Twenty years ago, Loughnane’s Clare emerged from nowhere to set the summer alight. Are we there again, waiting for a bolter to win the All Ireland, a team to come from the clouds and cut a swathe through a mediocre field?
“It’s an amazing thing. It’s kind of a sport that defies logic. People shouldn’t even be able to do that – to hit the ball on the run with opponents trying to take your head off”
- Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting, on the grá he developed for hurling during his time living in Dublin in the mid-1990s
MAY 1995. Irvine Welsh may even have been around for it. Kilkenny won the league, beating Clare by nine points in the final and slipping quietly out of Semple Stadium to stow the silverware in the boot of Bill Hennessy’s car. They, Tipperary and Cork had won five of the last six All Irelands between them. Only the previous year Nickey Brennan had made his impassioned “Hurling is dying” speech at Congress, over-egging his point a little for the purposes of publicity and hitting the target with a thud. The old house had shut its doors again and the only people tapping at the window were Offaly.
And then, out of nowhere, everything changed. Along came Clare and Loughnane and Wexford and Griffin and the Riverdance of sport and Guinness and men who could break your heart from 65 metres. The door wasn’t so much opened as kicked down by a couple of boots from Ger Loughane’s Doc Martens. The sun shone all the way through the summer of 1995, literally as well as metaphorically, and bliss it was in that season to be alive.
Twenty years on are we back in the same place? Waiting for a bolter to win the All Ireland, a team to come from the clouds and cut a swathe through a mediocre field? Or could it be that we’ve already got our bolter with Waterford winning the league and that that’s our lot for 2015?
Of one thing we can at least be certain. It will not take a great team to win the All Ireland this year. This is good news for Waterford and Dublin and Limerick. It is, of course, equally good news for Kilkenny and Tipp.
A glance back at the runners and riders from 1995 makes clear the reason for Clare’s emergence. There was a gap in the market to be filled. Offaly were All Ireland champions, dangerous when their backs were against the wall or they felt under-appreciated but also erratic. Limerick were obvious contenders. Cork were mediocre and would get worse before they got better. Waterford were a couple of seasons away from Gerald McCarthy. Kilkenny and Tipperary were in a similar boat. Wexford had suffered so many big-day disappointments as to be candidates for psychological evaluation; they’d got themselves a new shrink, a chap from Rosslare, but even he couldn’t prescribe overnight treatment. Galway were, as they remain, Galway, albeit in a better way then than currently.
Cork are again mediocre. Kilkenny and Tipperary are again rebuilding. Galway are awful, which makes them more than usually dangerous. Clare appear to have got their nervous breakdown out of the way at the right time. Limerick and Dublin are contenders, as are Waterford, who on bank holiday Sunday demonstrated that they’re far more than a passing mayfly. And if Waterford are as good as they are then logically Wexford, the team who beat them in last year’s qualifiers, cannot be more than a few lengths off them. The playing field hasn’t looked this level since 1998.
The past that was the landscape at the outset of the 1995 championship, then, is no foreign country. The wheel has turned almost full circle, from the revolution of the mid-nineties to the counter-reformation of the noughties – who could have foreseen the great vengeance and furious anger with which an outraged empire would strike back? – and, perhaps, back again.
While a half-decade as colourful and democratic as the one that was unfolding this time 20 years ago may or may not be about to emerge from the chrysalis, as matters stand at the moment there is ample reason for satisfaction as well as optimism. Hurling is in an infinitely better place than it was back then, particularly on the middle and lower rungs of the ladder. As for the shop window, well, designer products do not come more high-end or glittering than that showcased at Croke Park on September 7th last.
Thanks to the imagination of Pat Daly in Croke Park there are Go Games and Cúl Camps and talent academies and the Táin Leagues in Ulster and Connacht. The Ring and Rackard and Meagher Cups – the fundamental and most farreaching legacy of Sean Kelly’s presidency, much more so than the Rule 21 episode - give the supposed children of a lesser god their chance not merely of a day in the sun but also of incremental improvement and meaningful progress. The All Ireland intermediate and junior club championships allow everyone to dream of Croke Park in springtime.
As of last year there were 602 more registered hurling teams in the country than there were in 2010, an increase that is little shy of astonishing taking emigration into account. The old house has never had as many open windows or as many breezes blowing down its hallways. And not just here; witness the popularity of hurling on American campuses as revealed in Dara Ó Cinnéide’s absorbing recent TG4 series on the GAA in the US.
The 2015 championship will be no slow burner. The traps open in earnest this weekend and the early runners won’t be dawdling to the first bend. Limerick and Clare, perhaps the earthiest and most primeval hurling rivalry of them all, hit the lid in Thurles on Sunday. Dublin and Galway do battle in Croke Park seven days later, a nicely balanced and utterly unguessable contest. A Cork/Waterford rematch, with all the attendant questions of how Cork will tailor their thinking, follows the week after that. And all of this before Kilkenny and Tipperary take to the arena.
Despite poor Pauric Mahony’s misfortune Waterford will remain the team of the moment. But their fitness advantage will dwindle and in the end they’re likely to fall down when it comes to putting a sufficiency of scores on the board because they don’t have enough going on inside the last 30 metres of the field. Not enough physique, not enough pace. But so what? It matters not a whit if Waterford don’t win another match between now and next February. Their year has already been an outstanding triumph.
Plausible scenarios can be constructed that bring Clare, Dublin and Limerick to the last four. After last year anything less would constitute a backward step for the latter, though it’s perfectly possible to visualise them acquitting themselves well and departing the stage in an All Ireland quarter-final. Clare’s exploits of 2013 will ensure that Davy Fitz’s stock of brownie points is not in danger of being exhausted anytime soon, but they too need to show signs of evolution, meaning a place in the All Ireland series.
On the plus side they have Tony Kelly, whose gift it is to make the difficult look commonplace four or five times every day he goes out. On the minus side there’s an ongoing lack of bloodymindedness in the full-back line; Clare are simply too easy to run up a total against. Furthermore, what will ensue if the opposition park a spare defender in front of Shane O’Donnell, thereby cutting off the one-twos? As for Dublin, will they threaten enough – and score enough – in the full-forward line?
Galway are in such straits that the obvious conclusion is that they’ll do something this year, except – if you follow – that this obvious conclusion is so goddamn obvious that they’ll almost certainly bomb again. Trying to conquer the world with small handy forwards didn’t work for them in the past. Trying to conquer it with big workhorses doesn’t look to be working either. Yet on their (increasingly rare) good days there’s nobody out there too far ahead of them, and if Galway were somehow to fetch up at Croke Park in September it wouldn’t be the Kilkenny of 2012 they’d be facing.
Cork will be easy to watch and, on all the recent evidence, easy to play against. On their day the forward line will be fast and tidy and will pick off their points to beat the band. Whether they’ll be all those things for the 70-plus minutes of an oppressive championship struggle is quite another matter. A restoration of the kind of attitude that informed their 2013 quarter-final victory against Kilkenny would assist. First of all they need a plan to pick their way through Waterford’s lines next month.
The manner of Tipp’s league exit left several little threads hanging. If Waterford were fitter on the day it was explicable. If they were hungrier it was not. How could Tipp not be ravenous for silverware? The defeat can be rationalised easily enough; the two early goals lulled them into a false sense of security and they couldn’t rise it when they had to once the alarm bells shrilled midway through the second half, with Ronan Maher’s three misses from long range sapping the chance of momentum. Then again, with Tipperary in recent years there are always ifs and buts. Thing is, winning teams brook no ifs and buts. Still, their first 20 appears to be better than Kilkenny’s.
The holders? They remain Kilkenny but not by much. The gods have departed and the defending champions are no longer touched by divinity, Richie Hogan and TJ Reid apart. The loss of JJ Delaney will matter because he was JJ; the loss of the other four retirees will matter because it leaves Cody short of options on the bench. That said, a forward division of Reid-Hogan-Larkin-Fennelly-Power-AN Other is one calculated to compile winning totals, the more so if Michael Fennelly stays fit behind them.
Assuming Paul Murphy is returned to his best position sooner rather than later the holders may still have the best 15. But they won last year’s title solely by virtue of having the best 24, and this year’s title will surely be won by the county with the best 20.
One for the nerds while we’re at it. This may finally be the year a team breaks the 30-point barrier in a championship match and loses. Improbable? Yes, but not out of the question. Kilkenny and Tipp came as near as made no difference last September when hitting 3-22 and 1-28 respectively but surviving to fight another day. That’s how good, how fast and how highscoring the game has become at the top end.
So: up to eight potential MacCarthy Cup winners and very definitely eight potential All Ireland semi-finalists. Nine, come to think of it, taking Wexford into account.
In the end maybe it’ll all come right for Tipperary. Because they’ve been so close for so long, because they’ve high explosive in that forward line and because Kilkenny lack the options and alternatives of yore. Maybe.
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