Quick-draw artists help to restore national treasure
It can't always be taken for granted that newly-crowned All-Ireland champions are automatically designated the unofficial title of national champions too.
Especially in hurling where the traditional three-way cartel has often left the championship looking more like a private members' club from which everybody else is excluded.
When Kilkenny were wrapping up title after title over the last 15 years, it was always about them and nobody else. An introverted team would take the cup back to an introverted county and everyone else would get on with their lives. Kilkenny were the Kilkenny champions. They weren't necessarily national champions.
When Loughnane's Clare team of the mid-to-late 1990s kicked the doors down, everyone else piled in behind them. No invitations were necessary. Everyone was welcome to the party. We were suddenly all guests of the nation. We could all share in the success and the joy. That mighty Clare team were true national champions. Yes, to use the hackneyed phrase, they were the people's champions.
That feeling came back in a flood last weekend when Davy Fitzgerald's new model army took the cup back to the Banner county once more. We didn't know how much we'd missed it until it had been restored. That happy sense of inclusion was reborn.
Kilkenny's Cody era might never be matched for greatness. But Clare's victory last Saturday was a reminder of how oppressive this greatness was. It was a grim, joyless annual procession based on macho principles of power and ruthlessness. Teams didn't merely have to be beaten, they had to be humiliated where possible. There wasn't much evident aspiration to winning with style; it was more about winning with steel. They were mechanically, morbidly relentless.
The two games served up by Cork and Clare this September had the effect of letting the light back in. Sports fans were palpably buoyed by the contrast in spirit. Kilkenny's heavy-handed physical attrition was replaced by an attitude of openness and innocence. It was almost as if the game itself was allowed breathe again.
Both sides were obviously desperate to win. But even in the stress and tension of an All-Ireland final, players did things that weren't just in the service of winning but were almost expressions of hurling for hurling's sake. There was a sense about them that they weren't just serving their own purposes, but serving their sport too. A tremendous contest for honours, played out over 140 minutes, became a showcase for the game.
Instead of trying to establish physical supremacy first, and letting their hurling ability take over afterwards, it was as if they'd decided to dispense with the bodily smash-and-crash that had been integral, for example, to the epic Tipp-Kilkenny collisions of preceding years.
The draw and replay were like fencing duels, a prolonged joust that would be decided by quicksilver stick skills. Hurleys would be blades rather than bludgeons, both parties freely consenting to the rules of engagement. When the handkerchief dropped, they went to it, thrusting and parrying, lunging and recoiling, scoring freely with rapid-fire nicks, incisions and glancing strokes.
Played on these terms and in this spirit, the diptych duly rained with points and goals. After the first game one side or the other might have decided on a different strategy, given the shellacking they'd suffered as well as inflicted. Enough of the spills and thrills: let's pour some cold water on the entertainment and apply some realpolitik to the business of winning an All-Ireland.
But three weeks after the draw they resumed as if it had only been a momentary break in play; as if they'd no choice in the matter; as if they were entwined in a rotating spiral that kept gravitating higher and higher. When it was over, it was Cork who fell to earth. Clare had overturned 100 years of established custom in this particular relationship.
The Loughnane interregnum had been built on athletic power, formidable personalities and overwhelming force of will. The new generation is almost the polar opposite. They beat Cork because they were basically quicker on the draw. A recurring image from both games is clumps of players stooped over ruck ball on the floor – and then someone in yellow
emerging from the thicket, ball in hand, and scampering into open space. Clare were quicker on their feet, with their hands and in their heads. They hustled Cork players with manic speed; their wits were sharper, their reflexes too.
Cork got into their heads several times and rattled old ghosts in the hope of unnerving Clare, as many a Cork team had done before. But they were dealing with a different model: Clare coped with every setback like they knew deep down they were the better team. No matter what, they were better. Inconceivably, Clare were the more confident team too.
If the Cork management occasionally looked baffled on the sideline, it was perhaps because they were witnessing something that confounded everything a lifetime of tradition had taught them to expect. They weren't the only ones. This Clare team has shattered a lot of preconceptions; they have arrived with a bang – the shock of the new.
The post-match shenanigans were a bit more familiar: the colour and charisma, the music and joy, the unbridled spirit of the county in full bloom. It's the feelgood sports story of the year. And once again, everyone is welcome to the Banner's house of fun.