When the GAA redrew and reshaped the fixtures calendar last year, I was raging with the plan because I felt it would strangle hurling’s profile.
The early part of the season was a boom but it still felt like an early season tournament to clear the runway for a football take-off.
Staging the Munster and Leinster finals on the same day was the first slap in the face but having both All-Ireland semi-finals on the same weekend felt like another stage in the race to get the hurling season over as quickly as possible.
Last year’s All-Ireland semi-final weekend altered my thinking slightly but this weekend finally won me around. There were minor and U20 football matches on over the last few days but the last weekend in July has become our annual Woodstock, our very own hurling festival weekend, where everyone gets delirious with the excitement and entertainment on show.
I wasn’t out in Dublin on Saturday night but I spoke to some friends and they said it felt like a coming together of the hurling tribes.
Tipperary, Kilkenny, Limerick and Wexford people, and hurling people from all over the country, all basking in the warm afterglow of what they’d just witnessed in Croke Park, and even more excited by what was still to come.
The weekend was broadly similar to last year; epic games, Hitchcockian drama, spellbinding class and skill, incredible passion and bravery.
The only thing was that both games didn’t go to extra-time but they very nearly did.
Kilkenny and Tipperary are in dreamland this morning, Limerick and Wexford are in the horrors. And yet every genuine hurling person is still thrilled that our game is now regarded as the one sport almost guaranteed to keep on giving.
What other competitive team sport can routinely make that unspoken promise?
Wexford will be crestfallen because they were so close to a first All-Ireland appearance in 23 years that they could almost taste the sweetness of that sensation.
They just blinked when that moment of truth arrived.
When I first started playing a sweeper with Clare and Dublin, my golden rule was that every other defender must mark their man tighter than they would if it was six-on-six.
When Wexford went five points ahead, and with Tipperary a man down, maybe the Wexford players just sensed that they were already there. But you’re never there until you’re actually there.
I would have kept Kevin Foley back and shoved everyone else up the field to pen Tipp into their own half.
That would have forced Tipp players to mark the Wexford forwards, which in turn would have also meant Tipp withdrawing another forward.
Wexford had the room, and the licence, to push on while retaining enough cover at the back.
But losing their foothold probably had as much to do with human nature as any tactical meltdown.
Wexford also started lorrying ball more than running it through the lines but you still have to give massive credit to Tipp.
They had every right to feel aggrieved when both goals were disallowed but they rallied manfully on both occasions.
Their supporters deserve a share of the credit too because, even though they were outnumbered over 3-1, the Tipp supporters found their voices when their players needed to hear them the most.
There was a fear after Lee Chin’s goal that Tipp could collapse. Wexford had all the momentum.
You wondered if Tipp would have the legs to even stick with Wexford, never mind sprint past them, but they fired up the engines and nailed five brilliant points in succession.
The first disallowed goal was a setback but it wasn’t the same sickening blow to the solar-plexus of the second.
Referee Sean Cleere had not put out his two hands to signal the free as Jake Morris’s shot hit the net. It was another haymaker on the chin but Tipp got up off the canvas and kept landing the bigger punches.
Liam Sheedy has been accused of not using some of his younger players during this championship but he turned that debate on its head yesterday, with Morris, Mark Kehoe, Willie Connors and Ger Browne hitting 0-4 off the bench.
Conversely, there were some question marks about how Wexford used their bench but Wexford just seemed to lose their way, while Tipp continued to find their way through the impending darkness.
Nobody shone those lights more brightly than the Mahers – Ronan, Brendan and Padraic – in the second half. The last two high balls that Brendan won over the head of Lee Chin was game-defining stuff.
Cathal Barrett, who had been in trouble from Paul Morris, also came up with a couple of huge plays. Noel McGrath was immense throughout.
Seamie Callanan also got some key scores, and engineered some massive placed-balls, down the home straight.
We all wondered if Tipp would have the legs to see out a game that would go to the wire but, I’ve always felt that your legs are fresh when your head is fresh.
A mental staleness may have crept into Tipp minds after winning their first four games but any doubts that surfaced after the Munster final, and the Laois game, provided Sheedy with all the motivation to go to that next level.
Scoring 1-28 was a bigger achievement again considering that total was reached with 14 men for 25 minutes, and it came against a Wexford defence not known for conceding such a high tally.
But that’s hurling, which is why the game just trumps everything else.
Wexford had the room, and the licence, to push on while retaining enough cover at the back. But losing their foothold probably had as much to do with human nature as any tactical meltdown
Nobody wants VAR in the GAA but...
Epics just have a habit of following on from epics because Saturday’s semi-final was every bit as enthralling.
I felt beforehand that Limerick would be able to override, and get past, that horrendous statistic of Munster champions in All-Ireland semi-finals. But they couldn’t.
The misery continues for the Munster winners; since the qualifiers were introduced in 2002, on the 15 occasions that the Munster champions have advanced directly to the All-Ireland semi-final, they have won just four.
Limerick started like a team that were still trying to shake away the rust from a four-week break, whereas Kilkenny were right at it from the first ball.
That was always going to be a concern for Limerick, which is why I was surprised they didn’t start the match with a more conventional formation, as much to throw Kilkenny off their scent as ease themselves into their rhythm.
Limerick will argue that their system dictates that rhythm but Kilkenny knocked them back to such an extent that Limerick had no flow from the word go.
They were chasing, always chasing, and Kilkenny are the last team you want to have to try and hunt down.
Limerick could still have reined them in if the officials had done their job properly. That last sideline ball from Darragh O’Donovan definitely got a nick from Cillian Buckley but neither the referee, linesman — standing five yards away — nor the umpire, who in fairness was behind the net, spotted it.
I’ve repeatedly made this argument but it needs to be consistently made before the GAA finally starts listening to what is required to avoid these calls.
Nobody wants VAR in the GAA but when a call of this magnitude is missed, can somebody in front of a monitor not let the referee know what has happened?
It’s not as if there isn’t enough cameras around Croke Park — or at any venue for a big championship match — anymore.
Can a team not be allowed even just one challenge? A multitude of people will say that such a system would add another layer of professionalism to an amateur game but, let’s be honest, these players are professional in everything but name.
They prepare, train and play like elite athletes. And they deserve to be treated as such.
The stuff like the controversial Limerick penalty is subjective and nobody has any issue with that kind of a call.
They will mostly even themselves out over the 70 minutes but it’s wrong — especially to the team it happens to — when they have their season ended in such a big game by such a blatant missed call.
I was nowhere near it but even from where I was, at the opposite corner, I thought that the trajectory of the ball had changed slightly. It looked a funny kind of a wide, in that the pace appeared to have almost been taken off the ball.
It can be hard for anybody to judge in real time, and with the ball travelling at such speed, but that kind of a wide can only happen if the ball has been touched.
It was just a shame that the ending was clouded in controversy because — not that they will care for a second — it also took from the manner of Kilkenny’s victory.
They were immense but they won the match in the first 20 minutes. Anytime Limerick tried to get back at them, Kilkenny had that cushion built up that enabled them to keep pushing ahead.
There were any amount of key moments but one of the most decisive was Richie Hogan’s point just before the break.
Aaron Gillane’s penalty had seemingly halted Kilkenny’s momentum and Limerick finally seemed to have a foothold in the match but Hogan’s score pushed the deficit back out to three at half-time.
It wasn’t the lead Kilkenny probably felt they deserved to have but three points was still big.
Getting that final score before the break was also a psychological strike in the context of making some kind of a statement towards Limerick’s second-quarter surge.
To me it was almost a defiant slogan: ‘We’ll fight back, we’re not going to accept this belief now that Limerick are going to speed past us’.
It’s still too easy to say that Kilkenny were the better team when they had eight wides and Limerick had 15.
They were just more efficient but Limerick will be tormented when they look back on some of their wides. Tom Morrissey had a couple of terrible wides. So had Cian Lynch.
Morrissey had one great chance late on which tailed wide. It was a killer miss, not just because he’d have expected to score it all day long, but because the move had been put together so brilliantly.
To compound matters, Adrian Mullen — who was superb all evening — replied with another quality point, over his shoulder, immediately.
Kilkenny just kept beating back those waves anytime Limerick tried to whip up a tide of momentum or a surge of scores.
Much of Limerick’s dominance has stemmed from their own puckout but Kilkenny effectively shut it down.
They allowed Nickie Quaid give the short one to Mikey Casey or Richie English but then they hunted them down like ravenous wolves.
Limerick’s forwards subsequently couldn’t get on the ball as much as they’d have wanted to.
They rely so much on their half-forward line but that triangular fusion of power and class — Kyle Hayes, Tom Morrissey, and Gearoid Hegarty — were never the fireball Limerick needed them to be to burn through Kilkenny’s resistance.
Hegarty in particular was just having one of those dog days ( huge credit to paddy Deegan’s aggression) and I wonder should John Kiely have given Shane Dowling ten minutes more; he was that impressive when introduced.
The Limerick half-forward line played too deep anyway but I’d almost have brought Kyle deeper again and slipped him in centre-back when Declan Hannon went off.
Kyle proved himself in that position with the U-21s in 2017 and I thought he’d have been tailor made for TJ Reid, who once again underlined his claim to be regarded as one of the greatest forwards ever.
When we talk in the future about Ring, Mackey, Keher, Carey, and Shefflin, Reid will surely be in that bracket.
Anytime Limerick put Kilkenny under pressure on the scoreboard, Eoin Murphy could relieve that pressure by lamping the puckout straight down on top of TJ.
He may not have scored from play but his influence, especially under the dropping ball, was inspiring, and was a lightning rod for Kilkenny’s defiance.
You just can’t buy that kind of leadership when your backs are to the wall.
And yet when all the greats are mentioned, Brian Cody will remain top of that list. He was a great player but his achievements as a manager have just taken his name and his legend to a whole new level.
To be chasing a 12th All-Ireland, with another new team — one many people said weren’t good enough to win an All-Ireland — is just mind-blowing.
Kilkenny are still the masters. And Cody remains hurling’s ultimate Master in the sport of absolute kings.