Historic championship reaches a fitting climax
An All-Ireland hurling championship that has abandoned familiar storylines and predictable plots concludes with a historic September meeting of Cork and Clare at Croke Park this afternoon.
For most of the last 15 years Kilkenny have raced into the stadium for the final lap with nobody else in sight, but this year has been different. The MacCarthy Cup initially looked a dispute between Kilkenny, Galway and Tipperary. All three have long departed.
For 12 of the last 15 years you would have seen Henry Shefflin walk the parade on a day like this as if it were the most natural thing in the world. And it was the most natural thing in the world. His county's hurling has been breathtaking and uncompromising and old, sacred records have turned to dust. This year injuries hobbled their challenge.
Once Kilkenny exited the championship to Cork in Thurles, having earlier faltered in a replay to Dublin, the air became rent with an expectation not experienced for many a day. Not since the 1990s, a liberating period when Clare, Wexford and Offaly won All-Irelands and tradition made way for novelty and new colour. But that poked a reaction in the old oligarchy and soon led to the reinstatement of a traditional establishment power-base: no team outside the big three has won an All-Ireland since Offaly's triumph in 1998.
It might be too early to label this latest upheaval a revolution, for Kilkenny will be challenging vigorously next year, refreshed and seeking redress, and Tipperary – for all their recent woe – would fancy it against any county on any given day. But there are signs that hurling is beginning to flap its wings again and hope is a little more universal.
Waterford and Limerick have had promising days out, and while Galway slipped, today sees the customary presence of their minors, welded to the hip of Mattie Murphy. Laois made some strides and Offaly too. Antrim's under 21s are in the All-Ireland final next weekend. Wexford won the under 21 competition in Leinster.
And for all that splash of new colour today's final features Cork, hardly a hurling parvenu. They are managed by Jimmy Barry-Murphy, who will need no road map to get to Jones's Road, and they have a bounce and a familiar confidence that has seen them installed as slight favourites and the tip of most pundits. They defeated today's opponents Clare by eight points in June.
Five years ago Davy Fitzgerald, who has a temper and agitation setting to match Rumpelstiltskin, brought Waterford to this point as their manager. They were destroyed by Kilkenny. He will be a wiser counsel for his young players today as Clare seek to win a first senior title since 1997 when he stood in goal and made a vital late save from John Leahy.
At the summer's infancy Cork were long odds to be here but they are Cork and not short on confidence or a sense of belonging. It is a timeless Cork trait and brings to mind a story told by a man who was residing in a guesthouse in Cork a few years ago.
One evening he was invited to join other guests at the homeowner's request for tea. They were shown to a comfortable reading room with a big fire and some soft chairs set around a coffee table. Soon a young man arrived with a tray stacked with scones and heaving with delph. He looked under some strain as he strived to land everything safely on to the table below. My friend noticed his discomfort and offered to help.
"I'm grand," the young man replied, declining his offer of assistance, then helpfully explaining: "I'm from Cork."