For a good few years, the 1994 meeting of Offaly and Limerick was beyond compare as the greatest game of hurling the one seeing eye has ever taken in.
Thereafter, Kilkenny’s spells of dominance and breakthroughs for Clare and Wexford were momentous occasions in their own right, but in terms of a game to enter the annals of archived classics in the memory bank bank here, the draw and replay between Clare and Cork from 2013 was the next to reach such status.
In more recent seasons, seeing Joe Canning collect the Celtic Cross his wonderful career richly deserved and the flowering of years of potential down Shannon side illuminated the old game in different ways. Yet Sunday’s reunion between Cork and Kilkenny will stand comparison with the greatest exhibitions of the old game.
The storied and often fierce rivalry between the two counties has been interwoven into the very fabric of the GAA. Where one had Jack Lynch and Christy Ring, see Lory Meagher and Eddie Keher. You could compile encyclopedic lists of the mesmeric stickmen from either county and still leave luminaries of the game out.
Much of my formative schooling on the lore of hurling was hearing of the deeds of Lynch and Ring, Keher, the Hendersons, ‘Fan’ Larkin and so many more. Some of the chronicled classics of the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Alas, my educator-in-chief is now in the Lower Hogan far away. It’s hardly coincidence mind you that the first hurling final of which there was proper cognisance was the clash of the Old Firm from 1992.
A Kilkenny team backboned by the O’Connor brothers, Pat Dwyer, Liam Keoghan, Pat O’Neill John Power and DJ Carey overcoming a Cork combination comprising Ger Cunningham, Jim Cashman, Tomas Mulcahy and Tony O’Sullivan. From there, the next chapters in the never-ending story was in the mid 2000s when each stopped the other from registering hat-tricks of titles.
Now it’s worth considering that when Cork had the upper hand in the 1999 final the full time score was 0-13 to 0-12. Very shortly thereafter, scoring rates ratcheted up considerably. Which was very much to the benefit of Brian Cody’s side as they had goal architects supreme Henry Shefflin, Eddie Brennan and ‘Taggy’ Fogarty in tow.
Even by those outlandish standards however, the scoring rates in hurling have gone into another galaxy. Consider that when Cork beat Kilkenny in the All Ireland Final of 1999, the full time score was 0-13 to 0-12. In most recent times, it has become common for teams to have the above totals banked long before half time.
Limerick have undoubtedly accelerated the trend but it’s a simple fact that the speed and skill of the players combined with the carry of the modern sliotar has meant the accumulation of extraordinary numbers of points the norm rather than headline news. That and an absolute necessity. By half time in yesterday’s epic latest chapter, Cork’s Patrick Horgan was well on his way to equaling the total it took for the Rebel County to emerge triumphant in ’99. Of course he ended up bettering it, but even that guaranteed nothing in this old style stand off.
Twice over the 90+ minutes of majestic mayhem Kilkenny led by six points, with Richie TJ Reid hurling on instinct, Michael Carey living up to his breeding but belying his lack of experience and Eoin Cody looking like he’d been doing it all for years. The lineage isn’t too bad there either by the way. Yet at no stage were they able to put Cork away.
Back in the early to mid 2000s when the rivalry between the two was at its most ferocious, the lauded Cork half back line of John Gardner, Ronan Curran and Sean Og O’hAilpin was very often the deciding factor in some gargantuan battles between the old foes. The names may be different now but the principle was the same yesterday as Tim O’Mahony, Mark Coleman and Ger Millerick proved the road block Kilkenny just couldn’t get through.
When Kieran Kingston’s charges slowly but surely reeled in a 0-01 to 0-06 deficit early on, it was as if Horgan was determined to single handedly drag his colleagues over the line. Except he was by no means on his own. Though he had accounted for 0-10 of the 14 he and his colleagues had registered by half time and they still trailed by one, with the teams already having shared 29 scores, it was very a case of making it up as they went along.
Horgan hurled like a Rebel with a cause, determined to lead his troops home. Remember, here was a man who once scored 3-10 in an All Ireland semi final and still ended up on the beaten team. A team who held a six point lead with eight minutes remaining, were thwarted by a worldy save from Nicky Quaide and then picked off by a rampaging Limerick.
Lightening doesn’t strike twice? Cork might beg to differ. Again they led by six, again they were gunned down with sanctuary in sight. Kilkenny simply did what they always do – kept going. Picked off points as if it were a casual puck around on the village green. Lulled their prey into a false sense of security before Adrian Mullen took it upon himself to sink the claws into Cork’s ambitions, for a while at least. With an arrow-like shot through a forest of bodies. In the dying embers of injury time. After a sumptuous pass from Padraig Walsh.
Something always changes when a game goes to extra time. Convention says those who have been reprieved kick on. Nobody told Cork. During commentary yesterday, mention was made of “The Glen Rovers swagger”, denoting the aura which rightly envelopes that great institution by the Lee. When it mattered most, it wasn’t just Horgan who had it either. In handcuffing TJ Reid, Rob Downey not only nullified Kilkenny’s main threat but also subdued possibly the most iconic forward of this generation.
It spoke more than just scores prevented. Perhaps it was an illustration of the shifting of the sands. Eoin Murphy denied Jack O’Connor a goal with a mesmeric save in normal time but youthful enthusiasm sent the Sarsfields man back hunting again in extra time he netted the loot which all but caged the Cats. Maybe, mind you, the loudest statement arrived in the contribution of 0-11 off the Cork bench via Alan Cadogan, Declan Dalton and the imperious Shane Kingston who essayed a magnificent seven in riposte to being omitted from the starting lineup by his dad.
Such is how the tables have turned. There was a time the greatest competition Cody’s players faced was from their own comrades. Their training matches becoming the stuff of legend. Where hurling’s man with the cap refereed the match the way it should be done – throw in the ball and just let them at it. As an old friend of ours used to say just blow for the puck outs!
If the paid referees did likewise our games would be much better off. Anyway, what the savage competition for places also did was ensure that poor unfortunates thinking they were getting a modicum of respite when some of the Galacticos were withdrawn had no such luck, those who came in were every bit as ravenous and eager to stake their claim to a starting berth.
Both Limerick and Cork are in enviably similar positions now. Seeing them to unpick each other’s locks will be the entertainment for the rest of us.