Two conversations on the road that led to Páirc Uí Chaoimh last Sunday. A road that stretches ahead of us as far as the eye can see and that shows no sign of turning.
The first exchange was with Paudie Butler, the GAA’s Director of Hurling, a few days after the 2008 All-Ireland semi-final between Cork and Kilkenny. Now the former were a couple of seasons past their prime whereas the latter were halfway up Everest, but for once the pair of them didn’t overthink matters and shadow-box each other – and the attendance - into stasis.
Instead they made for the centre of the ring, locked and let rip. For 25 minutes it was nip and tuck, thrust and parry and counter-thrust. Exhilarating stuff, whereupon Eoin Larkin banged in a goal and the champions set sail.
“That 25 minutes,” Paudie Butler asserted emphatically, “was the best hurling that’s ever been played.”
The best hurling because it was so fast and simultaneously so precise.
It was speedy without being rushed, the panoply of the game’s skills deployed at full throttle and no water spilled.
Was this the day that hurling began to change in real-time before our eyes? It is as legitimate a starting point as any.
The staging posts have arrived thick and fast in the meantime.
Four weeks later Kilkenny shattered all sorts of records in putting up 3-30 against Waterford. Twelve months after that they scored 2-22 and needed to. Imagine hitting 0-23 in an All Ireland final, as Tipperary had, and not winning. (Recent All-Ireland finals had been won with 1-14, 0-17 and 1-16.) “If you’d told me beforehand we’d play that well and lose I’d have been surprised,” Eamon O’Shea was to muse the following week.
Forward four years to Clare and Cork sharing 50 points equally first time around and sharing 56 points not quite so equally in the replay. Forward another year, with Kilkenny and Tipp sharing 62 points in the drawn game. Imagine hitting 29 scores in an All-Ireland final, as Tipperary had, and not winning…
Which brings us to the second conversation. “Do you reckon hurling can get any faster or higher-scoring?” a pal of your correspondent’s wondered next day.
It was an obvious question and the implied response was similarly obvious: No.
Here, after all, were two very good teams operating at maximum capability. The Mahers and Noel McGrath and Callanan and Bubbles. The Fennellys and the Richies and Larkin and TJ. Could they or anyone else hurl faster? Could they or anyone else score more?
Two purely rhetorical enquiries, surely. Surely. How naïve and negligent of us not to allow for the possibility that 2014 would mark merely another staging post as opposed to the end of the journey.
On it went. The 2016 All-Ireland final and Tipp’s 2-29. (Yes, they somehow managed to win this one.) The 2018 semi-final: 1-27 apiece for Cork and Limerick in normal time. The opening weekend of Championship 2020, when even the losers were shooting the lights out. The engines have become larger, the petrol tanks more capacious, the highways smoother and the speed limits no longer apply.
When the hurlers of the 1950s went to the US on trips they were bowled over on finding how everything was bigger, brighter, faster, louder. Put a hurler of 1955 into a DeLorean and he’d find the same about the hurling of today.
Yet how better is bigger? If everyone has money in their pocket, to what extent does a currency become debased? If Clare can hit 1-23 and still lose by 10 points, does not it validate Paudie Butler’s observation last year that the rise in long-range points “adds nothing of value to the game”?
Or if one member of the Galway full-back line can score two points, as was the case last weekend? Or if two members of the Kilkenny full-back line can score a point each? The tastiest cakes have atin’ in them, not just cream and jam and sprinkles.
Let us be grateful, then, for the events of last Sunday at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. The rain came down and Championship 2020 came alive.
No airy insubstantiality here. Nothing was unearned, everything fought for. This was primeval stuff, the classic stern naked grandeur of the old school, each score chiselled out of the wind and the rain and the mud as if out of a cliff face. No corner-backs were scoring points here. They were too busy defending.
And after all of that, on one of the most wretched days in the history of the championship Limerick produced one of the finest displays in the history of the championship, scoring 3-23 (2-16 from play) against the team that won last year’s All-Ireland final by 14 points.
The obvious reference point is Offaly’s exhibition in the 1995 Leinster final, a symphony of wristiness and first touch and rigorous movement of the ball amid a summer storm.
Although Limerick took the sliotar to hand far more frequently than Offaly did 25 years ago, their first touch came coated in adhesive, their ball-handling was astonishingly assured in the conditions and the clarity of their thinking in transferring possession from defence to attack never wavered.
Two years have passed since extra time was required to separate themselves and Cork at Croke Park. Two paths met in a wood and all of that.
About Cork, on foot of their defeat by Waterford, there is really nothing left to say. We have been here before far too often in recent years.
It is easy to overlook, and consequently downplay, their rollcall of absentees seven days ago.
A team short on star quality will inevitably miss a rainmaker like Darragh Fitzgibbon. But God, as the moralists never tire of telling us, specialises in assisting those who assist themselves and Calum Lyons’s goal was all too reminiscent of Jonathan Glynn’s goal in the opening moments of the 2015 All Ireland quarter-final.
Remember Glynn trundling 50 metres through a defence devoid of anyone with the cop-on to pull him down?
Remember Cork losing by 12 points the same afternoon to a crowd who drove 23 wides? Shane McGrath’s midweek observation that teams “like playing against Cork these days” was such a statement of the bleedin’ obvious it’s mildly surprising it was wrought into a headline.
Trailing Kilkenny for so long at least served to concentrate Dublin minds; they weren’t looking over their shoulder fearing the worst.
Eamon Dillon nonetheless remains the type better employed as a springer than a starter. His gaiscí against Kilkenny didn’t change this but rather underlined it. Dublin are the kind of opponents, brusque and physical and direct, made to unsettle Cork.
Watching Limerick will have made Clare feel a little less bad about themselves and today they won’t have the same need of John Conlon’s presence as they did a fortnight ago.
Laois shipped a couple of hideous qualifier beatings from Clare in the mid-noughties. These things tend to lodge in the race memory.
For the moment, however, and perhaps for the remainder of the championship it’s all about Limerick. The most enduring performance of the noughties came from Kilkenny in the 2008 All-Ireland final; the most enduring performance of the 2010s was supplied by Tipperary in the 2016 All-Ireland final; the baseline for enduring performances in the 2020s has already been gouged in Leeside mud.
Rest assured it’ll be surpassed. The rate of hurling’s progress since those 25 minutes at Croke Park in 2008 both demands it and guarantees it. Jammed with unbroken heroes, the highway goes ever on.