hurling occasions to match today's All-Ireland final. Only one in fact. That was in 1944 when Cork were the only team before today to play for a fourth title in a row. The Rebels prevailed against Dublin by 2-13 to 1-2.
The other great three-in-a-row teams never made it to the All-Ireland final in their fourth year. In 1952, Tipperary were caught in Munster by Cork who then put together their own hat-trick before being undone by Clare in Munster. The Cork side who won three in a row from 1976-1978 got out of Munster in 1979 but lost the semi-final to Galway. It's hard to keep the show on the road for four years.
Kilkenny's feat in becoming only the second team to come within 70 minutes of four in a row already confirms them as the greatest side ever to play the game. After all, the Cork four-in-a-row they're attempting to match today should have a very big asterisk beside it given the circumstances which surrounded the initial victory in 1941.
That was the year when restrictions owing to an outbreak of foot and mouth disease saw Tipperary and Kilkenny excluded from the championship. Cork thus required a mere two games to win the All-Ireland and subsequently lost the postponed Munster final of that year to Tipp. Had swine flu caused similar ructions this year, Kilkenny would have their four-in-a-row won already.
Yet, in fairness to the Cork team of the '40s, they did come back after losing their crown in 1945 to destroy Kilkenny in the 1946 decider, thus giving them five titles in six years, a total only equalled by Tipperary between 1895 and 1900. Kilkenny currently stand on five out of seven, something the Cats also managed between 1907 and 1913. No-one, but no-one, has ever won six out of eight. So that's another record Kilkenny are shooting for. On one level, it's an even more impressive achievement than a four-in-a-row, given its indication of long-term dominance.
Under Brian Cody, Kilkenny have not just been exceptionally good. They have been exceptionally good for an exceptionally long time. Today they'll be setting a record by becoming the first county to contest eight finals in a decade.
The Tipperary team of the first half of the '60s, with its All-Ireland victories in 1961, 1962, 1964 and 1965, was the choice of many people as the greatest team of all-time before the current Kilkenny side reached its peak. This is largely due to their extraordinary championship campaigns of 1964 and 1965 when no-one came close to giving them a serious game, 14 points being their smallest victory margin in the first year and 12 points in the second.
Such dominance seemed almost unnatural, and extremely unlikely to be repeated again. But Kilkenny's 2008 championship cruise when they beat Offaly by 18, Wexford by 19, Cork by nine and Waterford by 23 was of the same ilk. And while Limerick may have got within seven points of the Cats in the previous year's final, no other team ventured within single figures. More importantly there was never a moment in any match during those two years when a Kilkenny defeat looked even a remote possibility.
Length of dominance, extent of dominance, whatever stats you want to invoke, the special nature of Kilkenny is obvious. Yet the bare facts and figures do not even hint at the most striking thing about this team: its sheer irresistible power and beauty when in full flow. It will be a long time before we see their like again.
Yet, for all their achievements, today is in the nature of a giant step for them, and for the history of hurling. Parse and belittle it though we may, that Cork four-in-a-row still stands in splendid isolation in the record books. Eight teams have won three in a row, only one has gone beyond that. History, therefore, gives Kilkenny a 12 per cent chance today. No team may be in with a shot at this achievement again in our lifetimes. However it pans out, this is already a final for the ages because of what is at stake.
In a strange way, we can tend to undervalue Kilkenny. In an age when every successful sportsman likes to blow his own trumpet to an extent that would tire Louis Armstrong, their modesty is refreshing. The nature of their dominance over the past two years hasn't helped either. They made winning All-Irelands seem a routine matter. We'd come to take them for granted.
But this year has been different. Kilkenny's progress has been more compelling because the team has suddenly become more fallible, more human. The champions were there for the taking against Galway while the Leinster final offered the odd spectacle of Kilkenny, deep breath, playing badly. The contrast between last year's final massacre of Waterford and this year's scrambled victory was not wholly due to improvement by the Deise.
Kilkenny are vulnerable. They have shipped six goals already in the championship where last year they conceded just one. Their midfield has never dominated as it did in the days when Fitzpatrick and Lyng were on top form and there has been no game in which all the forwards played well. Instead they've been rescued by individual attacking performances, Larkin's against Galway, Martin Comerford's against Dublin, Shefflin's tour de force against Waterford.
Today they face a very good Tipperary team, perhaps the best side they have faced on their current run. Man for man, Tipp may not match Kilkenny but they have the crucial advantage of being at their strongest where the champions are at their weakest. In the Cats' full-back line, Michael Kavanagh has finally begun to look as old as you'd expect a man who's played in nine All-Ireland finals to look. JJ Delaney's height and slender frame make him almost comically unsuitable for the full-back slot. The fact that Delaney is a hurling genius has enabled him to overcome this obstacle in the past but this year has been different. Jackie Tyrell has been the best of the trio but has not relished forwards running at him.
Against this creaking triumvirate Tipp will pit Eoin Kelly, their best forward since Fox and English, Noel McGrath, a rival to Joe Canning as best young player of the current generation, and Lar Corbett, whose joust with Henry Shefflin for Hurler of the Year will be decided today. They have been the outstanding line in hurling this year and, most importantly, they have scored nine goals between them. Should Kilkenny overcome this disadvantage and win four in a row today, it will rank as perhaps their greatest achievement. Yet for once I doubt them.
And I hope I'm wrong. We do need new All-Ireland winners to reinvigorate the hurling championship but today is a special occasion. I can remember the joy of the neutrals when Offaly put paid to Kerry's five-in-a-row dream in 1982. But, looked at now, the game has an almost tragic cast to it. As the greatest team of all-time, Kerry deserved to go where no team had gone before.
So do Kilkenny. Time, and Kelly, Corbett and McGrath, will tell.