The scene is a Manhattan hotel, the moment a morning or evening sometime during the mid-1960s. Three or four young Irishmen are in the elevator. An American couple get in. Silence reigns. The husband and wife cannot help but notice the coiled tension between the other occupants of the lift. When it reaches the lobby the various parties go their different ways, the husband and wife breathing a sigh of relief on parting from the glowering young Irishmen.
This incident really did happen. Babs Keating mentioned it in his autobiography and the late Ted Carroll, another of the occupants of the elevator and subsequently the Kilkenny county secretary, spoke of it in later life too.
For that’s how it was between Tipperary and Kilkenny back then. Not just rivalry but hatred. Not just opponents but enemies.
But that was then and this is now. It’s not so long since Eoin Kelly won an All Ireland colleges’ medal on a team that included Tommy Walsh, Jackie Tyrrell and Brian Hogan. It’s not so long since Henry Shefflin and Eamon Corcoran were best buddies in Waterford IT. The world is a bigger, broader place than it was five decades ago.
The two tribes still go to war, more frequently than they’ve done at any stage since the 1960s, but put them in a Manhattan elevator and tension will not reign. Not enemies, just opponents. Not hatred, just rivals.
What rivals, though. Three September showdowns in consecutive years. Four showdowns in national finals in three seasons. Each of the three encounters to date has been an epic. Next Sunday decides the All Ireland rubber.
The marketing folk for the concluding Harry Potter movie got it right when they came up with their tagline. “Only One Can Live.” Quite. How silly of them to apply it to Harry and Voldemort when of course what they really meant – the idiots! - was Tipperary versus Kilkenny.
Not that it was ever going to be any other way on Sunday. If you wanted to be cynical you could say that the GAA might have arranged this fixture back in May, presented the MacCarthy Cup to the winners, abandoned the championship and sent everyone home to their clubs for the summer. And if you wanted to find a genuine cause for regret this season it’s not the fact it’s been a disappointing championship, nor the fact the showpiece game is a rerun of the showpiece from last year and the year before, but rather the fact that no team bar Dublin ever looked like upsetting this particular applecart.
Still, only the naive and the incurably optimistic will complain about the stasis. A couple of years ago the cliché du jour was that it was “up to the pack to come up to Kilkenny’s standard”, not the other way around. Now it’s up to the pack to come up to Tipperary’s and Kilkenny’s standard. Between them in the last two All Ireland finals they’ve taken hurling to places it had never gone to before.
The oldtimers invariably cited 1947, when Kilkenny beat Cork by what Jack Lynch liked to describe as “the usual point”, as the best final ever. Irrespective of how good it may have been, it couldn’t possibly have come within an ass’s roar of the past two finals for pace, intensity, physicality, aggression and the sustained deployment of the skills under pressure. That’s why another helping of blue and gold and black and amber is to be welcomed, not decried.
Here’s another difference between the Tipp/Kilkenny relationship of the 1960s and the relationship today: familiarity has not bred contempt. Instead of getting worse since that raw, occasionally nasty National League final two years ago it has taken wings. (Of Lar Corbett’s many gaiscí these past few seasons, none was finer than the sportsmanship of his pat on the head for PJ Ryan following one of the latter’s saves in the 2009 All Ireland final.)
And yet another difference: this time around it’s Kilkenny who are the more physical team, Tipperary the more expansive one.
If old heads are to win the day on Sunday it’ll be Kilkenny. If old heads on younger legs are to win the day it’ll be Tipp. At the risk of becoming the millionth person to say that the Dublin match was “exactly what they needed”, well – the Dublin game was, ahem, exactly what they needed.
The reasons why are too obvious to bear explaining. The champions may well have been caught next Sunday had they sleepwalked into the game. They may still be caught, but thanks to the rigour of the challenge from Dublin it won’t be because they sleepwalked into it.
Nor should their grounds for motivation be overlooked. Given the quantity of hurling they’ve done over the past four seasons, never mind the inordinately high quality of much of it, Tipperary need a second All Ireland, a front-door All Ireland, and they need it sooner rather than later.
Beat Kilkenny and the county will not only have accomplished something they haven’t managed since the 1960s – two things, come to think of it: successive All Ireland victories and two All Irelands in the same decade – they’ll also have constructed the platform for a three in a row, or at any rate the platform for further MacCarthy Cup triumphs in the coming years. This is a match from which all sorts of blessings may flow.
And all sorts of maledictions. Lose and they’ll be told they lost the run of themselves after the Munster final. Lose and they’ll be accused - however heedless of the sweep and verve of their hurling over the past two summers – of being little more than a team who won one back-door All Ireland against injury-hit opponents.
Lose and the management will, in the inevitable way of these things, be indicted of having mislaid a golden inheritance. (Exhibit A: the Brendan Maher situation.) Lose and a couple of the players may soon discover they have a bright future behind them.
Tipperary and Kilkenny. The ghosts of the pasts and the gladiators of the present. Only one can live. Bring it on.