Saturday 25 November 2017

Heavy hitters go the distance

Eamonn Sweeney

Today for the first time in history the same two counties will contest the hurling final for a third year in a row. You might have thought that somewhere along the line Kilkenny and Cork or Kilkenny and Tipp would have compiled a similar hat-trick but this is actually the first time it's happened.

The question is whether this unique occurrence has come about because today's contestants tower above their contemporaries by dint of sheer greatness or whether their task has been made much easier by a lack of strength in depth elsewhere. And the answer is that we won't know until the end of today's game. Because, more than ever, we'll be looking at the final to impart meaning to the championship season.

To a certain extent we may even be looking to the final to rescue the season. Because, for the second year in a row, the pairing which 99 per cent of supporters would have predicted has transpired. And whereas last year their route to the final was lent a certain unpredictability by Tipperary's loss to Cork and close shave against Galway, there's been something routine about this year's procession.

The suspicions that Kilkenny might be a team in decline are still marked 'not proven' because everything up to today has had the aura of a Phoney War about it. The Munster championship was yet again a series of skirmishes which proved irrelevant to the bigger picture. There was a sense of desperation in the way that the performances of Cork and Clare against Tipperary were frantically talked up at the beginning of the summer. In due course Galway would prove just how ordinary the Rebels and the Banner were this year and Tipp would prove, at the expense of Waterford, just how big the gap was between them and everyone else in the province when they were minded to exert themselves fully.

Galway showed themselves up as a team in reverse against both Dublin and Waterford. Waterford's current standing is illustrated by the fact that everyone agreed Kilkenny looked poor in the All-Ireland semi-final but at no stage was the result in doubt. And while Dublin did tremendously well to reach the last four and gave a great account of themselves in the semi-final against Tipp, they never really looked like they were going to dethrone the champions, did they?

The underage conveyor belt which has moved menacingly into view seems to indicate a senior All-Ireland in Dublin's future but that halcyon day is a couple of years away yet. And for all the strides made by Limerick this year, does anyone seriously think they'll be All-Ireland contenders next season?

Which leaves us with the big two. Or, in a strange way, leaves us with Kilkenny. Because we pretty much know what we're going to get from Tipperary today. We know where they stand, they are a very good team nearing their peak, a team of sublime skill which overturns old clichés about the essential importance of brute force to the county's hurling make-up. In fact the only doubt about the team is the one raised by Dublin: might the brilliant ball-players of the Tipperary attack struggle to win possession if closed down by an unremittingly physical defence?

It would seem that Kilkenny's best hope of upsetting the odds today lies in replicating something like the frantic atmosphere of the 2006 final when they banjaxed Cork's hopes of three in a row. This is a game Kilkenny can play because, although the county possesses its own hallowed cliché about Black and Amber success deriving solely from style and sparkle, there is another tradition in the county, the steely inheritance bequeathed by the likes of Diamond Hayden, Link Walsh, Dick O'Hara, John Henderson and Eddie O'Connor. It was there in the crushing early hits of the 2009 final and it is always present in the game of someone like Tommy Walsh who, given that he also possesses phenomenal touch and artistry, is in a way the perfect Kilkenny hurler.

Chances are that the more open today's game is, the more Tipperary will prosper. It's unlikely that Kilkenny have it in them to win a shoot-out. They're in the same position that Muhammad Ali found himself in when he travelled to Kinshasa to meet George Foreman. Ali had been the greatest, the strongest, the quickest and the bravest but time had moved on and he found himself against an opponent who hit harder than him, who was younger than him and who possessed the ability to do serious damage and tarnish the old champion's legacy. If people gave Ali a chance it was only because of a sneaking feeling engendered by their having seen him come through so many times in the past.

Kilkenny are in the Ali position today. Because the fact that Tipperary are rated as favourites by the bookies and most pundits means that last year's result was not viewed as a momentary aberration before normal service was resumed but as a seismic shift in the hurling landscape, a fundamental change in momentum. And despite the relative youth of the likes of Michael Fennelly, TJ Reid, Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly, the team is still backboned by hurlers of a certain age.

Henry Shefflin, like John Doyle before him, has now played in All-Ireland finals in three decades, his first appearance coming in 1999. Noel Hickey played in his first final the following year. JJ Delaney has been on the go since 2001 and Tommy Walsh since 2003. Brian Hogan is 30, Jackie Tyrrell is 29. In their day there was no opponent these men could not master. But even the very greatest of players, or Henry Shefflin as he's also known, can't get the better of time. At least not indefinitely. Kilkenny are not as good as they were three, four or five years ago. However, like Ali they have almost unlimited quantities

of experience and guile which can help disguise that. They can slow down the pace, they can cut down the size of the ring, they can counterpunch.

Will this be enough? If it is, it will be perhaps Brian Cody's sweetest victory and definitely his greatest managerial achievement. Because since they won their fourth title in a row Kilkenny have seemed a diminished force. That 2009 victory over Tipp confirmed the Cats as the greatest team in hurling history. Yet you'd still have to give the palm for greatest team in GAA history to Mick O'Dwyer's Kerry footballers. Not only did they win four in a row, they came back again and added three on the trot. They weren't as great as they had been but they were good enough.

Last year Tipp were the team with the intrigue surrounding them. We wondered if they'd kicked on from 2009 and found on the day that they had. Now we wonder if Kilkenny can kick back. If they can't, and it proves that the team is conclusively over the hill, then it will stand as an indictment of the current state of the game that they were still good enough to ease through to the final without a serious challenge.

But if they can? Then we could have a classic and the mediocre months which preceded it will melt away in the memory. And the prospect of a fourth Tipp-Kilkenny final on the trot will seem mouth-watering rather than wearying.

Seconds out. Round three. Who'll float like a butterfly and sting like a bee?

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