Sunday 18 March 2018

The great and the good await their final confrontation

Tommy Conlon

Let's have another one next year, shall we, just to complete the trilogy -- same teams, same time, same place?

It could be hurling's own Ali-Frazier triptych, trading blows one final time in a 15-round barnstormer that has both sides out on their feet by the final whistle.

The current rivalry between Kilkenny and Tipperary is just too good to let go. If it takes the great Don King to arrange a third instalment, then Christy Cooney should be ringing the Don's gold-plated phone as we speak.

Last year's thunderous final was instantly deemed a classic and no amount of subsequent video analysis has diminished its stature: it has entered the annals as a stone-cold masterpiece, perhaps the greatest final ever. Last Sunday's renewal was only marginally inferior by comparison; there probably has never been better back-to-back finals.

So, with all due respect to Cork, Galway, Waterford and the rest, the modern Tipp/Kilkenny story -- like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings -- needs a third volume to complete the saga.

As it happens, the third film in the Star Wars trilogy is Return of the Jedi; the third Lord of the Rings book is The Return of the King. Which, obviously, can only mean one thing. When Henry Shefflin limped out of the action in the 13th minute last Sunday, he was setting in motion a chain of events that will culminate in his return to the arena, a year from now, for -- yes -- the final confrontation.

Happily, there is only so far we can go with this analogy. Tipp-Kilkenny is not a battle between the forces of light and darkness. But perhaps it could be framed as a struggle for greatness. Tipperary lost a great match last year and won a great match this year but are not yet a great team. This is a great Kilkenny team, and their defeat last Sunday doesn't change that. And if they end up standing in the way of Tipp in next year's final, they will be standing in the way of Tipp's claim to greatness.

For now, though, Tipp are number one, Kilkenny number two, and until next year's championship comes to pass, we won't be able to say for sure if the torch has been handed on to a new great team.

But, one could see symbols of the handover last Sunday, if one cares to interpret them that way.

Lar Corbett's first goal for example, in the 10th minute, when the contest is just between he and Noel Hickey, as though the rest of the field is deserted and they are shoulder to shoulder on their own.

Hickey has for a decade been an implacable full-back, fearsomely effective in his command of the square. The ball descends out of the sky and Corbett beats him to the grab, not by mullocking him out of the way but by stealth and timing.

It's a joy to watch how Corbett pulls it off: total concentration on the flight of the ball, feet planted, arm in the air, fingers opening to receive the ball just as it lands and closing round it as it plops into the palm of his hand -- like one of those exotic plants that opens suddenly to swallow prey before shutting down again. He has not so much caught the ball as plucked it from the air. The technique is immaculate.

Three minutes later, Shefflin is hobbling across the field, headed towards the sideline, helmet in his hand. Shane McGrath, the Tipp midfielder, is close by and steps over to commiserate, offering a handshake and a pat as the great man departs. A changing of the guard? No, Shefflin is a pro and he'll be back, but it's tempting all the same to see some symbolism in his leaving last Sunday. He'll be 32 next year: bad knee injuries make for serious wear and tear on an ageing machine.

Corbett's early goal was the first breach in the Kilkenny dam, the first sign of trickling water. His second punches another, bigger hole, and more water starts to pour through. Where he had to watch and wait under a long, high ball, Noel McGrath must attack a fast one from midfield, drilled hard and straight; he too kills it in his hand with a superlative catch. His reverse handpass, slapped over the cover, releases Corbett into a space that is eerily vacant. As Corbett strides on, preparing his finish, a hurley comes flying

across his vision. It's an emblematic image, this flying piece of debris, thrown in desperation by a proud Kilkenny defender powerless to do any more.

Two minutes later, McGrath swoops for a third goal and Kilkenny's mighty defence is in disarray.

But you don't slay the dragon without an almighty struggle and the champions rally again, climbing out of the grave to scare the living daylights out of Tipp fans everywhere with a four-point surge.

In the movies there has to be one definitive, symbolic blow, to show the audience that the battle is over at last. Corbett delivers it in the 73rd, driving his shot to the far corner of the net. Visually, it is satisfyingly conclusive: it looks for all the world like the final arrow to the heart.

And with it, the dragon lies dead. But he'll be back for the second sequel, coming next summer, we hope, to a stadium near you.

Sunday Independent

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