Hurling heroes adorn a final epic

WE own the fastest and most spectacular ball game in the world in the code of hurling.

It is Celtic, passionate, skilful, beautiful to the eye and the sporting mind. It demands courage, manliness, a whole range of the most subtle arts, both in the air and on the ground. It demands lightning reflexes, superb fitness, pace power and purpose.

At its very best it demands an almost sublime commitment, an alchemic fusing of man and wood and leather, brain and brawn, body and mind. Up there, when the ash clashes in combat, these young men with the eyes of eagles, filled with fire to the point of a controlled ferocity, etch sporting images which are unique to that surreal and elastic thing which we call our culture. There are no brighter or more compelling images than those in our sporting cabinet.

When an All-Ireland final is competitive and played at the highest level of skill then the whole pulsating spectacle becomes akin to an additional Irish sacrament. So it was on Sunday. The ghost of Cuchulainn was the happiest of all in the gallery of the ancient gods. Hurling was the winner by the time the long whistle shrilled to define the victors and the vanquished after an epic struggle.

We need sporting heroes more than we need bishops or barons. We need them almost as much as we do our daily bread. They embellish all codes and embody the best elements of them. And, remarkably enough in codes involving teams, it is normally just one gifted individual who emerges as the star to be remembered.

So we have the fame of Christy Ring and Mick Mackey and Jack Lynch and the ilk of Joe Cooney and Nicky English spanning the hurling decades just like Pele and Jackie Kyle and Willie John McBride do in their sports.

But it is rare indeed for an entire team and panel to achieve immortality as Kilkenny did on Sunday. We now know for a proven fact that they are the greatest team that hurling has ever seen.

To win four titles in-a-row in modern times, to have not lost a championship game in four full seasons, that is an incredible achievement. It may have been done before but not against the background of such fierce competition as the Cats have faced down all the summer Sundays of their greatness to date. The word mighty is apt.

We are privileged to be the generation which has been able to see the emergence of this unique band of men. We are lucky that in this high-tech era every minute and stroke of their campaigns is preserved in the national archives, courtesy of RTÉ.

They can be certain that they will be viewed by countless thousands long after they have hung up the boots and hurls with which they created a modern legend.

Surely there can be no dispute any more over who is the greatest team in the history of hurling.

Surely even the best of the legends of the past would not have lasted for 15 minutes at the pace which Kilkenny set as they sped towards their Croke Park glory?

Their names will live forever.

The city and the county of Kilkenny may have first claim on Cody’s Cats but they truly don’t own them either. We all own them. They are unique. They are the best in the world when you look at it that way.

They are the Greatest! It is now beyond any reasonable doubt.

And they could well now go on to make it five in-a-row! Who, one wonders, will finally defeat them? At this point the best chance of that would belong to the young and gifted Tipperary lads who pushed them to the limit in Sunday’s epic.

A measure of how close they came is the fact that the Cats’ keeper, PJ Ryan, had to work very hard to earn the Man Of The Match award! There are a lot of bumps and bruises today amongst the newcomers to the Hall of Fame. It was tough and physical in the extreme, no quarter given or taken, and played at a ferocious pace from beginning to end. That’s the way hurling is and referee Diarmuid Kirwan did a splendid job in letting it flow freely.

He may have come under fire for the penalty award which turned the battle around but overall he was excellent. And there is another point. That single foul stroke which brought the red card into view was regrettable but it also emphasised just how controlled and responsible modern hurlers are even in the heart of the battle. And also how tough they are. If it had been an English Premier soccer star who shipped the welt Tommy Walsh received he would still be rolling over in alleged agony. Walsh bounded back to his feet like a rubber ball in two seconds.

We will never forget this team that Cody built, not just for Kilkenny but for all of us and for our enjoyment and awe indeed. Theirs is a magnificent achievement against all the odds. They will never be forgotten. Kilkenny children as yet unborn will be able to line them out – from Ryan to Fogarty – down all the black and amber tinted hurling decades that lie ahead of us.

And there is not just one new hurley but 18 in the Hall of Fame today.

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