A rivalry between two teams can be the vital ingredient needed to spice things up before a ball is even thrown in. In fact, if the rivalry is genuine and not something manufactured for a marketing campaign, almost every encounter produces something special.
Every sport has these special matchups that fire the imagination in advance. The protagonists themselves often mention the palpable difference when it is this one opponent over others.
Soccer has Liverpool versus Manchester United. Baseball has the New York Yankees versus the Boston Red Sox. Basketball has the Los Angeles Lakers versus the Boston Celtics. Rugby had the All Blacks versus the Wallabies, and closer to home Munster versus Leinster.
Actually, these two rugby examples are interesting for a different reason, because they also are an example of how closeness of standard is important for a rivalry to thrive. New Zealand’s and Leinster’s dominance against their long-standing rivals has shaved some of the friction off these normally high-octane clashes. There is something about bragging rights that needs a close encounter for it to be truly worthwhile to go on and on about a result long after the final whistle.
A comfortable win, in a previously highly anticipated tie, doesn’t quite have the same energy and enthusiasm around the watercooler on a Monday morning.
In a true rivalry, people can be forgiven to expect something special because of the regularity with which the stars seem to align leading to exceptional things happening. For example, tennis has the Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal rivalry with their 2008 Wimbledon final topping the charts, where Nadal emerged the victor following a 9-7 fifth set win after nearly 5 hours of spellbinding tennis.
However, the fact that they are such good friends off-the-court somewhat possibly dilutes the rivalry. That’s why Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi top most people’s tennis rivalry charts. This is not to suggest that there wasn’t huge respect between the two men on the court, but the fact that they were so different from each other off the court made for a proper rivalry, culminating in Sampras’s win over Agassi in the 2002 US Open final, before signing off on a stellar 14 grand slam winning career.
The GAA is not short of rivalries either, but the nagging closeness of standard between historical heavyweights is necessary. Last weekend’s hurling All-Ireland semi-finals are a perfect example. The game of the weekend was Cork versus Kilkenny, and yet again it came up trumps for everyone, including the neutrals. These two teams have produced some classics over the years, but probably nothing as good as last Sunday in over 15 years.
However, Limerick seem to be a cut above everyone else at the moment and their comfortable win over Waterford last Saturday was clear for everyone to see. It does beg the question as to whether Limerick are playing against themselves nowadays as opposed to the team lining out against them.
Should they play to their own heady standards, they appear to be untouchable, but that’s why finals are so tantalising, upsets by their nature are largely close affairs, and the general public would love nothing more than a tight one to decide the destination of the Liam MacCarthy cup, even if the pre-match preamble does not fire the imagination like other matchups may have.
The same can’t be said for what we have in store for the upcoming All-Ireland football championship semi-finals. There are wall-to-wall rivalries on offer, albeit if a little delayed. The Kerry versus Tyrone encounter has now been moved forward to next Saturday in response to an outbreak of Covid-19 in the camp of the Ulstermen, but that will only give us more time to reminisce on what this encounter has given us over the years.
A proper rivalry, as this one is, has the capacity to bring out the best of both teams but also to level the playing field when push comes to shove. On paper, Kerry look to be raging favourites, their form this season alone is enough to warrant this opinion, let alone the fact that Tyrone have not been at their best for quite some time. However, nothing will fire them up more than the prospect of turning over Kerry in Croke Park, once again, for old time sake.
When so much of sport, especially at the elite level, has become almost sanitised by data and marginal gains, where science sometimes speaks louder than the art of play, it is perfectly acceptable for players to marry history with preparation if it has the potential to help them find another level. Possibly even more so nowadays when so many of the top teams are already maxing out on the physical preparation, tactical know-how and skill level, a proper rivalry can help players find that additional one percent that previously they may not have known was in them.
But however tantalising a Kerry versus Tyrone match is, in the last decade it plays second fiddle to what a Mayo versus Dublin match can offer. With one-point wins for Dublin in 2013, 2016, and 2017, as well as the drawn final of 2016, these two counties have recency to their rivalry like no other. It is unfair to leave Kerry out of this three-way rivalry as between them they have become each other’s standard bearer. So much so that a final contested between any two of these three teams is seen as a proper final, however on the flipside of that, if there is only one of them in a final, it will be viewed as a soft final, with an idle and dangerous assumption that the final is a foregone conclusion.
As Mayo, Kerry and Dublin have progressed through their respective provincial championships this season all but unscathed, there is still a lot left to answer about how good these teams really are. However, there is a sense that each county is comfortable with that fact because they themselves can only truly know where they are at until they are playing one of the other two.
At the level that these three teams play at, they can only be tested by a team at their level. Of course, they can be caught off guard, out of the blue, but in all essence, they’ve been waiting for each other since the first weekend back.
If this Dublin team are on the wane, then only Mayo or Kerry can find the weakness. They are also the only two teams that would have the wherewithal to see it through to the end and finally dislodge the best team in the history of the game, even if they’re still quite some way from being the best county ever. But Dublin also know this, and they will be prepared for an onslaught like no other, as they had in 2019, the last normal year of the championship when it took two matches to beat Kerry for their fifth title in a row.
So even though Covid-19 is doing its best to disrupt a second year of action, the dynamic trio will see to it that the 2021 season will finish on a high, thanks in no small part to their burgeoning rivalry.