Gal­way lat­est county to rise to chal­lenge set by Kilkenny

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Keith Dug­gan

One of the most un­ex­pected de­vel­op­ments in mod­ern hurl­ing has been the emer­gence, out of the mar­ble, of a cast of ex-Kilkenny hurlers as fire­brand opin­ion-mak­ers and down­right en­ter­tain­ers.

A friend who lives abroad phoned the other day, amazed by the can­dour of the pre-pub­li­ca­tion ex­tracts of Jackie Tyrrell’s mem­oir. He grew up nowhere near hurl­ing’s per­pet­ual Ber­lin Wall – the Tipp-Kilkenny bor­der – and so has no vested in­ter­est in the ri­valry but was still stunned by the provo­ca­tion of Tyrrell’s de­pic­tion of Tipp circa 2012 as “shap­ing and hid­ing be­hind their bull­shit”.

Tyrrell is equally un­flinch­ing in lay­ing out his own mo­ti­va­tions and will­ing­ness to in­dulge in the grim­mer side of de­fen­sive chi­canery in those years. As­signed by Brian Cody to shadow Lar Cor­bett in 2011, Tipp’s rangy and coltish goal ma­chine, Tyrrell took to the task with glee, stand­ing on his op­po­nent’s toes, kick­ing at his heels, try­ing to pull down his socks, which Cor­bett al­ways wore stretched to knee-level.

“At one stage when he tried to dart away from me, I caught his hel­met. My fin­gers edged through the bars on his face­guard and I scraped him be­low the eye with my fin­ger­nails. I’m not sure if I drew blood but when Lar started com­plain­ing to the ref­eree I just shrugged my shoul­ders.”

Tyrrell will later ac­knowl­edge that the Tipp team four years later had learned how to stand up to the phys­i­cal rigours of the Kilkenny col­lec­tive. He would have known that the above pas­sage can­not re­flect well on him. The sub­ti­tle of the book he has co-writ­ten with Christy O’Con­nor is A War­rior’s Code. But eye-scrap­ing is not war­rior-like.

On the phone, the friend won­dered why he would choose to pub­li­cise that small, in­glo­ri­ous de­tail. As it hap­pened, even as we spoke, there came through the open win­dow the sound of The West’s Awake be­ing sung in the yard of a nearby school. Sev­eral of the new All-Ire­land cham­pion hurlers had ar­rived with the Liam MacCarthy cup. There it was, glint­ing through a dull light of a mid­week morn­ing for any­one pass­ing by to see.

It was the most vivid ex­am­ple of the fact that, just like the Sam Maguire, the Liam MacCarthy Cup is as mag­i­cal as any­thing to be found on the pages of Tolkien. Both of those big sil­ver cups have had, for over a cen­tury, a dis­pro­por­tion­ate hold on the Ir­ish imag­i­na­tion. Coun­ties – play­ers and sup­port­ers – want to have the cup just to have the cup.

Last Sun­day, David Burke raised it in front of the crowd in Croke Park: it seemed like most of the 82,000 were still there. As it hap­pened, I was sit­ting not far from Conor Hayes, the last Gal­way man to lift the same cup in Croke Park. Hayes ap­plauded and seemed re­lieved as well as de­lighted. It was a cool mo­ment.

After the big cel­e­bra­tory home­com­ings in Bal­li­nasloe and Salthill, hav­ing the cup is about the lo­calised priv­i­lege of bring­ing it around the place and let­ting peo­ple en­joy it. Tyrrell’s book lays out the fierce and some­times bru­tal ap­pli­ca­tion of the phys­i­cal and men­tal en­er­gies that went into the win­ning of that cup as of­ten as Kilkenny did. Nine All-Ire­land ti­tles is at once a bril­liant and ridicu­lous ac­com­plish­ment for any one hurler. It’s hard to imag­ine it be­ing re­peated.

Trade-off

The trade-off for coun­ties like Gal­way, a gold-carat hurl­ing land which has won just five ti­tles, is that the out­pour­ing of emo­tion and pride is beyond ad­e­quate de­scrip­tion. There’s a rea­son so many of the play­ers de­clare it to be “un­be­liev­able”. Maybe Mor­gan Treacy’s mar­vel­lous pho­to­graph of Mícheál Donoghue lean­ing over his fa­ther as he held the cup came clos­est to ex­plain­ing it. There’s just some­thing be­atific about achiev­ing what had come to seem al­most im­pos­si­ble.

Win­ning the All-Ire­land means dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent coun­ties. For Kilkenny, fierce and un­re­lent­ing as Cody’s best teams were, the joy was the quiet and in­ter­nalised glow of an­other suc­cess­ful har­vest. On one of those Septem­ber Sun­days when the Cats seemed in­ca­pable of not win­ning the MacCarthy Cup, a few of us were sit­ting in the upper Ho­gan.

It wasn’t all that long after the fi­nal whis­tle but the Cats were so well-versed in the vic­tory cer­e­mony by this stage that it was over in no time. Be­fore the vanquished op­po­si­tion had even left their dress­ing room, the speech had been made and the Kilkenny crowd were al­ready rac­ing back to the Mar­ble City. Brian Cody, the vic­to­ri­ous Kilkenny man­ager, cut an un­mis­tak­able fig­ure as he loped to­wards the tun­nel un­der a peaked cap and big sky.

A short dis­tance be­hind him walked Rackard Cody, the long-serv­ing Kilkenny kit-man, car­ry­ing the Liam MacCarthy un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously by his side. Nei­ther man was pay­ing much at­ten­tion to the ob­ject of vic­tory. The way Rackard held the cup was strik­ing in its fa­mil­iar­ity. A friend sit­ting be­side me said that “it’s like watch­ing a hus­band du­ti­fully car­ry­ing the shop­ping home for his wife”.

Those were the years when the hurl­ing fra­ter­nity de­spaired of ever break­ing the Kilkenny stran­gle­hold. Since then, so many of black and am­ber se­rial win­ners re­tired. When Ed­die Bren­nan emerged on the Sun­day Game as a per­sua­sive and fair an­a­lyst, one of the most strik­ing as­pects was his will­ing­ness to call the per­for­mances of his own county with a de­tached eye. Oth­ers have fol­lowed suit.

Henry Sh­ef­flin, Brian Ho­gan and JJ De­laney have all re­turned to speak with a free­dom and li­cense in which they sim­ply couldn’t in­dulge dur­ing their black and am­ber years.

More ex­traor­di­nar­ily has been the rein­ven­tion of Tommy Walsh, the ex­em­plar of a let-your-hurl­ing-do-your-talk­ing player as a high-oc­tane ra­dio-man with a flair for colour. There’s an irony in the pub­lic get­ting to know th­ese hurlers after they fin­ish up in the game. But it’s bet­ter than noth­ing.

Brian Cody turned up to launch Jackie Tyrrell’s book this week and when in­ter­viewed by KCLR, he un­sur­pris­ingly said that no, he hadn’t read it and hadn’t even seen the ex­tracts. He must have known days like this would come. For years, ru­mours of the law­less­ness of Kilkenny’s in-house matches trav­elled the coun­try.

Sav­agery

The de­tails are laid out in Tyrrell’s book in a chap­ter en­ti­tled ‘Sav­agery’. The vi­cious ex­changes be­tween friends and team-mates in­formed the steel and ravenous am­bi­tion through which they dom­i­nated the game for over a decade. There is and was, of course, so much more to Kilkenny: the mes­meris­ing stick-work, the bril­liant games, the ter­rific hurlers who came and went with­out, it seemed, ever ut­ter­ing a word and the con­stant vig­i­lance of Cody.

They changed the game and forced the con­tenders to get bet­ter. And it took time but all have re­sponded. Clare won an All-Ire­land. Cork are ris­ing. Tipp have won two. And now Gal­way have the year they long waited for. Right now, in fact, Gal­way have every­thing Kilkenny want. And they also have the where­withal to leave a ma­roon stamp on the com­ing years if they can re­tain the con­trolled fury which in­formed their bril­liant sum­mer.

In Kilkenny, there has been no word yet as to whether Cody will be back. Next year will fea­ture so many per­sua­sive can­di­dates that it surely de­mands a 20th sea­son of the tall man on the side­line. His re­turn alone would be a sig­nal that just be­cause the sto­ries are out there now, noth­ing has passed. Noth­ing is over.

Tyrrell’s book lays out the fierce and some­times bru­tal ap­pli­ca­tion of the phys­i­cal and men­tal en­er­gies that went into the win­ning of that cup

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