Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - DER­MOT CROWE

THE end, well, it had to come some­time. Af­ter a hurl­ing cham­pi­onship of rare qual­ity and un­prece­dented quan­tity, with a dizzy sur­feit of thrilling matches, the field has been fun­nelled down to the last two, Gal­way and Lim­er­ick.

Hav­ing the fi­nal day in Au­gust breaks from tra­di­tion, and for an in­no­va­tive cham­pi­onship, with new round-robin for­mats in Le­in­ster and Mun­ster, it seems fit­ting that the con­clu­sion should feel fresh and in­trigu­ing. Th­ese two teams last met here in 1980.

At that point in hurl­ing’s evo­lu­tion, when a Pope’s visit was more likely to in­flu­ence the win­ning cap­tain’s speech than now, Lim­er­ick were only seven years af­ter win­ning their sev­enth All-Ire­land.

If they were feel­ing the itch, it seems triv­ial with the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, placed in the con­text of the 38 more bar­ren years that have fol­lowed. Fi­nals in 1994, ’96 and ’07, all lost, some cru­elly. This is the long­est Lim­er­ick has ever gone with­out win­ning an All-Ire­land se­nior hurl­ing ti­tle.

They come to­day with re­newed hope, pinned on a team that’s young in the main, not lack­ing the re­doubtable Lim­er­ick traits which al­ways made them for­mi­da­ble, only that now those qual­i­ties are mar­ried to mod­ern science and pre­ci­sion. A team of their time.

Un­der the watch­ful eye of an al­most patho­log­i­cally cau­tious John Kiely, it has been enough to get them through the round-robin se­ries, cir­cum­vent­ing the Mun­ster fi­nal, post­ing ex­cit­ing wins over tra­di­tional be­he­moths Kilkenny and Cork.

Hurl­ing is prone to wild mood swings, left and right. One day it is cock of the walk and the next you could hear some­one pro­claim­ing that the end is nigh. But this is as demo­cratic a time as hurl­ing has ever been played in. When Lim­er­ick last tri­umphed, Of­faly were still eight years from win­ning a first se­nior ti­tle. Clare were 22 from their first All-Ire­land in 81 years. Water­ford hadn’t won a Mun­ster se­nior ti­tle in ten years and were made wait an­other 29. Dublin had gone 12 years with­out con­quer­ing Le­in­ster; they would en­dure an­other 40 on top of that. Aside from that one Lim­er­ick ex­cep­tion, in the ’70s the ti­tles were mopped up by the tra­di­tional big three, Tipp, Cork and Kilkenny.

Last year Gal­way bat­tled their own demons hav­ing failed to win an All-Ire­land in 29 years, the prospect of Joe Can­ning com­plet­ing a Celtic Cross-less ca­reer no longer fan­ci­ful. A year later they are still un­beaten, and while their hurl­ing hasn’t been of the same aris­to­cratic flair of last year, they are win­ning matches, do­ing enough, not los­ing ones they used to rou­tinely.

They will be no­to­ri­ously hard to beat. It will take some­thing spe­cial from Lim­er­ick to deny them. We ex­pect to be boun­teously en­ter­tained in find­ing out whether hurl­ing’s great­est prize is to be rib­boned in green or ma­roon later this af­ter­noon.

Photo: Bren­dan Moran

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