Tuesday 28 March 2017

Father Time wins in the end

Two teams above all others have epitomised excellence in Irish sport over the past decade.

They have had their ups and downs and there have been rivals who challenged their pre-eminence but on balance the Munster rugby team and Kilkenny hurlers stood head and shoulders above everyone else. Their brilliance has become proverbial. People who know very little else about sport know that Munster rugby and Kilkenny hurling are things to be spoken of with awe.

There have been other wonderful teams, Kerry and Tyrone footballers, Cork hurlers, the Leinster rugby team, Pat Fenlon's Shelbourne and Bohemians sides, but their achievements have been dwarfed by those of Irish sport's big two.

Munster's impact was far greater than that indicated by the bare statistic which shows Heineken Cup victories in 2006 and 2008, memorable though those triumphs were. At one stage the team seemed to specialise in the miraculous, a gift most famously demonstrated when a required 27-point winning margin was quarried out against Gloucester in 2003 but which was also evident in the away wins against Toulouse in 2000, Stade Francais in 2002 and Leicester in 2003.

There were also days when Munster seemed less a team than an irresistible force of nature which brooked no resistance, the demolitions of Sale and Leinster in 2006 being prime examples. But they were at their best with their backs to the wall, never happier than when going right down to the wire.

Kilkenny at their best were a very different proposition. We don't remember them pulling many games out of the fire because they generally didn't have to. Their speciality was the totally dominant display, like the 23-point hammering they gave Waterford in 2008 or the 13-point one they stuck on Offaly to get the sliotar rolling back in 2000. In their four-in-a-row run from 2006 to 2009, the Cats looked in danger of losing on, at most, a couple of occasions.

Mention of the 2000 final brings to mind the factor which distinguished these two teams more than anything else. Longevity. Henry Shefflin, Michael Kavanagh, Noel Hickey, James McGarry and Eddie Brennan were all there in 2000. Two years later when the Cats beat Clare in the final they were joined by JJ Delaney, Martin Comerford and Derek Lyng. When the sixth title of the decade was annexed in 2009, all eight players figured in the final.

And 2000 was also the year when Munster first captured the public imagination, going all the way to the Heineken Cup final where they lost by a point to Northampton. Ronan O'Gara, John Hayes and David Wallace were playing that day. Two years later, Peter Stringer, Paul O'Connell and Alan Quinlan featured in the province's second final loss, to Leicester. This half dozen were all still there when Munster won the 2008 decider against Toulouse.

This longevity is such that it's almost impossible to imagine Munster without O'Gara and Wallace, or Kilkenny without Shefflin and Brennan. And it's almost equally difficult to imagine Irish sport without Kilkenny hurlers and the Munster rugby team somewhere near the summit. But last weekend's results have forced us to contemplate the unthinkable and wonder if the end of two glorious eras is about to arrive simultaneously. In 2000 they came in together. In 2011 are they about to depart centre stage in unison?

The evidence is hard to ignore. Munster's performance against Harlequins in the Amlin Cup semi-final was as poor a showing as they've given in Thomond. There was something genuinely shocking about how easy it was for a young Quins side to storm the great old fortress. And what happened the next day in Croke Park was even more unprecedented. Kilkenny looked completely bereft of inspiration in the League final against Dublin and were lucky to get away with a 12-point beating which, in itself, was their biggest Croke Park defeat since Offaly beat them 4-15 to 1-8 in the 1990 championship.

There were mitigating circumstances. The Amlin was always going to be thin gruel for a Munster team accustomed to the headier heights of the Heineken and this may have accounted for a certain slackness of attitude. Kilkenny, meanwhile, were forced to take on the Dubs without injury victims Shefflin, Tommy Walsh, Richie Power, Michael Fennelly and Aidan Fogarty and had to play 54 minutes with 14 men after Eoin Larkin's sending off. Probably no team could have overcome such handicaps.

Yet last weekend's defeats are only the latest manifestation of an unquestionable process of decline in both teams. It seems a very long time ago now since Munster were raging hot favourites going into the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final against Leinster. The team has never possessed the same aura since that defeat. Last year's semi-final loss to Biarritz gave us the highly unusual sight of (a) Munster being outmuscled up front and (b) Munster losing a game from a winning position.

And the really surprising thing about this year's hammering by Toulon, which excluded Munster from the knock-out stages for the first time since their breakthrough at the turn of the millennium, was how unsurprising it was. Munster had been in poor form throughout the group stages which made it seem highly unlikely that they'd chisel out a victory in France. This was exactly the type of situation in which the team had thrived in the past but this time there was no twist in the tale, just another poor performance and a predictable defeat.

And 2009 was also the year when cracks began to appear in the Kilkenny edifice. Unimpressive throughout the championship, the Cats looked an ageing team for much of the final against Tipperary and appeared dead and buried going into the final quarter. That they managed to win that game was a remarkable tribute to their courage and character but the euphoria which followed that victory camouflaged the fact that this was not the invincible Kilkenny of the previous two years.

Their decline was ruthlessly exposed by Tipperary in last year's All-Ireland final. The game seemed closer than it was because we kept waiting for the inevitable Kilkenny comeback. It never transpired and was conspicuous by its absence last Sunday as well. Opponents have sensed a weakness about Kilkenny and every defeat will embolden a new challenger.

The Cats were untypically ratty last weekend just as Munster's discipline deserted them at key moments this season. Perhaps this has something to do with the team's knowledge that the great days may be coming to an end. It's tough to be brought down to earth when you've soared for so long.

Predictions of the demise of either team may, of course, be exaggerated. Kilkenny, with a full team, will be a different proposition in the championship. And Munster still have a Magners League title to play for though they will know themselves that the competition is a very poor consolation prize. The Heineken Cup is the competition the elite judge themselves by.

Yet should Kilkenny lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup in September or Munster win a third European title next year, it would stand as both teams' most remarkable achievement yet because it would not just arrest but reverse a decline which seems logically inevitable.

The downside of longevity, you see, is that key players get old at the same time. And for all the talk about Kilkenny's pipeline of young talent or of Munster's tradition, you are not going to replace a Shefflin, a Hickey, an O'Gara or a Wallace right away. By performing to such a high level year after year they have prevented their putative heirs from gaining big-match experience. It can't be helped but it's why periods of dominance in any team sport are usually followed by periods of transition.

Kilkenny know all about this. After their great 1970s team finally ran out of gas in '76, it was six years before the county won another All-Ireland final. That Munster are a professional outfit might in theory inure them from such a cyclical process yet it doesn't always work out like that. Look at Liverpool, a team whose older fans will remember a time when we all presumed the expertise of The Anfield Bootroom would keep them on top forever.

So chances are that Munster and Kilkenny will no longer be the twin peaks of the Irish sporting world. Will they be replaced? Should Leinster defeat Northampton in the Heineken Cup final, they'll be level with their old rivals in terms of European crowns won but are unlikely to command the same sort of affection among the wider public. Munster's achievement was to be near or at the top for 10 years, something Leinster are half a decade away from doing.

Similarly, even if Tipperary make it two in a row this year they'll have to kick on until 2020 if they are to leave the same kind of mark on hurling history that Brian Cody's Kilkenny have done. It remains to be seen whether Brendan Maher and Noel McGrath can match Shefflin and Hickey in that respect.

Perhaps we'll never see anything quite like Kilkenny and Munster again. Which would be a pity. Because the strange thing is that, after spending so much time wishing that new powers would come along and challenge the big two, I'm almost starting to feel nostalgic for them already. And they haven't even gone anywhere yet.

But what they're learning at the moment is something that Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, Zinedine Zidane and Jack O'Shea, and every great sportsman found out before them.

Father Time is the one opponent who'll always beat you in the end.

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