Sunday 17 December 2017

Small ball empire stops us guessing

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody at the Limerick v Wexford game. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody at the Limerick v Wexford game. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

JUST to prove there are no guarantees in the 'entertainment' business that is knockout sport, along came that double-header feast of small ball in Tom Semple's field to leave us all traumatised (if you're a Yellowbelly or a Dub) or stupefied (pass me the smelling salts) or both.

Go on, admit it: last Sunday was a shocker. From start to finish.

We have, of course, grown spoiled in these parts. The last year-and-a-half of championship hurling has been an unrelenting onslaught of shock after shock, drama layered upon drama.

Last summer the three big pots of silver went to Dublin (after a 52-year famine), Limerick (after a 17-year hiatus) and finally Clare (after a 16-year wait). But it wasn't merely the identity of these winners, but the myriad sub-plots contained within. Dublin finally slaying the Black-and-Amber behemoth. Their five-match-in-one-month Leinster odyssey. Munster final day at the Gaelic Grounds. Kilkenny's defiant back door resistance to their decline-and-fall. Red card controversy. The evolution of Davy Fitz's Banner revolution: the perfect coalescing of sharp tactics and sublime youth. That Cork/Dublin thriller. And finally, the fitting climax of two truly epic All-Irelands.


Then, for a few weeks at the start of this summer, the hurling championship that keeps on giving carried on in the same thrill-a-minute vein as Cork and Galway launched improbable comebacks to force replays; as Limerick ambushed Tipp (again!); as Clare's All-Ireland crown tottered and then finally fell, the new kings usurped by the unlikely pretenders from Wexford.

Ah yes, Wexford: the fairytale heroes of 2014.

But they aren't the real story. The old order have reasserted themselves. Kilkenny are back at the summit in Leinster. Rebel rule has been restored down south. Seventy-five percent of the last four happen to be known as the Big Three. Cork, Tipp, Kilkenny. The only gate-crashers, if you'd even call them that, are Limerick.

Twelve months ago, this column hadn't a clue who would claim Liam MacCarthy - and revelled in this fog of confusion. This year is very different, albeit equally wide open: Kilkenny may be back, stronger than last summer, but not stronger than ever; Cork have upped the ante after last year's near-miss but Tipp won't fear them; Limerick are the dark horse who cannot be discounted.

One can only hope, though, that the semi-finals make up for last Sunday. Otherwise, good grief, only the big ball can save us.

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