Roy Curtis: 'Canning, Reid, Kelly or Lynch - who is hurling's current alpha male?'
IF there was anything at all missing from hurling’s 2018 summer of wonder, it might have been the kind of matinee idol rivalry with which Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have, for fully a decade now, transfixed the world.
Football’s twin demigods offer a riveting subplot to every season. Barcelona’s Argentine shaman and Juve’s bejewelled megastar pose a question to which even the most casual fan has an opinionated response.
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It is the one that asks simply: Which of us is the greatest?
As another potentially blockbuster season premiered in a flare of mid-May adrenalin, a rush of eminent names presented the sort of impressive credentials that ought to trigger a similar debate among the hurling tribes.
Week One, yet already we have been treated to thrilling presentations from so many of the game’s big dogs.
At a sun-splashed Pairc Ui Chaoimh, Bubbles O’Dwyer, all sumptuous wrist work and slimmed down intent, announced that both he and Tipperary intend to leave their fingerprints all over the long days.
On the same battlefield, Pat Horgan, a portrait of liquid grace, offered heroic one-man resistance against the blue and gold advance. It seemed beyond cruel that Cork’s all-time leading scorer should return to a losing dressing room after such a flawless 14-point masterclass.
Tony Kelly, in a deep quarterback role, rained Banner brilliance on Waterford’s championship homecoming; Austin Gleeson offered sporadic but miraculous glimpses of his untouchable capacity to thrill.
And TJ Reid, timeless and lethal, added one more Saturday by the Nore to the bulging portfolio of afternoons and evenings he has made his own. Dublin are the latest notch on the belt of Kilkenny’s elegant assassin.
There was some early demonstration of lethal intent and artistic touch from Seamie Callanan. John Conlon governed the Walsh Park skies as surely as if he was at the controls of an F16.
All of these gorgeous vignettes unspooled before the 2018 Hurler of the Year, Cian Lynch (or his brilliant, cold-eyed Limerick comrade Aaron Gillane) enter the arena. And with the 2017 MVP and the game’s most stellar name, Joe Canning, continuing his rehabilitation from injury.
So, who, then, in a field dripping with outstanding quality, is hurling’s alpha male?
If there is no definitive answer, if the ballot sheet of candidates seems as lengthy as a sturdy ash tree, the coming weeks offer a chance for somebody to rise up and seize the day.
Lynch, Canning, Gleeson (2016), Reid (2015) and Kelly (2013) all have a Hurler of the Year citation; Horgan has offered a rich harvest of sustained excellence even as Cork endure a 14-year All-Ireland famine.
Bubbles, when the mood takes him, can blur the lines that distinguish between a hurl and a wand.
O’Dwyer has had his lost years, but Sunday’s highlight reel – seven stunning points from play and an assist for John McGrath’s goal that sent gasps of astonishment across the coliseum – suggested a man determined that Liam Sheedy’s second coming will be mirrored by his own.
The odds makers are quoting Reid, a seven-time All-Ireland winner, as a 7/1 favourite to be the player who leaves the deepest signature on the summer.
And if his 2-12 blitzkrieg of the Dubs was overshadowed by Greg Kennedy’s headline-seizing Nowlan Park intervention, still it was a reminder of the 31-year-old’s enduring class and his capacity to bend any contest to his will.
Ten of the last 11 GAA/GPA Hurler of the Year gongs have been awarded to a member of the All-Ireland winning team (Gleeson was the exception). That only Henry Shefflin (in 2002, 2006 and 2012) has won the award more than once over the last 25 years emphasises that no current player has stepped emphatically ahead of the field.
Shefflin, unanswerably, was the greatest of his generation and is widely lauded as – to use an acronym so frequently deployed in the Messi/Ronaldo debate – the GOAT, the greatest of all time.
In this new democratic age, an era of so many gleaming talents, his crown has yet to be seized.
But O’Dwyer and Horgan, Reid and Kelly have posted monumental early notices of intent.
And sounded the starting gun on a race to be the game’s leading man, launching a debate which, however harmless and subjective, offers one more reason to savour the summer ahead.