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Cats a cut above the chasing pack

A FEW weeks back, this reporter was driving along aimlessly (as one does, contrary to all road safety guidelines) when the car radio suddenly sent us careering back in time.

Back to 1998, the first championship season covered for this newspaper by yours truly. The first -- and the craziest by a country mile.

The RTé documentary was actually a repeat, Who Fears To Speak Of '98? It recalled that summer of angst, anger and unrelenting controversy that was the 1998 All-Ireland senior hurling championship.

Here was small ball's answer to Charlie Haughey's GUBU government -- grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, unprecedented.

It started with Babs Keating's "sheep in a heap" reference to his vanquished Offaly hurlers after their Leinster final defeat by Kilkenny ... and ended with the very same 'herd', now managed by that international man of mystery known as Michael Bond, ramming their way past Kilkenny to claim the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

As for what happened in between? Well, you couldn't make it up. We had Johnny Pilkington's public riposte to Babs. Then Babs resigning. We had the "three minutes of madness" at the start of the Munster final replay between Clare and Waterford, instigating fury on the airwaves -- first on RTé's Sportscall, then on Clare FM as Ger Loughnane launched the most remarkable radio broadcast since Marconi was in his wireless pomp.

We had Colin Lynch's hotly disputed suspension. Offaly drawing with Clare. Then Clare 'winning' the Croke Park replay, only for Jimmy Cooney's premature full-time whistle to prompt a sit-down protest by Offaly supporters and the GAC's decision to order a Thurles refixture, won by the resurgent Faithful.

Clare, without question, were the big losers that summer. There were two big winners: Offaly... and the media.

Hindsight would reveal '98 as the final chapter in hurling's 'Golden Era', an exotic epoch when Offaly, Clare and Wexford shared five successive All-Irelands. From '99, all changed. Cynics might even claim a terrible beauty has been born, but that would be a gratuitous slight on the greatest team in the game's history.

Brian Cody took charge of Kilkenny for the '99 season. Henry Shefflin started his first championship game that summer (he hasn't missed one since). From that year through to 2011, Liam MacCarthy has remained property of the Big Three on all 13 occasions. Kilkenny have blazed an historic trail with eight titles. Cork won it three times; Tipperary twice.

Is anything about to change in 2012? The short answer is 'no', barring some unforeseen necklace of unlikely events that hasn't happened since, well, '98.

Then again, sport being sport, fact is sometimes stranger than fiction. Who could have predicted at the start of March that Chelsea FC, spiralling from one crisis to the next, would be crowned Champions League winners? Kilkenny, as a rule, don't do crisis. Perhaps the nearest they came to it was 12 months ago -- their league final capitulation to Dublin, coming on top of their All-Ireland defeat by Tipperary, left many pundits wondering aloud if the ravages of time and injury were catching up on the immortals?

By September, we had our answer, as Cody's avengers applied their full metal press on Tipperary.


Now, the boot is on the other foot -- can Declan Ryan recapture the thrilling intensity that brought Tipp to the summit under Liam Sheedy? Will Lar Corbett recapture the magic of old after his recent time-out?

There are no such doubts about Kilkenny following their latest league final tour de force against Cork -- the only caveat remains their increasing vulnerability to injury.

However, on the proviso that Shefflin, Richie Power and Michael Fennelly are back to full match fitness at the business end, it would be foolish to bet against All-Ireland No 9 for Cody. If Kilkenny were to succumb, Tipperary remain the most likely successors to the throne. The Big Two look a step ahead, but the chasing peleton includes a trio of pretenders who cannot be entirely excluded -- Galway, Dublin and Cork.

Can you trust the Galway enigma? Probably not over the full marathon course, and still we keep half-expecting some glorious fulfilment of all that latent promise.

Can Dublin topple Kilkenny presuming they meet in the Leinster semis? A huge ask, and they'll need their full complement fit and firing to have a chance ... either way, hold fire on your post-league obituaries because Anthony Daly's men could well make it back to August.

Can Cork recover from that salutary league final lesson? With Jimmy Barry Murphy, they have the right man at the helm, but the loss of Donal óg Cusack and a possible lack of depth might suggest that it's a year too soon.

As matters stand, it's a case of who fears to speak against the Cats? Not I!