What a difference a year can make. It’s been remarked on in the aftermath of Sunday’s hurling league final between Kilkenny and Tipperary that whereas 12 months previously everyone believed that the same counties would be back in September for another final – and neither of them cleared July – there were no such expectations this time despite a better and more convincing contest.
Somewhere between the familiarity of Tipp and Kilkenny in finals and their somewhat reduced circumstances in the world of hurling a more striking difference is apparent: the game has in the past couple of seasons flipped with football to hold out the promise of a more intriguing and genuinely competitive championship.
A year ago Kilkenny had won seven of the eight most recent All-Ireland titles. Tipperary had taken the other in expectation that one dynasty was being replaced by another. It wasn’t, but that had no impact on the range of possibilities offered by a hurling summer.
The nature of Kilkenny’s successes was staggering. By 2012 they hadn’t lost in Leinster for eight years. That year’s Liam MacCarthy was the only one taken home by the back roads of the qualifier series. In 13 seasons between 2000 and 2012, Brian Cody’s teams lost just six championship matches. Six!
Their closest comparators in football, Kerry with five All-Irelands during the same period, lost twice as many championship fixtures.
Changing of the guard
Football for a long time wasn't immune to the charge of restrictive practice, as between them Kerry and Tyrone ran off seven successive All-Irelands but it was never
clear in advance which of them was more likely to do so in any given season.
But that landscape had changed by 12 months ago. At that stage five different counties had won the previous five championships, an unprecedented run of variety. Now, however, all of the talk is about Dublin and the betting industry has all but re-presented the Sam Maguire to Stephen Cluxton.
Then, miraculously, with one bound – well, one season – hurling was free. A sequence of unexpected results overturned all of the conventional wisdom surrounding the game. Division One B from whose bourn no traveller used to return – at least in championship terms – provided two popular provincial winners in Dublin and Limerick for the first time in 52 and 17 years respectively.
On the way Dublin beat Kilkenny for the first time since the 1940s. Kilkenny then found themselves out before August thanks to Cork’s first championship win against them in nine years. It had been 1996 since that last happened. A lot of the rationale underpinning “hurling’s greatest championship” came from Kilkenny’s travails and absence from the top table.
At the end of the year Cody was asked how he felt about the accolades for the first season in a long while in which his team hadn’t featured to any great extent. He protested albeit tongue in cheek: “I’m sure nobody thought it was good because we weren’t in it. I’m sure they all missed us . . . the rest of the years were pretty good too.”
Of course from a Kilkenny perspective they were but despite all of the homage to the perennial champions and celebration of their excellence and exhortations to other counties to raise their standards to those of that prevailing excellence, what people really wanted was change, diversion – something different.
When it arrived all in one go, it was the greatest championship ever.
In football restlessness and desire for variety have already set in after Dublin’s one in a row or two not quite in a row in three years.
That sense of freedom was on the breeze in Thurles at the weekend. Although Tipp and Kilkenny had served up a lavish entertainment over 90 minutes there wasn’t the same feeling of predestination about the implications of this year’s league final.
The winners' ingrained ability to hang on in matches and nudge opponents aside in the run for the tape was clearly intact and that very fact was a massive irritation for Tipperary but otherwise both teams head for the summer with selection issues still unresolved.
Kilkenny still don’t look settled in all of the central positions. It’s been a league of trialling and experimentation during which 32 players have been given a run, compared to 26 in last year’s competition - not a huge difference but the starting championship 15 isn’t as obvious as Cody would presumably have liked heading into the second week of May.
Tipperary are in much the same situation although the spine of their defence is fine with the two Mahers in situ. Centrefield may change depending on Gearóid Ryan’s deployment and Eamon O’Shea will want Séamus Callanan’s final performance to be the exception to what was a fine campaign overall.
Elsewhere Cork, Dublin, Galway and of course Clare have pace and experience of big-match achievements in the past two years.
It was a Kilkenny supporter on the way into last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final in Thurles who said he felt that “teams don’t fear us as much anymore” – a perceptive view of the impact of last year’s results.
It would be unwise for any team to abandon all apprehension when taking on Kilkenny, but a healthy and developing self-belief has transformed the championship’s possibilities.