Tuesday 28 January 2020

Vincent Hogan: The day that changed the face of hurling

18 August 2002; Kilkenny manager Brian Cody has a word with D.J. Carey prior to the start of the match. Kilkenny v Tipperary, All Ireland Hurling Semi - Final, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE
18 August 2002; Kilkenny manager Brian Cody has a word with D.J. Carey prior to the start of the match. Kilkenny v Tipperary, All Ireland Hurling Semi - Final, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In Cork, they hold themselves responsible for creating what Donal Og Cusack calls the "monster" of Brian Cody's Kilkenny. The 2006 All-Ireland final was a tipping point in the history of both counties.

Cork went into that game seeking the immortality that comes to three-in-a-row teams and a victory that would, almost certainly, have created the impetus for change in Kilkenny. But they got none of those wishes, of course, and have not won a trophy since.

Cody, meanwhile, keeps stockpiling, dominating the game like no personality before. In a gently Stalinist way, we now even tend to write the concept of struggle out of Kilkenny's story. They have separated themselves from the rest of the game to an extent that we almost neglect to see them as flesh and bone any more.

Yet, it is in the rigour of their modern rivalry with Tipperary that Kilkenny have maybe best articulated their greatness.

If Cork regard that '06 final as a defining moment, Tipp might equally point to the decision of one Denis Joseph Carey to return from a year's exile in '02 as the critical fork in the road. For DJ was the difference against Nicky English's team in a wonderful All-Ireland semi-final that year, despite not having played inter-county hurling since the previous season's defeat by Galway.

Injuries, an appendix operation and heavy work commitments had all compromised his fitness that summer, but Cody invited him back onto the panel after watching Kilkenny struggle to put Wexford away in a goalless Leinster final.

The teams would be level nine times in that '02 epic before DJ's electric burst of acceleration and perfect offload set up Jimmy Coogan for the decisive 59th-minute goal.

It is surely legitimate to wonder where Cody might have been today had Carey not answered the manager's call. Because, if English's Tipp had won that game en route to retaining the All-Ireland, it is unimaginable that there wouldn't have been repercussions within Kilkenny.

That '02 triumph was only their second championship win over Tipp in 80 years and their first since '67. It mattered to Kilkenny. But then, beating Tipp always does.

It is hardly coincidence that the two best league finals of the last decade were the '03 and '09 battles between these counties.

The '03 one came less than a month after Tipp had ended Kilkenny's 13-month unbeaten run in league and championship, Ger 'Redser' O'Grady scoring 1-6 from play in a Nowlan Park contest that Noel Hickey won't recall fondly. Typically, Hickey found a little more salt in his hurling for the final, seeing 'Redser' off the premises early, without a score to his name.

And you easily forget the context to the '09 final, an extraordinarily intense battle that stretched into extra-time.

Kilkenny won that game too, but the real headline of the occasion was in seeing Tipp throw a retaliatory punch on behalf of the rest of hurling. Just seven weeks earlier, they had been trounced by 17 points in Nowlan Park, Kilkenny rampaging through their Division 1 campaign with a succession of double-digit victories.

There was a growing sense of futility as they relentlessly laid waste to the opposition, having – of course – beaten Waterford 3-30 to 1-13 in the previous year's All-Ireland final.

So seeing Tipp hurl with Dante's anger that day in Thurles struck a redemptive blow for the game itself. Later that year, the two counties would produce one of the greatest contests of all time in the first of three successive All-Ireland final meetings.

Kilkenny and Tipp, thus, came to define those hurling championships of 2009, 2010 and 2011. They just took the game to a higher altitude.

And it is all too seductive now to see tomorrow's business in Nowlan Park as a signpost to all that will be relevant this summer. Galway have been either purposefully dragging their heels this spring or wrestling with delayed grief.

It is impossible to make a logical All-Ireland argument for any county outside those big three. Clare and Limerick are growing palpably. Waterford continue to make punditry the industry of fools. Cork, in this writer's view, are nowhere near as sickly as they keep being told.

But Kilkenny, even in the temporary absence of their great patriarch, still appear to be setting the early-season pace. Losing the league final at Nowlan Park would clearly hurt their pride. Losing to Tipperary would offend it.

Next chapter then in the book we can't put down.

Irish Independent

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