Saturday’s televised league matches shone a light on the past. Cork and Kilkenny is the most traditional of pairings, the most common pairing in the All-Ireland hurling championship.
Wexford and Offaly has its own admittedly more modest history in Leinster but any sighting of the midlanders at the top of the game excites reminiscences of times when they were kings and a heartfelt desire that they might once again become part of the game’s elite.
It was a vile night in Chadwick’s Wexford Park. Rain was so heavy there was pooling on the pitch’s surface. Prima facie it didn’t look like an evening for Offaly’s young hurlers to shine but Tipperary wizard Jimmy Doyle used say that bad weather is a blessing for good hurlers.
Offaly’s cussed display, when it looked like the home side had hurdled the loss of Jack O’Connor to a red card after 44 minutes and led by three in the dying minutes, nearly won the match and earned their first point of the season in Division 1A.
The county’s bright flaring at underage and the defeats in minor and under-20 finals respectively by Tipperary, heartbreakingly, and Cork, defiantly, captured the imagination of the hurling world and much is expected in the years ahead.
That can turn promise into a burden but the incremental addition of the youngsters to the more experienced core has produced two decent displays in the league to date, even if the opening fixture against Waterford was undermined by a red card just as the team benefited from Wexford picking up two on Saturday evening.
There was irony in the second sending off being wing-back Charlie McGuckin, son of Shane, who was corner-back when Offaly translated underage success into senior silver, 30 years ago.
He also captained them in 1996, the year that Wexford last claimed the All-Ireland – the transformative win of that campaign coming in the Leinster final when in a late surge they beat Offaly.
The scorer of the goal that was central to Offaly’s recovery on Saturday came from Brian Duignan, son of county chair Michael, who won All-Irelands in both 1994 and ‘98.
It would obviously be exaggeration to try to attach too much significance to this latest meeting.
Offaly have previously produced encouraging league performances that didn’t lead anywhere. Six years ago, they opened the season with a 10-point defeat of Dublin at Croke Park.
A few months later, in the first year of the provincial round robins, they finished the campaign pointless with a double-digit beating at the hands of the same Dublin, were relegated and haven’t been seen since.
On the back of the current league, they will hope for good performances even if results are unlikely to place them in the top division next year. The primary ambition is to get out of the Joe McDonagh this summer and return to the elite Leinster championship.
Down in Cork later on Saturday, the home team had a frustrating evening. Like in their first outing against Clare, they recovered from a bad start to take the break with a more manageable deficit than had looked on the cards for much of the first half.
Having drawn level with Kilkenny and then taken the lead, they had all the momentum and good chances presented themselves. But, in an all too familiar resolution, it was the visiting Cats who snatched the winning point.
Derek Lyng has done really well in the footsteps of Brian Cody to maintain a similar level of husbandry. They have been in the past two All-Ireland finals, even if defeated comfortably by all-conquering Limerick last year.
Yet the clock ticks. It can be very hard for counties who have experienced unparalleled success to manage the transition to renewed challenges.
If Kilkenny don’t win this year’s All-Ireland they will equal the two longest All-Ireland droughts since they chalked up their first in 1904 – the 10 year gaps between 1922 and ‘32, and 1947 and ‘57.
Cork have already walked that path. The landmark 16-year wait for an All-Ireland from 1903 to 1919 was surpassed three years ago. You’d be hard put to find people overly confident that either team will call a halt to the barren runs this summer.
That’s not to say league matches don’t matter. Since Cork’s last All-Ireland win in 2005 they have faced Kilkenny 15 times in the spring, won four and lost 11, including the 2008 walkover when the Cork players were in dispute with their county board.
During that time, it must be remembered that under Cody, the team won eight All-Irelands and seven leagues.
Even the matches won by Cork largely carry an asterisk. Victories in 2010, 2012 and 2019 were followed by defeats in more important matches, at times heavy defeats: All-Ireland semi-final and quarter-final losses in 2010 and ‘19 and a 14-point beating in the 2012 league final, having defeated Kilkenny by two earlier in the campaign.
The one apparently consequence-free win over their rivals was in 2018, a year that Cork could have stopped Limerick’s first All-Ireland had they better protected a six-point lead in the closing minutes.
There was one strike against the head when, after losing to Kilkenny in the 2013 league, Cork turned around and beat their tormentors in that year’s championship quarter-final.
The oddest match was in 2019. It was ordained that the counties should play-off to decide who would be in Division 1A and 1B, a meaningless distinction that tested the integrity of Brain Cody’s belief that all matches were there to be won.
“All I know is we were asked during the week whether we were happy to let one team go into one group and the other go into the other,” he said at the time, “and I certainly would think that would be the sensible thing to do.
“It would be a futile match really but whatever happens, happens.”
Maybe unsurprisingly, what happened was that Cork won.