The summer of magical hurling
There are only two counties standing after a sparkling season, but few neutrals (or experts) expected those teams to be Cork and Clare
No-one saw this coming. Three months ago, most of us would have agreed with Enda McEvoy’s call that it was going to be the same old dog and pony show with Kilkenny and Tipperary hurling into September. “The gap between Kilkenny and Tipp looks bridgeable”, McEvoy reckoned as the Championship beckoned. “The gap between the pair of them and the pack does not.”
As the advice given to London tube commuters and drovers moving cattle from haggard to field goes, mind the gap. Neither favourite made it to August and, partisan countymen and women aside, neither team are really missed from this year’s narrative. After the dominance of Kilkenny in recent times, hurling badly needed some new stories and they were provided by the dozen. Hell, there was even a brand new chapter lobbed on top with the recent semi-finals, where everyone’s anticipated Limerick/Dublin final pairing was firmly shouldered into touch by Cork and Clare. There are only two teams standing and any neutral who has a betting slip from May with either name on it deserves a pat on the back.
Aside from the results, it has been a year of sparkles and shines on the pitch. Nearly every game has been worthy of note with sublime skill, superb stickmanship and fantastic bursts of hurling prowess on show on any given Sunday (or Saturday evening). There’s been tension aplenty, but it’s the manner in which the winning teams each week have come up to and surpassed the mark which has kept this one going. Even those of us with either Tipp or Kilkenny birthrights have to concede that it’s been truly awesome to behold.
The fallen soldiers from the last fortnight are probably too busy licking their wounds to join in that chorus of hosannas just yet. The beaten provincial champs can blame many things for their sidelining, from the lengthy break between matches to hype to nerves, but those self-penned blame reports will miss the bigger picture. In the end, they were just not good enough.
In the case of Dublin, they were able to stay with Cork for most of the match and score for score. But 14 men haven’t been able to beat 15 men this summer and that was the real difference in the end. A hotheaded player and, boom, there it is. Dublin’s Leinster win was a huge step forward and a confidence booster and you have to hope that Anthony Daly remains around to see them take the next inevitable step. They’ll be back for sure.
Limerick, on the other hand, were simply outhurled, out-fought and out-thought at every turn. Those Clare kids were just way too good for Limerick and had more hunger and backbone. Forget about Davy Fitz vs John Allen. All the former’s jumping and leaping doesn’t put points over the bar, while the latter’s cool, clinical approach wasn’t enough to protect his players from the insane, overblown, misplaced county-wide and continental-sized expectations since the Munster final. This came down to better players hitting their stride and holding their nerve. A mere handful of wides by the winners versus a calamity of misses for the losers is well worth noting and underlining. That’s what wins matches.
The earlier scalps too deserve a sensitive toe-poke or, in a few cases, a more determined kick in the hoop. Kilkenny tumbled against both Dublin and Cork as the door began to close on an era. It was obvious from the Cork match that Brian Cody had ran out of options and didn’t quite trust what was looking back at him from his bench. The reliance on the warhorses who have served him well over the years is all very well, but this was the summer of a different class of hurling. His loyalists may be throwing the blame left, right and centre, but the truth is they couldn’t cope with what was thrown at them.
In years gone by, teams competed with Kilkenny by playing a Kilkenny game – this time out, scripts were flipped, teams hurled at them and not with them and Kilkenny fluffed their lines. It will be fascinating to see if there’s a Cody and Henry Shefflin angle to 2014′s plot. If there is to be, there had better be some new, more nimble, fleeter-of-foot characters in there too. It’s all very well to plan for one last hurrah or comeback, but let’s be realistic. What happened this season wasn’t Bobby Ewing in Dallas – it really happened.
Tipperary’s season was, in a phrase which some of OTR’s hurling email exclusive circle will chuckle at, a total bust. There wasn’t one winning card in the pack. A few decent shows – Jason Forde in the Kilkenny game, John O’Dwyer against Limerick – but that was it. It wasn’t just Tipp’s slacker tendencies which haunted Eamon O’Shea in June, but the sheer lack of ability to live with and put away Limerick. The latter were fired-up and the losers didn’t even have a match to hand. That game against a wounded Kilkenny in Nowlan Park was probably a bit like watching two former heavyweight champs punching out the lights one more time for the neutrals. For the Tipp constituency jowl by jowl with Kilkennymen in that bearpit, it was the second time to leave the Marble City in 2013 probably grateful that it was a beating and not a mauling.
There’ll always be 2014. Jesus, don’t talk about 2014, I hear many saying. It’s really difficult to see where and how Tipp can regroup from here. The under-21s don’t offer much hope at the moment and they were just not able to cope with a rampant, rampaging, red-in-tooth-and-claw Clare the other week. If there are any untapped superstars out in the west, north, mid or south, people should let O’Shea know ASAP c/o Semple Stadium. The overall game has changed mightily this year and relying on a plan which paid out in 2010 is just not cricket (or hurling). Look at Munster even: who’d bet against Limerick, Clare, Cork or even Waterford bringing home the bacon next year? Tipp have come back before so it can be done, though it might take a season or two.
Galway – fecking Galway. The permanent also-rans had another so-so season. For all our admiration of the county’s hurling and the way they dealt with Kilkenny in the 2012 Leinster final, it still comes down to the fact that it’s about Joe Canning and, well, that’s it. You can’t win a campaign by relying on one lad, no matter how talented he is. Fact. Waterford ran the scalded Cats close, but not close enough in the end. The players-versus-manager story there may indicate that they’ve a heavy-duty off-the-pitch few months ahead. Then again, the players weren’t happy with Davy Fitz either. I’m looking forward to seeing what becomes of Lee Chin and the Wexford under-21s and that’s something for the future for sure. Likewise, Offaly and Laois have reasons to look back on ’13 with some degree of contentment. Disgraces were avoided, after all.
And so to the final in a few Sundays’ time. Two teams standing, 15 versus 15. Two colourful, charismatic managers on the sideline, shouting (or f***ing screaming, in one case) the odds. The form book may look to their earlier meeting in Munster but the form book has been thrown out the dressingroom window this season so don’t expect Clare to make the same mistakes they did on that day. As the season has progressed, they’ve progressed. Cork too have come at this the hard way and those games against Kilkenny and Dublin have done wonders for them and their game. There’s little between them, though you get the feeling that the Corkmen are a mite cocky about this one, which is never a good look on Leeside. The hype didn’t cross the Shannon from Limerick to Clare, but went in the other direction.
The traditionalists will go for the Rebels and all their pomp; the romantics will cheer the Bannermen to reign supreme and supply a happy-ever-after outcome. The rest of us will just hope that it will be a game to put a suitable fitting cap on what has been a fantastic, upsidedown, insideout, capsized, topsy-turvy spectacular of a season. The cliche has it that hurling is the big winner in all of this and, as often happens, the cliche has it down pat. This summer of magical hurling deserves a big send-off.