Ciarán Murphy: All Blacks’ domination provides a lesson for all
GAA has had its own powerhouse sides in the last 15 years
Was Brian Cody’s towering Kilkenny team good for hurling? Photograph: Eric Luke
Watching the All Blacks play rugby this year has been like listening to the first 10 singles released by the Beatles. Everything you saw was so deceptively simple, had such clarity of thought, it was baffling to think they were the only ones capable of doing it at that standard.
Their domination of world rugby is now so complete that people are beginning to despair of ever seeing them lose a game again. The feeling I had after watching them win the World Cup final just over a year ago in Twickenham was that we had just seen the last reason for them not crushing all before them in the sport disappear.
As long as they continued to choke in World Cups not held in their own country, there was hope for us all. As soon as they had that monkey off their back, so the last of their mortality would be shed, and they would really begin to soar. Since the World Cup final, they’ve won every game they’ve played in. They made a mockery of the Rugby Championship, winning all six games with a bonus point, with an average winning margin of 29.66 points. Yes, that’s winning margin.
Keep in mind that the other three teams in the Rugby Championship are the three other semi-finalists from last year’s World Cup. Ireland are next in the firing line, and no-one gives them a prayer.
New Zealand are a shining exemplar to everyone else involved in the sport . . . but does total domination of a sport really raise all boats, or does it only quell interest in the biggest competitions in the game?
The GAA has had to deal with that quite a bit in the last 15 years.
Kilkenny’s domination of the hurling landscape was utterly comprehensive, to the extent that their shadow fell over many a Munster championship game that wasn’t thought of a sufficient standard to match them. “We wouldn’t keep it pucked out to Kilkenny playing like that.”
So have Kilkenny, hurling’s greatest ever team, been good for hurling? Henry Shefflin has been good for hurling – and so has Tommy Walsh, and JJ Delaney, and the rest of them. Of course they have.
But it’s hardly a surprise that the 2013 All-Ireland championship is still looked on as the best summer of hurling since the turn of the millennium. The quality of the games throughout that summer brooks no argument, but it would hardly still be looked on as a rare breath of fresh air if it had ended with Kilkenny securing another three-in-a-row.
Twice now in the last six years we’ve seen Tipperary raise their game to untold heights to take them down decisively in an All-Ireland final . . . but too many managers in different counties have out-thought themselves in an attempt to steel their teams for Kilkenny. Would the game have developed in a different way if the spectre of Kilkenny didn’t hang over every new manager’s January plans?
The challenge for 31 football teams this winter is to come up with something to beat Dublin and ensure they don’t start stretching away from the field too. I’m one of a dwindling few, it appears, who do not see Dublin dominating for years.
They have yet to go to town on All-Ireland final day to the extent that Kilkenny did in 2007 and 2008 against Limerick and Waterford. And for those two years, no one got within touching distance – Kilkenny’s average winning margin in 2007 was 11 points. In 2008, it was almost 17.
We’re not there yet with the Dubs, not outside Leinster at any rate, and I don’t see it happening while Mayo and Kerry are around.
The deadening effect of serial winners is made worse when it seems as if the team in question has a unique advantage over its opponents that it is only now beginning to harness. In Kilkenny, it’s their refusal to play football, and the subsequent monotheistic harmony between schools, clubs and county board.
In Dublin, it’s money and population. In New Zealand, they’ve often been this good – but now they’ve learned how to frank that form on a world stage. Not alone are they successful, it seems like they’re set fair to just always be successful. There doesn’t appear to be light at the end of the tunnel.
In the short term, utter domination can be pretty deflating for everyone on the opposite side. But having a pack full of players that can throw a pass farther than a yard can be the lesson you learn while the All Blacks are hammering you.
A brutal marriage of first touch, aerial ability and physicality will be Brian Cody’s gift to the game, and the last four games of the All-Ireland championship this year suggest the game is more enthralling than ever as a result. Unpalatable as it may seem, sometimes the only way you’ll learn is at the feet of the masters.