Kilkenny wobbles gave glimmer of hope to long-suffering rivals


SIDELINE CUT:They’re back! Just like that, we have reached the spring Sunday when the redoubtable men in black and amber trundle on to some field or other and hurling people across the country take a deep breath and remember once again that they are living in Kilkenny Time.

This year the All-Ireland champions open their league campaign with a visit to Salthill and a renewal of rivalries with Galway, the team they vanquished in last September’s showpiece. Kilkenny’s All-Ireland victories have come gift-wrapped in all sorts of packaging down the years but last year’s performance was particularly affirmative as if made their defeat in the Leinster final seem unreal and irrelevant. Remember how electrifying that result felt at the time?

Those of us who were at the Gaelic Grounds that day for what turned out to be a one-sided Munster football final between Cork and Clare could see the ripple of surprise through the crowd as news came from Croke Park: the Cats were not just being beaten in the provincial final, they were being plundered.

We made it to a nearby hotel for the second half, and in Limerick that afternoon the neutrals were shouting not so much for Galway but for liberation. That day was surely evidence that Kilkenny were weakening. It had been Limerick’s misfortune to embark on a valorous championship run in 2007, an adventure that came to a shuddering halt in the first 15 minutes of the All-Ireland final against Kilkenny.

No hurling team was capable of living with the Cats that year and what they did to Waterford the following September was grimmer still. The All-Ireland hurling championship was distilled into the old Kilkenny-Tipp rivalry for the next three Septembers and when the dust settled, the Cats had still won two out of three All-Irelands and appeared more resolute and settled than ever, while Tipp, it seemed, would have to start again.

Everyone waited

So the unstoppable heroics of Galway, who have always represented an unstable chemical proposition in Brian Cody’s mind, was a relief. Nobody could come out and say it but everyone was delighted. The Cats had been beaten: that gave everyone else a chance. And so people waited to see if Tipperary would finish them off in the All-Ireland semi-final. And even if the sight of Kilkenny holding Tipperary to that lonely, accusatory one point in the entire second half made the blood run cold slightly, well, it didn’t change things. Kilkenny had been beaten once: they were mortal. They could be beaten again.

How close did Galway come in the All-Ireland final? That has been the uneasy question hanging over the maroon county in the 4½ months since they duelled with Kilkenny over those two memorable Sundays.

You have to remember that their fear of this modern Kilkenny team has never run quite as deeply as it does in other counties. Their unique place in the hurling world – a land-locked island of hurling excellence – has meant that they have always been capable of summoning perfect summer storms on hurling fields and they ruined Kilkenny harvests in 2001 and 2005. The pyrotechnics they unleashed in the Leinster final, when they left Kilkenny looking helpless for the first time in two decades, seemed like further proof that they had the right stuff.

It is probably too painful for most Galway hurling people to return to the first freewheeling 20 minutes of the drawn final, when it was all maroon. Galway were playing so comfortably and confidently in that period that it seemed as if Kilkenny would bow at any moment; that the toll of their unyielding excellence and ambition would finally catch up with them and we would witness one of the most fabled sights in sport: a great team becoming old not over night but in unforgiving daylight.

Skipped away

There was a moment in the first half when Joe Canning took a ball over by the Hogan Stand and turned JJ Delaney one way and then the other, skipped away and eyed the posts in front of the Canal End for what seemed like an eternity before letting fly. It was the kind of point he has struck a thousand times in his young life: if anything, it was too easy.

But this one whistled across the face of the posts and wide. Galway led 1-03 to 0-2 at the time and would convert a free a few seconds afterwards but the manner of Canning’s play in that sequence was so imperious that it is not hard to imagining the floodgates opening had the point gone over.

Instead, the champions endured the first half that seemed on the brink of a deluge of Galway scoring which never happened. The chance had passed; the endgame of the drawn match was thrilling and stormy and the replay was defined by a one-for-the-ages performance by Henry Shefflin.

Autumn came and Kilkenny were, as usual, the custodians of the McCarthy Cup.And so they will arrive in Salthill today in their customary form: no fuss and hard-working, falling into their routine. The team well rested after a deep winter holiday. The fans as curious as everyone else to know just how long this can go on for.

But the period of domination has gone on for so long that it might be easier for other counties at this stage if they began to behave as if they owned the joint. They don’t and won’t. It’s not their style. Still, you take a hurling fan from Galway and a hurling fan from Kilkenny, both 50 now and friends, perhaps. The links between the counties are strong. The Galway man last saw his county with the Liam McCarthy in 1988.

The same decades have been filled with wondrous success for the Kilkenny man. These two men share the same interest and follow teams who often trade victories at this sleepy time of the year but when it comes to the genuine euphoria that an All-Ireland victory can bring, their experiences are starkly different.

What questions are left to ask of Kilkenny? They have offered a thousand different responses which amounts to the same answer. They will keep winning until some team is good enough to beat them.

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