Teatime after the Gaelic Grounds on the fourth Sunday of last month.
Not quite like teatime after Semple Stadium on the first Sunday of May five years ago, when Kilkenny had crushed Cork in the National League final and already it seemed obvious who’d be lifting the September silverware — as Brian Cody’s charges duly did even if, like the Three Wise Men, they had to go around the houses to get there.
April 23, 2017. Not quite like 2012. Not like it at all. Galway 3-21 Tipperary 0-14. Tipperary may still end up lifting the September silverware; it’s not such an obvious vision now, though. We may not be facing into what turns out to be a wonderful championship — and so what, given that wonderful hurling championships are few and far between — but we at least have one that hums with an air of unknowability. No longer is it a putative lap of honour for Tipp. They’re far better off for such a development, of course. So are we.
A narrow defeat for the MacCarthy Cup holders last month would have been easily explained, naturally. A point in it against Galway in August, a point in it the other way against them the previous August. Tipp and Galway: all on the day and whatnot. Move along there now. But 16 points? Humpty Dumpty doesn’t usually have falls of such magnitude and noise.
At this stage, the only sensible course of action is to park the event and move on. Even if All-Ireland champions should not be beaten out the gate in league finals — and in view of the wave of favourable comparisons with the Kilkenny side of the noughties the week beforehand, ask yourself this: would any team of Cody’s lose a league final by 16 points? The corpse does not bear further dissection until Tipperary’s championship challenge has ended.
Maybe it was a one-off, nothing more. Maybe it was a symptom of something deeper but nebulous. In either case it was a wake-up klaxon that sounded at precisely the right moment for Tipperary. They will not somnambulate into the summer, and Michael Ryan has been obliged to wonder about the timbre and temper of his bench.
Tipp’s prospects for 2017 will be examined in more detail on the eve of the Cork game. In the meantime, and as Michael Stipe would say, consider this. Last year they were the best team in the championship, proved it in style but were almost preposterously fortunate in terms of injuries and freedom from Events, Dear Boy, Events. This time around they cannot expect a repeat of such beneficence from the presiding deities. Tipperary have the burden of champions to carry, with all the cares and duties it entails.
If the league final revealed something new about the losers, it revealed nothing new about the winners. This was Galway as they can be, and as everyone knew they can be, on their day. Big, direct, uncomplicated. They won’t be indulging in any unnecessary neatness or wristiness and there’s no reason why they should. Get the sliotar into the forward line at the earliest convenience and let the monster trucks go to war.
The presence of so much heft and mobility around him ought to give Joe Canning sufficient space and clean possession to ornament the championship, while Conor Whelan demonstrated against Tipperary that it doesn’t have to be all about straight lines. In any case, Galway have so often fetched up short over the past 25 years after putting their faith in small knacky lads that nobody could possibly carp at the sight of them grinding opponents into submission.
The league finalists are the market leaders and deserve to be. The usual market leaders are third favourites and deserve to be. Kilkenny have regressed to much the same place they were in 20 years ago; certainly the team that lined out last September was the county’s weakest iteration in an All-Ireland final since 1998. And no, they haven’t gone away and they won’t, and one wouldn’t dream of arguing with Prince Charles when he contended last week that Kilkenny will be better in the championship than they were in the league. (No, you are not hallucinating. He did say this.) But their surreal ill fortune with injuries prevented the youngsters staking championship claims; Cody needs Paul Murphy and Richie Hogan to regain their best form; and Colin Fennelly and Walter Walsh are unlikely to transmogrify into scoring machines at this stage of their lives. Kilkenny haven’t lost to Galway since the 2012 Leinster final, a long time ago in contemporary championship terms and a lot of matches back. The run has to end sooner rather than later. Bottom line, the men in stripes may have to stand still for another 12 months before setting off for the summit again.
Reports of the alleged restlessness of certain natives on Suirside following Waterford’s quarter-final defeat with an experimental XV in Salthill reduce one to wondering the identity and location of the planet on which some people reside. So Derek McGrath should have fielded his strongest side and won the match in an effort to allow him… what, play the young lads in the semi-final? If anything, McGrath didn’t make enough use of his panel during the league, an inevitable function of the pressure to get points on the board and avoid relegation. Reaching the business end of the competition for the third season in a row was never what Waterford’s league was about.
Splendidly as they acquitted themselves against Kilkenny nine months ago there’s no guarantee they’ll hurl as well again this season, or even for the next couple of seasons. And Tom Devine will be missed in his role of goalscoring deus ex machina. Hitting enough to win, as opposed to confining the other crowd to a beatable tally, will remain Waterford’s issue.
The prospect of the same four counties comprising the All-Ireland semi-finalists for a third season in succession impinges on outright defiance of the laws of probability. Clare have emerged as a popular choice for the role of springers, not least because they’re likely to be playing a game more suited to their strengths and weaknesses than at any time since their 2013 annus mirabilis. Still, provided Cork leave Thurles next Sunday with honour intact — and yes, Tough Barry would turn in his grave at the notion, but that’s another story — they become plausible last-four contenders via the qualifiers.
Some other observations.
This is likely to be the last championship as we know it. Enjoy it for all its flaws and don’t be sufficiently naïve as to believe that a Super 8-type competition will suddenly, magically lift all boats.
Westmeath versus Offaly the weekend after next. That matters too in its own little midland-y way; all politics etc. Let us trust there’s no Offaly man who fell asleep in the mid-1970s, woke up yesterday and concluded that he hadn’t missed very much these past four decades.
Wexford may have as good a chance of reaching an All-Ireland semi-final in the first year of Davy Fitz’s tenure as subsequently. In any case the Leinster Council will be praying for them to see off Laois and then Kilkenny. It’ll constitute the difference between an attendance of 30,000 at the provincial decider and an attendance of 50,000 and upwards.
How Limerick had a rotten league campaign and wound up in a semi-final nonetheless is a phenomenon to be found in the dictionary under P for paradox. They’ll be underdogs against Clare on June 4; then again, history insists there are no favourites when Clare and Limerick meet and Anthony Daly will tell you the same. John Kiely, like his Banner counterparts, is in Year One of a process. Let’s leave him to it.
So we have Clare versus Limerick to look forward to, and a big night in Wexford Park, and What Davy Did Next, and a potential Munster final in a sparkling new Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Somewhere along the line the championship ought to catch fire earlier than it did in the last three seasons. That’s as much as can be asked for at the moment.
Twelve months ago Tipperary were an easy choice for ultimate glory. This time around it’s not so easy, and not solely because of the Galway debacle. For the second year in a row they’re faced with five matches to win the All-Ireland through the front door, this time carrying the aforementioned holders’ burden and with one of those old Mod targets writ large on their back.
Still: beat Galway if and when it comes to it and they’ll be champions again.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved