Rollercoaster summer grinds to a sudden halt
Air turns cold with anti-climax of heavy defeats as Wexford and Dublin fail to deliver on promise
The old cathedral town creaked and groaned under the weight of idle promises. There was almost the scent of swindle about Thurles, a morning that drum-rolled endless possibility petering out into an afternoon and early evening of solemn book-keeping.
Maybe only Limerick left the premises believing they had shown the best of themselves, but even they could recognise the pathos of Wexford's terrible mauling.
Just after midday, the Two-Mile-Borris exit off the M8 trailed a three kilometre tailback, purple and gold flags rippling from almost every car.
It felt less a traffic-jam than a pilgrimage, yet they might as well have been a fleet of fishing boats heading straight down the throat of a terrible storm.
There wouldn't be much left of them after, just men, women and children with broken smiles and the wounded eyes of families wondering if, maybe, the past month had been some kind of wild hallucination.
Hurling has been stealing the show again this summer, a single footfall the difference in so many epochal contests that it was strange to feel the cold breeze of anti-climax go gusting through Semple Stadium. For Wexford to fall by 24 points was a rotten perversion of their season. For Dublin to go down by 13 against Tipperary, maybe less so.
Because, when the time comes to produce a highlights reel for Championship 2014, there will be few if any glimpses of the team that won in Wexford Park on June 14, yet abundant sightings of the one that lost.
Wexford will take more from their year than yesterday's meltdown can possibly obscure. Fatigue undoubtedly caught them in the end, but they looked tight as a drum from the beginning. And maybe to start collating reasons for Wexford's loss is to miss a central point here.
Limerick were wonderful at times, hurling with a pace, intensity and – frankly – ruthlessness that spoke of a team desperate, not just to get back in Croke Park and make amends for last August, but to do so making a statement.
They were making early hay at half-forward especially where David Breen had too much for Ciaran Kenny and, between the medics' embroidery sessions on his forehead, Declan Hannon was finding great, broad corridors of freedom through the middle.
Actually, Limerick's intensity set a tone from the first minute, Keith Rossiter too casual in possession and forcing Matthew O'Hanlon into a foul on Shane Dowling. Tentative at one end, inaccurate at the other and all but wiped out in between, Wexford simply could not stay with Limerick's aggression.
True they were still, notionally, in contention until Dowling's two quick-fire goals on the stroke of half-time. But those goals had been long threatened and, as Limerick sloped off to a broad ovation, Liam Dunne gathered his selectors by the sideline for what already had the air of an autopsy.
The rest was just cruel and oddly cold. Limerick goaled again just after the resumption and – as the two managers met in a warm embrace when it was over – you could tell TJ Ryan's words leaned only towards sympathy.
"To be fair, playing four weeks in a row caught up on Wexford," he said later. "It's not right. Playing four weeks in a row is very hard to do."
Dunne was dignified in the face of slaughter. He had seen his young team grow beyond all reasonable expectation in the games against Clare and Waterford, yet knew too that high emotion was carrying them to a dangerous altitude.
"From early on, you could see that the heads were wanting to go places the bodies weren't able to bring them," he said with that familiarly enigmatic smile. "You don't have to be a genius to look at a hurling match and see fellas out on their feet even in the first 35 minutes.
"I can't fault our fellas. It's been a tough couple of weeks and we just came up short.
"But we'll learn a lot from today, we might even learn more from today than we did last week (against Waterford). It's tough going on those fellas in there. They are not on €250,000 a week or anything, but the effort I got from them was fantastic."
Many of his men have an All-Ireland U-21 semi-final still to play, but the sheer tonnage of this defeat meant everything was worn so publicly now and hard to bear. Even Limerick's players could recognise the ghosts before them.
"They must have been a bit tired," said Hannon. "Had to be," agreed Dowling. "They're only human!"
If Tipp were palpably underwhelmed by their own performance in the second game, Dublin seemed close to self-loathing.
Perhaps Michael Carton articulated it best. Having failed to lay a glove on Kilkenny in the Leinster final, they summoned some kind of grim reprise here. "Just a heartbreaking performance," sighed the Dublin wing-back. "You think you're ready and we just didn't show up again. That's two in a row now.
"You have to go out and want the ball and we didn't want the ball enough out there. The Tipp lads out-fought us for every ball and it's just not good enough. We can't be playing like that. That's the Dublin of old in the last two performances.
"You can have all the gimmicks in the world, but you have to want the ball. We were dropping simple balls and just didn't look the team we have been of late. I'll never mind losing if you perform on the pitch and play with a bit of freedom.
"We didn't do that the last two days and it's just not good enough at this stage. We're a mature team, we shouldn't be going out playing like that."
It was an odd, peculiarly soulless game, Tipp easing into an early clearing without referencing much fluency. Lar Corbett picked two gorgeous points in the opening four minutes, yet that would be his total. Tipp were majestic in flashes, slapstick in others. The decision not to play Padraic Maher at full-back means they now arrive into August against Cork with nobody quite knowing who Eamon O'Shea will site on the edge of their own square.
The Tipp manager sounded unconcerned after. "We don't have any set ideas on the full-back at the moment or the way we align our players," he said.
"I know people have a fascination with who is No 3 and who is No 6, particularly you guys (media), but we don't have the same fascination. We have players who can play there and players coming back, hopefully, as well. Conor (O'Mahony) was on the 26 and Paul (Curran) is chomping at the bit. We hope to have options, but it wasn't match-ups so much as the way we wanted to play."
This might be viable practice against a Dublin team that, for all its progress under Anthony Daly, has never looked a compelling attacking unit. But against Jimmy Barry-Murphy's Cork, carefully planned match-ups might be wise.
O'Shea was critical of the pace of ball being delivered to his forwards, yet there was an overwhelming sense too that Tipp had learned little about themselves here.
Dublin have been largely anaemic in this championship and there was little surprise Daly spoke of giving his future "long, hard thought".
This wasn't a team in his reflection and it certainly wasn't one faithful to the memory of last year's Leinster final win. Something has slipped out of Dublin's hands since. The trick will be in identifying it.
On a day that sighed with regrets, theirs were probably the greatest. Wexford's devastation was, at least, cushioned by the recent memory of big, tingling performances.
But winter will goad both with the price paid for yesterday's empty promises.
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