By way of laying our scene for the new hurling championship, two conversations from the evening of May 6, shortly after the National League final.
The first was with Tom Dempsey, the second a textual communication from a young man in south Tipperary.
Dempsey was on his way out of the Old Stand at Semple Stadium when he paused for a moment, having just witnessed a cut-and-paste Kilkenny destroy a near-full strength Cork. “This is killing hurling,” he said with a sigh.
Now let’s be clear about what he meant. It wasn’t that Kilkenny were killing hurling. That would be too trite, too lazy, too simplistic. How could a bunch that has done what they’ve done, won what they’ve won and continually expanded the concept of what a hurling team can achieve, be anything but good for the game?
No, it was that Kilkenny’s superiority was killing hurling.
“Ten years ago Kilkenny were giving Wexford awful beatings in Leinster finals and it nearly broke Wexford’s spirit.”
Dempsey elaborates. “Now the rest of the country is beginning to feel how we felt. And the thing is, Kilkenny are not stopping. Their application is exemplary. It could kill the rest of the country.”
Tom Dempsey’s words carry all the more weight because he was a citizen of that far-off age of rampant hurling democracy. As per the Chinese curse, he lived in interesting times, soldiering with Wexford in an era when anything could happen and quite often did. Being knocked out of the Leinster championship by Laois. Appearing in five major finals — three National League, two provincial – in the space of three months in 1993 and not winning any of them. Finally winning an All-Ireland on a Wexford team that, perversely, was inferior to the edition of a few years previously.
But that was then, when all counties were equal. And this is now, when one county is more equal than the rest.
The text message arrived a couple of hours after the encounter with Tom Dempsey. Its sender may have been from south Tipp, but he’s not someone who views the world through blue and gold-tinted lenses.
“That ruined my anticipation of the championship,” he ochóned. “They should just hand over the MacCarthy Cup now and let us get on with watching Euro 2012 and the Olympics.”
All very depressing, with one caveat. This is sport. The summer of 2012 may indeed be a triumphal procession for Kilkenny — and then again it may not. Because life is imprecise. Because, to quote that great philosopher-neocon Donald Rumsfeld, stuff happens. Because there are, in the further words of the same gentleman, known unknowns and unknown unknowns.
Jimmy Cooney blowing a premature final whistle with Clare in possession and in control. Devon Loch doing the splits halfway up the Aintree run-in. Manchester City needing two goals in injury time and, from somewhere the far side of hope, getting them.
Sport, eh? Bloody hell.
If such existential musings fail to warm you, how about this for a rather less nebulous proposition? The sheer ease of their victory against Cork a fortnight ago suggests that, far from winning the All-Ireland, Kilkenny will not retain the trophy. For winning the league final comfortably can damage your health. It certainly has been proven, time and again, to damage your championship prospects.
The last time a team that won the league final by eight points or more went on to win the All Ireland was 1965: that all-singing, all-dancing Tipperary outfit. Since then, any number of impressive NHL winners have crashed and burned when summer came.
Cork in 1974 after beating Limerick by 18 points in the league final. Kilkenny in 1976 after hitting Clare for six goals in a replay. Limerick in 1984 and ’85. Tipperary in 1994, the year John Leahy went off playing football and injured himself. And on and on and on.
Of course, if there’s one team that can break the sequence it’s Brian Cody’s troops. That should go without saying.
We’ll know more by teatime on June 24. That weekend is shaping up as the hurling weekend of the summer. Kilkenny versus (probably) Dublin in Portlaoise on the Saturday evening, then a potential Cork/Tipperary face-off the following afternoon.
These are the biggest games this side of August, bigger games than the Munster and Leinster finals will be. And when the hurly-burly’s done, two extremely dangerous teams will have been set loose in the qualifiers, temporarily chastened but bound to rise again.
As to the identity of those two wounded animals, one wouldn’t dream of venturing a guess. But ponder this much. Kilkenny will line out in Portlaoise minus the services of Michael Fennelly, the Hurler of the Year, and Richie Power, and with Henry Shefflin having missed spring training. If it’s Dublin they’re facing, a grinding, down ‘n’ dirty battle of attrition amid the confines of O’Moore Park is a guarantee. The champions may not face a more searching test all season.
Tipp, assuming they overcome Limerick, against Cork?
Toss a coin, or at any rate wait till closer to throw-in. Still, Tipperary are sitting a good deal less uneasily than they were a few weeks ago, what between dodging a bullet in the league final and the return of Lar Corbett.
But one caveat. Cork will perform to their potential because they idolise their manager. Kilkenny will perform to their potential because they respect their manager. Does Declan Ryan possess the same conviction and inspire the same reaction? Whatever the case, progress via the front door is essential. Two years ago Tipp managed to patch things up after losing to Cork. They won’t pull off the same trick a second time.
They should surmount the first obstacle all the same in view of Limerick’s recent misfortunes: Declan Hannon’s unavailability, Ciarán Carey’s departure, Seamus Hickey’s injury and the Division 1B final defeat to Clare. What their style of play will be and the extent to which it suits them, moreover, remain to be seen. All of which does not constitute a recipe for optimism.
Clare versus Waterford on the other side of the draw is anyone’s guess. Davy will get a tune out of his native county, no question of that. Michael Ryan may struggle to do the same with his boys. This is the first time in half a decade that Waterford are not shaping up as All Ireland semi-final contenders. That’s not Ryan’s fault; it’s simply the stage they’re at.
Leinster will be more interesting than usual. Liam Watson will be a box-office attraction. Wexford will make a few headlines under Liam Dunne, although heaven knows what those headlines will say.
And then there’s Galway, as there always is at this time of year. Galway. The enduring enigma, the permanent — ahem — joker in the pack, albeit one that’s been staying firmly stuck in said pack, 2005 being the last time they reached an All Ireland semi-final. It’s a scenario that has played to an expectant audience for years now, one that might have been scripted by Beckett. Waiting for God-Joe.
There appears to be no obvious reason why 2012 should be any different. But that’s always the way with these things until they happen. And as a result of the relegation two-parter against Dublin, Galway are in a considerably better place than they were a few weeks ago. And Anthony Cunningham has no excuse for not knowing his best 15 by now.
Galway to take a big scalp at last (keep saying it and we’re bound to be right eventually), then lose next time out? Quite possibly. So try this as a last four: Kilkenny, Tipp, Galway and Cork. Dublin the likeliest intruder.
For the record, your correspondent has Cork backed. At 10/1. From before the league final.
Was his heart not badly shaken by events at Thurles on May 6? Yes. And yes, maybe it was the 2013 championship he should have punted them for. And may yet do.
Still, it’s Cork and it’s JBM. No harm to be on the safe side.
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