In the end, a unique year has birthed a unique final. Limerick didn't exactly strip the paint off the walls in overcoming Galway but they did enough to see their way through, setting up a first ever final meeting between themselves and Waterford. Two of the game's most rabid sets of supporters will have to make do with watching hurling's day of days from their couches.
They came out on the right end of a 0-27 to 0-24 scoreline and if you think that looks like a slightly odd formulation of numbers, you're not wrong. According to the indefatigable GAA Stats Twitter account, it's the highest scoring goalless game in the history of the championship. This was partly down to the efforts of Galway goalkeeper Éanna Murphy who endured a torrid day on his puck-outs but made up for it with three saves from Limerick forwards.
But mostly it was down to the arms-length style of play of the two sides, both of whom generally favour the tick-tick-tick of points over the boom of a goal. Galway didn’t threaten one all night, while two of Limerick’s three were half-chances that Murphy would have been inconsolable not to have saved.
It all added up to a fairly sterile encounter. No-goal hurling is one thing, no-goal hurling in an empty Croke Park is another. Galway kept Pádraic Mannion as their sweeper, leaving two on three in their inside forward line. Conor Whelan and Brian Concannon made the best of it early on but Limerick turned everything around after the water break and took complete control of the game.
"Coming into that water break we were beginning to find a bit more rhythm and we probably would have preferred to keep it going," said John Kiely afterwards. "We were getting into it at that stage and finding our range. Maybe some of this is coincidental as well, that a water break comes just when you are actually getting a foothold in the game."
Whatever changed, it was Limerick's game now. Morrissey and Hegarty were rampant – albeit a little too rampant in Hegarty's case considering he pulled across Joe Canning's back at one stage. Referee James Owens didn't see it and neither did his linesman, so it will be worth keeping an eye on what the authorities make of it over the coming days.
One way or the other, Galway were hanging in there through a mixture of Concannon's wit in and around the skirmishes and some Canning magic from sideline balls. Canning would end the night on a stretcher, taken from the field with concussion after a collision with Joseph Cooney. RTÉ were reporting last night that he was recovering and happily had no serious neck damage.
While on the pitch he lit up the game by scoring four sideline cuts. To watch him do it was to be reminded that we take what he does with these sideline balls for granted. It goes without saying that nobody has scored four sideline cuts in a championship game before but it’s easy to overlook just how far out on his own Canning is when it comes to this particular skill.
These four pointed sideline balls brought Canning's tally in his championship career to 27. The closest to him in the history of the game is Mick Moroney, who played for Clare in the 1970s and whose tally of sidelines scored is eight. Of the hurlers still playing, Noel McGrath and Austin Gleeson are closest to Canning with five each. Canning has scored seven in the past month alone.
A measure of his excellence is the fact that John Kiely is surely the first manager in the history of the game to be moved to complain about a referee allowing time for a sideline ball to be taken at the end of a half. Canning potted one from about 50m out deep into first-half injury time, much to Kiely’s chagrin.
“At the end of the first half, there was four minutes added time,” said Kiely. “It was then four minutes and 10 seconds into added time and the natural thing when the ball goes out of play is to blow it up for half time, but play was allowed continue for another 40 seconds. Twenty-five per cent additional time added on for what, I don’t know.”
By full-time, Fintan Burke had landed a fifth sideline of the game for Galway. But in the round, the fact that they needed those five portions of caviar to keep them fed was a fairly damning indictment. Galway only scored 10 points from play in the game and never threatened a goal. Limerick would have kicked themselves from here to next summer if they'd been beaten in those circumstances.
Onwards, then, to a final on December 13th, the weirdest year ending on the most surreal note. An All-Ireland final in Croker's empty cavern. The gastropubs of Limerick and Waterford might want to put on an extra basket of chips here and there.