Sunday 15 September 2019

Clash of the titans

Greatest of rivals have ruled with an iron wrist

The Liam MacCarthy Cup ahead of the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final between Kilkenny and Tipperary. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
The Liam MacCarthy Cup ahead of the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final between Kilkenny and Tipperary. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

Old habits, and hurling customs, die hard.

The decade which opened with Tipperary torpedoing Kilkenny's five-in-a-row bid closes with the same rivals holding court on the season's last day. In his first year back since that headline accomplishment, Liam Sheedy has steered Tipp into their first final in three years since the county defeated Kilkenny in 2016 under Michael Ryan.

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An All-Ireland final between Tipperary and Kilkenny abounds with all the rituals of a long and abiding tradition. An assertion of how it was, is and forever will be. Limerick and Galway ended long waits with memorable and emotional All-Ireland title wins in the last two years. Clare triumphed in 2013. But the decade's majority went to Kilkenny, four, and Tipperary, two. After today they will have taken seven between them.

It is still an improvement, from that perspective, on the previous decade when tradition could be said to have ruled with an iron wrist. No county outside the top three won an All-Ireland in the first 13 seasons of the new millennium, which had followed the most varied and democratic decade of all in the 1990s.

The reigning All-Ireland champions, Limerick, perished in the semi-final, Brian Cody's Kilkenny players rolling back the years with a performance that can stand favourably alongside any of the classics produced in his time in charge. The intensity they produced in upsetting the odds makes them some people's favourites to win another title, a remarkable 12th under Cody, today. It is his 16th final in his 21st year at the helm.

But while this has a familiar look it is not an expected conclusion. Whereas back in 2010 the meeting of Tipp and Kilkenny in an All-Ireland final was happening for an unprecedented third consecutive year, neither was in any way certain to be among the last hurlers standing today.

Tipp went out of the championship last year in June, with many of their players scattered to sunny destinations when the later action was unfolding. Impressive in the Munster group stages this year, they bombed in the Munster final, outplayed by Limerick after the opening quarter.

Kilkenny lost to Wexford in the Leinster final, and to Galway at home in the group stages. It is not the Kilkenny that once obliterated teams. But they still command respect and the win over Limerick has altered the impression of them as a team in transition and struggling with confidence. If they win it will be the county's 37th All-Ireland title, with Tipp aiming to win for the 28th time.

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Kilkenny haven't gone this long - four years - without winning an All-Ireland since the 1990s. Of the team that lost the final at the start of the decade, there are only two survivors: TJ Reid, who captained the team then, and Richie Hogan, a sub nine years ago introduced in the second half.

Tipperary have three of that starting team still playing and one of the subs, Séamus Callanan, who blitzed Kilkenny in the final three years ago, scoring nine points from play. The nine-point defeat was Kilkenny's heaviest All-Ireland final loss since being beaten by Tipp in 1964.

Hurling continues to wrestle with issues around exclusivity although the game's reach is broadening. Carlow made a welcome appearance in the Leinster Championship and drew with Galway in the league. But one of the more lasting memories of the year was a heartfelt plea from one of their players for greater support to enable counties like them to develop and improve their standing. That challenge still exists. Hurling is still too confined geographically.

There is nobody around today who remembers Laois winning the county's only All-Ireland in 1915. Their last appearance in a final reaches back to 1949. This year's win over Dublin was felt like a liberation and earned them another day out in Croke Park against Tipperary, where they showed that there are plenty of good hurlers in the county desperate to experience more days like it. Offaly's heroes of 1994 will be honoured today. It will serve as a reminder of how far Offaly hurling has fallen since and the sorry sight it is now. Who would have thought it possible back then?

The season saw the usual casualties. Galway, All-Ireland finalists for the last two years, suffered a surprise early exit when they lost to Dublin in Parnell Park. Waterford had another troubling year having been part of this day in 2017. This decade will also be notable for being the first not to feature an All-Ireland from Cork. Wexford made a welcome return in winning a first Leinster title since 2004.

So after all the perspiration and tears it comes down to Tipp and Kilkenny. Let the fun begin.

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