“The spirit, the will to win, and the will to excel are the things that endure. These qualities are so much more important than the events that occur.” - Vince Lombardi
In total appreciation of the performances of Kilkenny, Waterford, Tipperary and Galway on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, that quote is quite apt, writes Peter McNamara .
In time, the greatest of healers, it will be easier for the Déise and Tribesmen to accept that second sentence from Lombardi.
Not now, of course, as the ‘events that occurred’ were far from ideal in terms of the eventual outcomes from their standpoints.
However, what those four teams have done in these past two weekends is of far greater significance than the fact just three points combined separated two of them from their opponents.
After the provincial championships there existed a fear hurling at the highest level had forsaken its followers, for a time at least.
The matches were uninspiring and people were bemused.
We needn’t have worried. The nation was on the edge of its seat again watching events that occurred in Thurles and Croke Park and oh how we were reawakened by the exhibitions of skill and sheer class.
Yet, what will endure from those three games was ‘the spirit, will to win, and will to excel’.
And the four teams should be lauded for that, not just the victors.
Instead of the championship being played out to a standstill it has roared to life and hurling has recaptured the souls of the public.
Not that it ever really left. However, for a brief spell it did feel as if our memory banks of truly gripping encounters would not be added to in the immediate and near future.
Maybe, of course, we have been spoiled by the game we dearly adore. Our game.
Yet, to witness those men hurl as they did brought us back to days of yore.
For too long it seemed the hurling gods were holding back on the magic dust.
These three clashes were showered with it; from the individual excellence of Pauric Mahony, Austin Gleeson, Richie Hogan, Bonner Maher and David Burke to that shuddering hit and brave hook from Pádraic Maher.
Hurling, in its purest form, returned to our eyes.
And three more occasions were stored in those memory banks.
Thankfully, September’s gunfight at the O.K. Corral should be every bit as intense and filled with skilful joy as that of its semi-final predecessors.
The greatest joy of all though watching games such as those is in knowing kids and teenagers, just as we were ourselves, saw them too.
If the ‘big kids’ were misty-eyed, the young ‘uns must have been enthralled to a level they were not privy too in recent times.
Sport has the ability to transcend reality in ways but none more so than hurling.
For we had heroes like Seán Óg, Henry Shefflin, Eoin Kelly (both Tipperary and Waterford versions), Anthony Daly, Ben O’Connor, Tony Browne, Michael Duignan, Ken McGrath, Davy Fitz, Eugene Cloonan, Martin Storey, DJ Carey etc, etc, etc... I could keep going for an eternity.
So now those behind us in years have TJ Reid, Hogan, Gleeson, Seamus Callanan, Joe Canning et al.
And it is from matches that rock the country as these Kilkenny-Waterford and Tipperary-Galway meetings did that those heroic figures take shape in the minds of the young.
For the future of our game, that element alone is so important.
Nowadays, there are so many distractions for kids and teenagers that hurling and Gaelic football face challenges to retain their interest.
Hurling, obviously, will never die regardless.
Nevertheless, to keep it at the top what is seen at the highest level of the code will understandably have the greatest effect.
We had to endure, by past standards, a number of borefests of late.
However, the negative connotations attached to them have been blasted into orbit.
The Premier League, for instance, began on Saturday. And it is a division the majority of us have significant interest in.
However, talk of its return will be shared by positive recollections of the hurling fare produced in the offices, pubs and, most importantly, children’s sports camps being run this week across Ireland.
Would that be the case if strategies were overthought from the managements? Probably not.
There was something indefinably satisfying about watching four sides hurling like demons.
Ultimately, though, it will be Brian Cody and Michael Ryan that stroll the sideline at headquarters next month.
The mental toughness of the Cats is renowned.
Less so of Tipperary. And yet the Premier men refused to yield as the westerners tried to turn the screw time after time last Sunday.
To my mind, Ryan deserves immense credit for presiding over a group that operates in the mould of himself as a player.
Obdurate. Unforgiving. Emboldened.
The game is viewed by the majority of the odds-compilers as a 50/50 contest. A fair read.
However, even if Michael Fennelly had not been injured I still would have made Tipp the most marginal of favourites.
The Premier may just have a slightly higher percentage of improvement they can find within themselves to get over the line.
People have been correct to point to Pádraig Walsh and Cillian Buckley as the launch area for Kilkenny’s attacks as this column alluded to after their Leinster SHC final success.
For all that, it would be a fool’s errand to underestimate the capacity of Dan McCormack and Noel McGrath to negate and even ruffle Walsh and Buckley.
Both McCormack and McGrath are as effective for Ryan’s outfit as Walsh and Buckley have for Cody’s brigade.
These two one-v-one battles will go a hell of a way towards deciding the destination of the Liam McCarthy this year.
Most will rattle on about how important the more prominent names on the team-sheets will be.
However, on the days of the finals it’s nearly always those under the radar so to speak that light up the showpiece.
Those two particular match-ups will be absolutely vital.