You’d think we’d want any other league final pairing than this.
Ahead of last weekend’s semi-final pairings, some hurling commentators couldn’t conceal that sentiment, convincing themselves that Wexford and Limerick would simply want it more, neither county having won a senior national title in over 20 years.
As if Cody would tolerate losing a fourth consecutive knockout game to Davy’s little upstarts, as if the likes of Padraic and Brendan Maher were going to allow their whole careers go by without winning a national league medal.
Now that it’s come to pass, just when it seemed hurling was entering a post-Kilkenny-Tipp era, the first national final of the year is… Kilkenny-Tipp. It’s something to relish.
It’s something to applaud and acknowledge, too, for what it is.
Quite simply, over the last 10 years, the two counties have given us the best rivalry Irish sport has ever known.
No other pairing over such a sustained period of time has given us such a high percentage and number of wonderful games.
Rugby has no genuine contender; Munster-Leinster in Europe has been too infrequent to be worthy of proper consideration.
Soccer, too, is scarce on candidates. The brilliant Neptune-Demons rivalry of the 1980s may have propelled the popularity and televising of basketball in this country with the number of nailbiters it produced, but large swathes of the country would have been indifferent to its existence.
The most storied rivalry in the history of the GAA remains Kerry-Dublin. It saved the GAA in Dublin, gave birth to the cult of the GAA manager and, with it, ground-breaking and hip-replacing training regimes.
Yet, for all its legacy, its sociological strands — city v country, personalities (Micko v Heffo, Jacko v Mullins), and iconic moments (the assault of Mickey Ned, Kevin Moran’s rampaging run, Sean Doc’s catch, David Hickey’s rocket, Mikey’s chip) — the games themselves, with one notable exception, were hardly crackers. In all but one of their five championship clashes, the winning margin was at least seven points. For sheer quality games, the Dublin-Kerry rivalry of this decade outshines that of the ’70s, the 2013 and 2016 semi-finals more than matching the epic one of 1977. As we know, Dublin-Kerry hasn’t even been the best standout rivalry of this decade.
That honour belongs to Mayo and Dublin, who have served up more terrific head-to-head championship games than any other set of teams in the grand old history of the sport. Seven times they’ve met in the championship since 2012 and, invariably, all went to the wire. The average winning margin in a Dublin-Kerry game of the ’70s was nine points; for Dublin-Mayo it’s been 1.5 points. The average score by the losing team in Dublin-Kerry in the ’70s was 0-11; in Dublin-Mayo, it’s been 1-14.
Until Mayo finally win it all, Dublin-Kerry still maintains the edge for its various shifts in power — first, the Kerry young guns ambush the Dubs, then the Dubs avenge that shock with one of their own, before age and the Bomber catch up on them.
Also, for the legacy it created, Dublin-Kerry remains the most important rivalry in GAA history, as well.
However, that does not make it the best. In recent years, Tipp-Kilkenny has edged it.
Of course, hurling history is steeped with other magnificent rivalries: Tipp-Cork in the ’40s and ’50s, and then again from ’84 to ’92; Cork- Kilkenny; Cork-Waterford in the noughties.
However, too often Cork-Kilkenny only offered up the All-Ireland champions and not a classic, and too often Cork-Waterford only offered up a classic and not the All-Ireland champions.
Tipp-Kilkenny has been the best of those worlds. We thought we’d never seen hurling of such majesty as the 2009 All-Ireland final, but the 2010 final probably matched it and then the 2014 drawn game surpassed it. Even then, for some folk who prefer their hurling served with more grit, less glitz, the replay was an even more satisfying affair.
Tipp ended up running away with the 2016 final, just as Kilkenny did with the 2008 semi-final win over Cork, but just like there was nowhere else you’d rather have been for the first 25 minutes of that last stand of those Cork rebels, the opening 50 minutes of that 2016 final was Tipp-Kilkenny, hurling, sport, at its glorious best.
What takes the Tipp-Kilkenny rivalry to the stratosphere, though, is the sheer volume of gripping games they’ve offered up in the league.
The 2009 league final remains a bona fide classic, a foretaste of what was to come that September. The 2013 league decider in Nowlan Park was another gripping affair, a foretaste of what was to come that July, Kilkenny again edging it by three points. The 2014 league final was even better, requiring extra time, just like that year’s All-Ireland final would need more than 70 minutes to separate the two sides.
Then, there’s their annual clash every February or March. Even Dublin-Mayo do boring at that time of year; after a string of compelling games from 2011 to 2014, the last four seasons have not produced a good league game between them. Not Tipp- Kilkenny.
In 2016, Kilkenny raided Tipp for two late goals, compounding the sense that they’d always have it over this group of Tipp players.
In 2017, there was an epic draw under the lights in Semple: Championship fare. This February, 2-21 still wasn’t enough for Michael Ryan’s team to win their first game in Nowlan Park in seven attempts; Richie Leahy’s late point saw to it that Kilkenny finished with 2-22.
The last time Tipp won in Nowlan Park was 10 years ago, when a team managed by first-year supremo Liam Sheedy went there and surprised a team that had won the previous two All-Irelands and swept all before them in that spring’s league. The only surviving member of that Tipperary team is Seamus Callanan, who we’ve yet to see this spring. Lar Corbett dashing through with Jackie Tyrrell and thrown hurleys out to get him, Eoin Kelly with another over the shoulder, JJ, Shefflin, Brennan, a grinning Martin Comerford, Tommy Walsh plucking another one over a man half a foot over him; they’ve all shuffled off the stage now. Even Richie Hogan, who has tormented Tipp countless times in February mud and September sunshine, isn’t yet fit for this one.
Maybe we are living in a post-Kilkenny-Tipp world. Maybe Sunday will be a repeat of 2013, when we all thought at the time the league final was a dress rehearsal for another imminent September showdown and, instead, the pair of them faced off in July in the most memorable qualifier game in history.
Or maybe it’ll turn out 2017 was more a repeat of 2013, a blip from the normal duopoly, the pair of them just taking a break, like Elvis with his Kit-Kat, from all the battles they’d waged against each other over the years.
Whether it’s just another updated chapter or a postscript in the story of the sport’s and country’s greatest rivalry, you won’t be able to take your eyes from it.
A hurling rivalry that keeps on delivering