What a championship we have now! The mighty have fallen, the pretenders scramble to take their place. Intriguing semis beckon, cross-Shannon neighbours in one, the southern capital versus the real capital in the other.
It’s been a summer of hurling madness, the pundits in a tizzy, the bookies in seventh heaven.
To be fancied at this stage is to be cursed.
Kilkenny’s slow demise has been a protracted process, a sort of death by many cuts rather than a single hammer blow. Cork delivered the coup d’état in the end but others had done the softening up.
In a curious parallel of history JBM has now bookended Cody’s managerial term. The All Ireland defeat of 1999 and last Sunday will stand like brackets enclosing Cody’s otherwise glorious reign – that is unless the reign continues for yet another assault and therein lays a fascination which will keep us occupied into the autumn until intentions are finally revealed.
Somehow, like Tipp’s defeat in Nowlan Park, this has the feel of a closing chapter, an epilogue to a truly remarkable saga. It had been signalled for some time. Last year’s Leinster final and All Ireland draw hinted at the growing vulnerability. Spilling four goals to Offaly this season was an early omen, Dublin’s replay victory a confirmation. Tipp and Waterford huffed and puffed at the battered gates but the citadel held out. It was Cork who finally found the breach.
The story of Kilkenny’s last stand will be re-run through many a fireside chat over the winter months. The ‘what ifs’ will be replayed especially down Noreside after a game that spun unkindly for the champions. The sending off was a central item, the second offence clear cut but the first highly questionable. When set against Shane O’Neill’s great escape early in the second half the injustice seemed compounded.
There were dodgy frees too that went Cork’s way and the absence of Hawkeye seemed to cost them at least one score. But as a counter balance there were self-inflicted wounds too. Untypically wayward shooting on a day like this was costly, Larkin, Shefflin and Power all culpable. And what in God’s name was Tommy Walsh doing racing in on goal as that penalty was taken and ultimately costing his team the score.
Then as Kilkenny faltered Cork hit all the right notes. This was a Cork side primed to perfection to trip up a battle-weary opponent. There was a frenetic energy to the Cork game, the tackles, the pressure play closing in relentlessly every time Kilkenny claimed possession. The hustling and harrying was quite extraordinary – hardly the soft and shy Cork that some portrayed after the Munster final?
Then there was the sheer economy of Pat Horgan’s point taking, each strike doubly valuable when set against Kilkenny’s squandering.
And my hero of the game was goalie Nash. The double save on the penalty showed cat-like reflexes. Later there was marvellous athleticism as he got down to his left to keep out a Fennelly drive. A Kilkenny goal at any stage would have altered the complexion of this contest, especially as Cork’s nerve wobbled a bit in the second half.
In the end the team in the right mood prevailed. Ultimately it was simply one bridge too far for the greatest team in history. Their defence held to the end but those scoring volleys that buried so many opponents during the past decade and a half have been absent all this season. After it all Cody was magnanimous, though one sensed his words were escaping through gritted teeth.
End of an era? Probably. Either way their place in history is unchallenged. Enviously we have to concede that they stand apart as the greatest.
Elsewhere Galway did what Galway do with agonising consistency. They’d been awful all year and sure why change now. It was more of the same from the Tribesmen. Where was the team that took Leinster last year and came within a scratch of ditching Cody and company in the All Ireland? Where was the verve, the bounce, the sheer umph of last year’s team? Nobody does second year syndrome quite like Galway, it seems.
Even when sloppy Clare defending gifted them a pair of undeserved goals it wasn’t enough to ignite a winning rally. Instead it was Clare who held focus, kept their nerve intact and drove on to a richly deserved triumph. Conor McGrath of the dancing feet skipped in for a valuable first half lodgement and Clare always looked the more progressive side in a contest that somehow was anti-climactic after the previous spectacle.
I’m a great admirer of Joe Canning, the skill level, the spectacular scores, the sportsmanship, the affable personality etc. but even he appeared to be infected by his team’s malaise. His radar on the frees was askew and his contribution to general play quite minimal. They’re a puzzling lot up in Galway.
Nothing puzzling, though, about Davy Fitz and company – what you see is what you get. The manager is building quite a formation here with his youthful enthusiasts, full of running, nice touch and growing confidence. It’s probably not a finished enough article to take honours this year but be watchful. We’ll get a taste of the quality on Wednesday next when they come to town for the U21 final.
On a more local issue what is it about relegation that, magnet-like, draws controversy? Here we were at New Inn on Friday evening watching an edgy replay between Boherlahan and Golden when a premature end is brought to proceedings with an injury to a Golden player. Thankfully Jim Bob McCarthy is okay after the scare, which, like in the minor game between Waterford and Antrim, is all that matters in these cases.
Finally I was really looking forward to the South final last Saturday but the best laid plans etc. etc. I was in Clonmel alright, across the road from the Sportsfield on a trolley, a guest of James Reilly and our marvellous health system. Thankfully everything seems to be okay after a scare but in the circumstances I had to forego seeing ‘Festy’ grab that late winner for Killenaule in what everyone seems to think was a humdinger of a final. Just my luck.
P.S. Two lovely images from Thurles on Sunday: Joe Canning signing autographs in a cluster of youngsters many wearing black and amber stripes; and secondly a concussed Richie Power returning to the pitch to congratulate his conquerors. There is something special about our games alright.
P.P.S. My favourite quote from Monday’s papers comes courtesy of Vincent Hogan comparing the dismissal of Shefflin to the handcuffing of a nun. I’m still visualising that one.