Kilkenny wobbles gave glimmer of hope to long-suffering rivals
SIDELINE CUT:They’re back! Just like that, we have reached the spring Sunday when the redoubtable men in black and amber trundle on to some field or other and hurling people across the country take a deep breath and remember once again that they are living in Kilkenny Time.
This year the All-Ireland champions open their league campaign with a visit to Salthill and a renewal of rivalries with Galway, the team they vanquished in last September’s showpiece. Kilkenny’s All-Ireland victories have come gift-wrapped in all sorts of packaging down the years but last year’s performance was particularly affirmative as if made their defeat in the Leinster final seem unreal and irrelevant. Remember how electrifying that result felt at the time?
Those of us who were at the Gaelic Grounds that day for what turned out to be a one-sided Munster football final between Cork and Clare could see the ripple of surprise through the crowd as news came from Croke Park: the Cats were not just being beaten in the provincial final, they were being plundered.
We made it to a nearby hotel for the second half, and in Limerick that afternoon the neutrals were shouting not so much for Galway but for liberation. That day was surely evidence that Kilkenny were weakening. It had been Limerick’s misfortune to embark on a valorous championship run in 2007, an adventure that came to a shuddering halt in the first 15 minutes of the All-Ireland final against Kilkenny.
No hurling team was capable of living with the Cats that year and what they did to Waterford the following September was grimmer still. The All-Ireland hurling championship was distilled into the old Kilkenny-Tipp rivalry for the next three Septembers and when the dust settled, the Cats had still won two out of three All-Irelands and appeared more resolute and settled than ever, while Tipp, it seemed, would have to start again.
So the unstoppable heroics of Galway, who have always represented an unstable chemical proposition in Brian Cody’s mind, was a relief. Nobody could come out and say it but everyone was delighted. The Cats had been beaten: that gave everyone else a chance. And so people waited to see if Tipperary would finish them off in the All-Ireland semi-final. And even if the sight of Kilkenny holding Tipperary to that lonely, accusatory one point in the entire second half made the blood run cold slightly, well, it didn’t change things. Kilkenny had been beaten once: they were mortal. They could be beaten again.
How close did Galway come in the All-Ireland final? That has been the uneasy question hanging over the maroon county in the 4½ months since they duelled with Kilkenny over those two memorable Sundays.
You have to remember that their fear of this modern Kilkenny team has never run quite as deeply as it does in other counties. Their unique place in the hurling world – a land-locked island of hurling excellence – has meant that they have always been capable of summoning perfect summer storms on hurling fields and they ruined Kilkenny harvests in 2001 and 2005. The pyrotechnics they unleashed in the Leinster final, when they left Kilkenny looking helpless for the first time in two decades, seemed like further proof that they had the right stuff.