Hunger of paupers gives Brian Cody's men seat at top table
On a day when Limerick gave every last piece of themselves to the cause, Kilkenny showed heart of nine-time All-Ireland champions
He was down near the rain-blackened Hill when the long whistle sounded and a photographers' flash-storm erupted, blizzard-like, around him.
Brian Cody threw a little flurry of ceremonial punches before cantering straight into the arms of Eoin Larkin, a corner-forward on safari many miles from home.
The Kilkenny manager rations his animation to this kind of day in which great men subordinate themselves so utterly to a game, there is almost the temptation to do a body-count when it's over. One after another, they came to his embrace, shaken boats returning to harbour.
And in the premature, gunmetal dusk of Croke Park, you had to think that when they finally sign a death certificate for this team, they might make one last check for a pulse. Then ask for a second opinion.
Banquo's ghost rides once again here. All the old music of revolution in the game suddenly falls silent as the stripey men book two teams in for All-Ireland final day, both finding hellcat defiance to get home.
Do they bleed like the rest of us? Are they familiar with the concept of stress? Is there any part of a Kilkenny hurler that translates into insecurity? Their minors lost to Dublin in Nowlan Park on April 26 by 11 points, yet beat the same opposition by nine in the Leinster final. A 20-point turnaround in 10 weeks.
Yesterday, Waterford took them to extra-time, yet ended up beaten by nine.
And the seniors?
Where on earth to start? Short of taking an elephant gun on the field, Limerick could not have given more of themselves yesterday. Their history might be stained with stories of mishap and self-harm, but this wasn't one of them.
Yet, the truly inexplicable thing, the great, unfathomable riddle of a remarkable contest was that Kilkenny, the most fatted calves in the history of hurling, won essentially through hunger. One moment. Maybe six minutes after the resumption, a David Breen shot comes dropping short towards the Hill-end goal. David Herity chooses to bat the ball and it rolls into the path of an inrushing Graeme Mulcahy. As Mulcahy pulls, a Kilkenny hurley corrupts his swing and, in the confusion, the ball spills wide off Breen.
That Kilkenny hurley? Colin Fennelly's.
"And he was in the full-forward line then," smiled Cody at the memory of it. "That willingness to chase defined us I suppose."
Humility is, maybe, at the core of it. Because there was no air of mystery about Kilkenny yesterday. They were ragged and rattled for virtually the duration of the opening half, spilling eight wides, dropping a preponderance of empty missiles into Nicky Quaid's hand and hurling with such anxiety that Richie Hogan – magnificent throughout incidentally – fumbled one simple ball across the sideline whilst standing no more than 10 feet from his manager.
Paul Murphy would soon be taken off Shane Dowling and the temptation had to be to rescue TJ Reid from the chaperoning of a rampant Seamus Hickey. With the rain teeming down and grumbles of thunder overhead, this seemed a day Heaven-sent for the burial of gods.
Yet, Hogan's wonderful 36th-minute goal gave the same gods a two-point half-time lead and you sensed Limerick going to their tea, glassy-eyed as victims of a busted pyramid scheme.
"I certainly couldn't ask for any more," said TJ Ryan later of his team. "It was an incredible performance. But we came up against an incredible team today."
And that, yet again, was the essential story. The sheer range of Kilkenny's hunger. Their willingness to hurt for a cause they have been hurting for since before most of yesterday's minors were finishing play-school.
Limerick might have had goals. JJ Delaney had to resort to a face-guard hold on Hannon after getting spun in the 27th minute and premature roars erupted on the stroke of half-time when spray coming off the Canal-end net created the optical illusion of Breen scoring when, in fact, Herity and JJ had combined to spirit the ball away.
Herity then fumbled a Gavin O'Mahony delivery in the second period but Breen could not convert and Seanie Tobin momentarily thought he had a Limerick goal when his 51st-minute flick spooned agonisingly over the crossbar.
By now, Cody had turned for the heavy artillery, sending in Henry Shefflin and Richie Power, the former instantly met by a hostile welcoming party of Gavin O'Mahony and Richie McCarthy. This was the tenor of it. No reputations precious. No Kings indulged.
You watched Shefflin in those flaring, late flurries and his body language told you everything about Kilkenny.
Time and again, Limerick men came bouncing into contact, relishing his presence as some kind of primal challenge. And Shefflin, older than the mountains now, met each confrontation full-on.
There were no passengers now, just 30 men investing everything they had. Richie Power's 56th-minute goal offered Kilkenny a nib of light and he might have got another but for Donal O'Grady's late, ankle-high swing of a hurley that, inexplicably, did not draw a second yellow.
But, by then, the game was just roller-coasting through an evening parched of natural light, 40 odd thousand of us holding on with white knuckles.
"It was as hard as you could get," said Cody later. "I thought Limerick played outstanding. They threw everything at us and we were tested in every way."
They survived that test by, literally, putting bodies on the line. Blocking, hooking and harrying got Kilkenny home. In injury-time alone, Conor Fogarty stopped three Limerick attempts to rise the ball whilst Power and Shefflin effected blocks. And then, the terraces whistling like a neglected kettle, the last Limerick delivery dropped straight into Paul Murphy's hand.
Cody's team got there by showing the hunger of paupers.
Did that selflessness ever surprise him? "No, because that's what you do" he answered, the cool, clean corridors of his thinking unspoiled. "If you start thinking about something you won before, what good is that to you today, or this year? Our previous victories mean nothing right now.
"If we had to leave here today... the fact that we might have won at other times wouldn't be any good to me or to the lads either. It would be just sheer, absolute devastation when you lose a game like that, and that's what Limerick are experiencing. We didn't want to experience that.
"Look without a doubt, if we had not been very, very good today we would have been blown away!"
He met Ryan in a warm exchange when it was over, two hurling men united by their appreciation of manliness and honour. Ryan has been a terrific manager this summer, yet he went home last night with that old, galling arithmetic still clattering around his head. Since 1940, Limerick have won a solitary senior All-Ireland. Yet, on Cody's watch alone, Kilkenny now go in search of a tenth.
For TJ, the knowledge that his team had given so much, now fuelled a natural grace.
Men like Hickey, Richie McCarthy, Hannon and Mulcahy might never play better games in Croke Park, yet they came up against a whirlwind.
As TJ put it: "We had huge performances all over the field and just probably needed one or two things to go our way. But the bottom line is we lost. That's the biggest pain of all. It's hard to take. I mean I knew we were going to give this one hell of a rattle, but I suppose you have to credit Kilkenny at the end of the day, their record has been incredible."
Asked if the intensity of Kilkenny's old soldiers had been a surprise, Ryan did not equivocate.
"Look, that's a given," he smiled vaguely. "I wouldn't ever be surprised by anything that Kilkenny do. They're not going for 10 titles (under Cody) for no reason. What they have done is incredible and what they do every single day is incredible.
"Maybe there might have been a few question marks about them this year but they responded in every single way. They're league champions, they won Leinster and they're back in an All-Ireland final. What more can you say?"