They were on their feet in Walsh Park last night before the ball was even thrown in.
The man whose name was on the tickets for the Ken McGrath All-Star Challenge was strolling out to the middle of the field for a souvenir photograph with John Mullane, captain of the Munster invitational side, and Eddie Brennan, the Leinster skipper. The crowd were settling in their seats and mulling over the line-outs when the PA announcer broke in.
As soon as he drew spectators’ attention to Ken McGrath advancing on the 65-metre line, the crowd in the stand stood and applauded loud and long, hailing the man who won All-Star awards in three lines of the field.
There were almost 7,000 in attendance for the game, which also benefited the Irish Heart Foundation, and if they saw players who were |curating performances that recalled their best rather than competing with the tooth-and-claw savagery that marked their recent primes, well, that didn’t matter to those in attendance. It was a tribute to an individual and a tribute to an era all in one.
Some of the middles were a little thicker than a few years ago, and more than one player looked grateful the sidelines seemed a good distance from the perimeter of the field, cutting down significantly on the amount of playing area to be covered.
Munster were managed by Clare boss Davy Fitzgerald, who made just the eight pre-game changes to the programme team. Including five extra Waterford players didn’t anger the majority of the crowd, certainly.
The dynamic on the Leinster line was a little different. Brian Cody had an appointment — Tullamore, this evening, remember? – which precluded his taking the Leinster side, so Noel Skehan, Eddie Keher and DJ Carey were on the line for the eastern province. No, their switches weren’t questioned.
In fact a rough count of All-Stars within the wire perimeter of the stadium last evening, management included, topped out at around 106.
For hurling snobs it was like Valhalla mixed in with the Beatles gigs in the Cavern Club. There were sporadic outbursts of competitiveness in the game itself, but only in terms that were non- injurious: the ante wasn’t upped physically but in skill: John Tennyson snapped a loose ball under control with a downward slap and delivered it downfield; Donal Óg Cusack played a reverse ball across his own goal seconds later.
Paul Flynn collected a crossfield ball from Eoin Kelly and looked Damien Fitzhenry in the eye: it felt like 2003 all over again. How quickly you forget, in fact: Eamonn Corcoran’s quick feet to set himself. Noel Hickey, in possession, advancing with elbows flared.
Tony Browne’s unmistakable striking silhouette. The pure sound of Cha Fitzpatrick’s connection with the ball. Benny Dunne’s lengthy stride.
You go to a game like that half-expecting to leave a message for a current manager, that a career or two might be worth resurrecting, but that wasn’t really the purpose of the evening. The men on show didn’t make nonsense of their decisions to retire, or their managers decisions to retire them in some cases, but given at least one of them began his senior career in 1991 – Tony Browne – that was hardly a surprise.
We had the flurry of goals you expect in a game like this come the second-half, with Eoin Kelly’s effort, ghosting onto a John Mullane centre like Martin Peters, probably the pick of the bunch, though Peter Queally’s eye for goal – in a Leinster jersey, too – was probably the collector’s item for home supporters.
At the final whistle the announcer asked players to remain on the field for kids who wanted autographs, but it wasn’t strictly necessary. They all knew how to behave. They’d been doing it for years.
Scorers for Munster: E. Kelly 1-2, D. Ryan 1-1, E. McGrath, B. Dunne, M. O’Brien, Dan Shanahan, P. Flynn 0-2 each, O. Moran 0-1 each.
Scorers for Leinster: S. Whelahan 1-3, M. Comerford 1-2, P Queally 1-1, L. Ryan 1-0, C. Fitzpatrick, B. Murphy 0-3 each, E. Brennan 0-2, K. Broderick 0-1.
MUNSTER: D. Óg Cusack (Cork); E. Corcoran (Tipperary), D. Prendergast (Waterford), T. Feeney (Waterford); J. Gardiner (Cork), T. Browne (Waterford), S. Óg Ó hAilpín (Cork); E. McGrath (Waterford), B. Dunne (Tipperary); E. Kelly (Waterford), O. Moran (Limerick), F. Lynch (Clare); J. Mullane, P. Flynn, D. Shanahan (all Waterford).
Subs (rolling): T. Kenny (Cork), B. Phelan (Waterford), B. Cummins (Tipperary), M. O’Brien (Limerick), B .O’Meara (Tipperary).
LEINSTER: D. Fitzhenry (Wexford); E. Murphy (Waterford), N. Hickey (Kilkenny), D. Franks (Offaly); P. Tennyson (Kilkenny), J. Tennyson (Kilkenny), T. Óg Regan (Galway); J. Fitzpatrick (Kilkenny), D. Ruth (Wexford); E. Brennan (Kilkenny), M. Comerford (Kilkenny), K. Broderick (Galway; S. Whelahan, G. Oakley, B. Murphy (all Offaly).
Subs (rolling): C. Hennessy (Waterford), G. Laffan (Wexford), L. Ryan (Dublin), P. Queally (Waterford) Referee: M. Wadding (Waterford).