Eamonn Sweeney: Glorious uncertainty returns
Hold the Back Page
We appear to have a genuine All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship again. Not the one where the only questions are how many winner's medals will this make it for Henry Shefflin or whether, maybe, possibly, perhaps, Tipperary can stop Kilkenny. But a proper one like we used to have back in the days when the economy was booming, no one was on Twitter and the word 'drummer' meant a musician rather than someone you'd like to hang from the nearest lamp-post by his entrails.
A fundamental change has taken place, most graphically demonstrated by a Munster final pairing we haven't had in 33 years. There is the shocking scenario of a number of teams in contention for the ultimate prize. And fans have the unfamiliar and hugely welcome feeling of not really knowing what's going to happen in the next match. Happy days.
Limerick's win over Tipperary has been the most dramatic example of this paradigm shift. Though even that result would have been conclusively trumped had Dublin kept their defensive composure for a few more seconds against Kilkenny in Portlaoise. All the same, Anthony Daly's men underlined just how unwise it is to take anything for granted in this year's competition. As did Cork when confirming against Clare that rumours of their demise had been greatly exaggerated.
The Banner, though it may not feel like it right now, made a significant step forward by notching a first win in the Munster championship since 2008. And great credit is due to Offaly and Laois who, by refusing to go down to the predicted annihilations against Kilkenny and Galway, have also added to the impression of a championship wonderfully and unexpectedly charged with competitive vigour.
The normally predictable nature of the hurling championship had led to it taking something of a back seat to the football championship. Perhaps that's why the hurling renaissance has slipped under the radar while pundits have focused on the perceived structural failings of the football championship. Because recently football, whatever the quality of the fare on offer, has had an enormous edge over hurling in terms of competitiveness. It was where the real action was. Not for much longer.
The levelling off in this year's championship should have been apparent to anyone who heeded the lessons of the hurling league. That gave us the incredible spectacle of a final day on which each of the six teams in the top flight had a chance of either making the semi-finals or being relegated. Never has a National League come so close to attaining that cherished American goal of 'parity.' Not only were there just two points between Tipperary at the top of the table and Clare at the bottom, but the best points difference in the division, Tipp's plus 10, was just over two points a game better than the worst, Waterford's minus five.
That the old firm of Kilkenny and Tipperary ended up in the final misled some pundits into thinking that their hegemony would continue in this year's championship. I remember reading a ridiculous article to this effect by . . . let me check the lad's name for a second here. Eamonn Sweeney. There he was, cocksure that it would be business as usual. What a moron. Because there can be no doubt that the league campaign did presage a significant levelling off in standard, one which promises the kind of championship we haven't seen since 2005 when Cork, Galway, Clare and Kilkenny all entered the semi-finals with genuine title pretensions.
There can no longer be any doubt that Kilkenny are in decline. The evidence was there in last year's Leinster final against Galway and, perhaps even more so, in the drawn All-Ireland final where there was no chance of the champions taking Anthony Cunningham's team lightly. Galway to a large extent threw victory away that day and, looked at in hindsight, the snaffling of a second title in a row by a misfiring team required a remarkable feat of management by Brian Cody.
This year's opening Leinster championship games showed that decline has probably accelerated. It's understandable. Even the greatest team of all time, which is what Kilkenny are, can't go on forever. The Cats are now in a strikingly similar situation to the Kerry football team which won eight titles in the 12 years between1975 and 1986.
Kerry were caught out by Offaly while going for five in a row in 1982 just as Kilkenny were prevented from completing a quintet by Tipp in 2010. And just as Kerry never looked the same team after Seamus Darby did his thing, Kilkenny haven't seemed quite so invincible since Lar Corbett's hat-trick. Yet, and here's the rub, Kerry still possessed enough skill and guile to bounce back and win another three All-Irelands in a row from 1984 to 1986. And a three-in-a-row is what Kilkenny are aiming for this year. They may be much diminished but the remnants of genuine greatness, as Kerry found out, can still be enough to get you home.
The difference now is that there is nothing inevitable about such a victory and that their rivals have lost the fear of Kilkenny which seemed to infect their performances in the past. Offaly showed the current porousness of the Cats' defence while Dublin exposed the relative weakness of their attack in comparison with other years. They appear to be there for the taking.
Whether they will be taken is another matter. Tipperary are eminently capable of bouncing back as they did in 2010 but Limerick may not have received sufficient credit for their semi-final victory. John Allen's laid-back style tends to hide his considerable substance as a manager. In 2006 he did, after all, come within a few points of becoming the first Cork manager in nearly 30 years to steer the county to back-to-back All-Ireland victories. Bringing the game's great under-achievers to only their third provincial final in 16 years is an achievement in itself, but Limerick give the impression of having more in the tank.
As do Cork. The blanket dismissal of their hopes before the Clare game had the quality of a mass hallucination about it. The team had, after all, made considerable progress last year to reach an All-Ireland semi-final where they gave a good account of themselves. Yet Jimmy Barry-Murphy, who like Allen belongs to the very exclusive club of managers who have won All-Irelands since Brian Cody took the job in Kilkenny, found himself being derided as some kind of out-of-touch fossil in comparison to managers who've never actually won anything of significance.
Similarly, their trainer David Matthews was forced to listen to speculation that Cork weren't fit at all which must have been a bitter pill to swallow for a former Olympic 800m semi-finalist, given the normal willingness of pundits to believe any self-publicist who tells them he's found the secret of GAA fitness. Seán óg ó hAilpín's vulturously opportunistic intervention added to the pressure on Cork.
In fact, it must have reminded JBM of the run-up to the 1999 Munster semi-final against Waterford when it was widely predicted that an inexperienced Rebel side would lose and cost him his job. We know what happened after that.
Repeating 1999 may be a step too far for Cork right now, they don't have a phenomenal central figure in the Brian Corcoran mould for starters, but they're getting there. And so are Clare. Their flatness of performance so far has been the great mystery of the championship but the rich seam of young talent represented by two All-Ireland under 21 finals in the last four years will surely pay dividends.
Galway, of course, are the great proof that underage success doesn't necessarily translate into achievement at senior level and the slobberiness of their performance against Laois was ominously reminiscent of past sins. Yet the experience of two All-Ireland finals last year can only have brought them on and they remain the most obvious challengers. The air of mystery about them should be dispelled one way or another in the Leinster final.
The really exciting thing is that like Limerick, Clare, Cork and Dublin, Galway have huge potential for improvement. Given decent management an All-Ireland victory should be within the compass of all these sides in the coming years.
Which, given the monotonous nature of the championship of late, is a tremendous prospect. We need the rest of the decade to be more like the nineties than the noughties.
The omens are good. Championship 2013 has a chance of being terrific. But Championship 2015? Now that should be one of the great ones.