Saturday 17 March 2018

The All Black and Ambers

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The last blast from Brian Gavin's whistle at Pairc Ui Chaoimh on Sunday evening brought the hurling championship to the cusp of the half-way point.

The race for the Liam MacCarthy Cup incorporates 25 games and the end of the Cork/Tipperary Munster semi-final concluded the championship's 12th game.

On the face of it it looks like a decent championship. The three games in Munster have been decided by a cumulative total of seven points, four separating Tipperary and Limerick in the preliminary round, two between Waterford and Clare in the first semi-final and just a point by the Lee last weekend. On that basis, the most storied provincial championship of them all is alive and well, it appears.

In Leinster, Westmeath have toppled Antrim and Galway have served up 10 goals in two games, their semi-final against Offaly producing eight alone.

But before anyone loses the run of themselves about the great championship it is turning out to be, the elephant in the room has to be factored in. Kilkenny's dominance is becoming so overwhelming that it is rendering the rest of the hurling landscape a veritable black market. To compete, the rest must simply exist in the underworld away from the champions' gaze. Can anyone dare to dream aloud in hurling any more without risk of retribution?

Of all the beatings dished out by the Cats in recent years, Saturday night's damp squib in Portlaoise was probably the most significant of all.

There have been heavier reversals in league and championship over the last five years since Kilkenny decided that extermination was a legitimate policy in dealing with opponents.

But the rising tide that was Dublin hurling had to be dealt with and, after six months listening to talk of the brutal collision that would occur at O'Moore Park, the strength and conditioning work that Dublin had engaged in with this fixture in mind, and their capacity to compete aerially and physically, Kilkenny were primed and ready.

It was hard to avoid the parallels between what sporting TV viewers were treated to within a few hours last Saturday. Those who rose early to watch an Ireland rugby team with ambition and hope of a landmark victory after going so close in their previous match were treated to a most ruthless display by a side slighted at the pretense that they might be vulnerable and open to challenge.

Those who stayed by the remote control and switched to Portlaoise some hours later watched a different game in a different land but with the very same mindset and ruthlessness take hold.

You wished for mercy in both cases but it didn't come.

Comparisons between Kilkenny and New Zealand are not new, but for those few hours on Saturday they never seemed more relevant.

One of the last times Ger Loughnane publicly mentioned Kilkenny hurlers and New Zealand in the same sentence it caused quite a storm.

In a Radio na Gaeltachta interview prior to the 2007 All-Ireland final, Loughnane suggested that, like other great teams, the All Blacks being his example, Kilkenny lived on the edge of the rules.

Brian Cody would respond the following day, after their success over Limerick, by describing Loughnane as "a lunatic from Clare talking rubbish at the moment".

On Saturday evening Loughnane drew the analogy between the All Blacks and Kilkenny once again but this time in much more glowing terms than just the 'edge' they exist on.

Where do the superlatives stop for this Kilkenny team? Every time they go out on to a hurling field they seem to reach a higher plane.

How does a player like Richie Doyle, in his first ever championship start, deliver such an accurate impression of JJ Delaney? Just as Sam Kane did one of Richie McCaw in his first start on Saturday morning.

The jersey empowers players. It empowered Paul Murphy in 2011, when he began the season as a championship debutant and ended it as an All Star.

The evidence suggests that this Kilkenny team may actually be getting better. Twelve months ago, Jackie Tyrrell struggled against Wexford and JJ Delaney had his moments against Dublin in last year's Leinster final. Both were imperious on Saturday night, showing not a hint of vulnerability or ageing legs.

Brian Hogan has perhaps enjoyed the greatest individual leap of improvement over the last four years. But the thrust for this latest Kilkenny surge is coming from players who have served long apprenticeships in recent years.

TJ Reid couldn't command a starting place in last year's All-Ireland final, having scored four points off the bench in the final against Waterford three years earlier. Richie Hogan hasn't always measured up to the criteria required from the sideline.

Yet they are growing into the team almost in tandem, living and playing by the template set out by those before them.

Speaking about Hogan prior to the league final in May, Cody indicated that the broken ribs and punctured lung he had sustained against Galway four weeks earlier were healing ahead of schedule.

It was quite a dramatic recovery from such a serious injury. Perhaps Hogan knew he just had to get better.

"What I liked about it," said Cody, "was he wanted to play with his club on Sunday. I would admire him for that."

The current strength of Kilkenny hurling has its advantages in rising the standards of the chasing pack. Technically and physically the game has probably never been in better shape.

But Kilkenny's magnificence has just thieved the intrigue from it. It has made it such a smaller place.

Irish Independent

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