4 September 2008 Edition
More than a game
An epic journey
SUNDAY possibly sees the culmination of one of the epic journeys in modern hurling – the arrival of Waterford in their first final since 1963. After last year’s semi-final defeat by Limerick, many were writing them off on the basis that they had missed their best chance. It was a suspicion confirmed earlier in the summer after their tame exit from the Munster championship at the hands of Clare and the subsequent sacking by the players of Justin McCarthy: an act that cost them a lot of the sympathy and goodwill which they had earned over previous seasons.
Waterford were as big as 12/1 to go all the way after that but slowly worked their way back into contention through the qualifiers despite being subject to stern examination by both Offaly and Wexford. Their semi-final against Tipperary was arguably the best game of the year so far and, unlike most other great games in which Waterford have participated since 2002, they won this one.
Now they face their greatest test and the one which, if they are honest, most Waterford hurling people have been longing for - The Cats. The best team of the decade against the most exciting team of the decade; the champions against the team most non-Kilkenny people would love to see becoming champions.
THERE is history with the Cats, of course. Not only neighbours but they have met in three previous finals (1957, 1959 and 1963), and in the 2004 semi-final. Kilkenny have won three of the four encounters with Waterford’s sole victory being in 1959 after a replay.
Despite being considered one of the traditional hurling counties, Waterford have only two All-Irelands (the other being in 1948) and just eight Munster senior titles, three of them since 2002. In relative terms, they are the poor cousins of Cork and Tipp and behind Limerick, Dublin, Wexford and Offaly in historical terms.
Not that that will mean anything on Sunday other than it puts their recent resurgence into perspective. Not since the late 1950s and early ‘60s have Waterford been so prominent and if this team does win on Sunday they will have earned their right to be considered probably the greatest Waterford team of all.
And they would be popular winners, unlike not so distant times when Waterford teams were sometimes regarded as a pretty nasty bunch, with one Munster final in particular against Tipperary in the late 1980s springing to mind. Not many people held them in high regard at that time.
No one would begrudge the likes of Mullane and Brick Walsh and Ken McGrath an All-Ireland. But they will not be awarded one from sentiment and the Cats, least of all, are inclined to be sentimental. They will be secretly pleased in fact that the novelty of Waterford being in the final has distracted from the fact that they are attempting to do what no other Kilkenny team has ever done before and win three All-Irelands in a row.
Technically they did accomplish such a feat between 1911 and 1913 but the 1911 event was won after Limerick, the Munster champions, pulled out and Tipperary were nominated to take their place. But that’s neither here nor there.
THIS is this Kilkenny team’s chance not only to place its mark as the greatest ever of a long succession of great Kilkenny teams but to stake its claim as one of the greatest hurling sides of all time - or rather to reinforce that claim as many would already have them in the reckoning for such a spot.
On form they should do so. Even at their very best, Waterford would have struggled against the Cats and an objective view must be that they are past their prime. Certainly in several key positions they could be badly exposed by the Cats. If they are, it will be a one-sided final as Kilkenny do not stand on ceremony when sensing weakness.
Hopefully that is not the case and that Waterford do themselves justice after so many years of just trying to get this far. They will not be satisfied with that but one suspects they may well have to be.
ONE interesting piece of arcana related to Waterford and Kilkenny concerns a 1958 film starring John Gregson entitled Rooney. Gregson, star of numerous British films of the period, was cast in the unlikely role of a Dublin dustbin man - or the more politically correct if meaningless “sanitation engineer”, as he is described in one film encyclopaedia - who plays in an All-Ireland hurling final.
Actually that is only a sub-plot to a Catherine Cookson story that revolves around his landladies trying to get him fixed up with the daughter. I’ve no idea whether hurling features in the original novel and Cookson, being from South Shields in the north-east of England, I would doubt it. The film also stars a bed-ridden Barry Fitzgerald who by that stage had well given up on serious acting, if that’s not being unfair to the chap.
The reason I remember it so well is that it was on television one Saturday night years ago and I watched it because it was supposed to be about a Dublin hurler. The fact that his training seemed to consist mainly of drinking pints, fighting and chasing young ones was both appealing and authentic, but it was a great disappointment when he turned out to be playing for Kilkenny.
The producers managed to persuade the Kilkenny team to let Gregson join them in the parade before the 1957 final against Waterford. They were at least astute enough to have picked the winning side and, of course, Gregson/Rooney was the star of the show and headed straight for the pub to celebrate with his chums, the sanitation engineers. Then I think he got married. All in a day’s work for the Dublin Corpo.
So if you spot Leonardo Di Caprio or Seán Penn loping along behind Aidan Fogarty on Sunday, take it that it is not a shrewd last-minute change by Mr Cody but merely part of a script about a crane driver from Ardee who is Louth’s best hurler when not skulling large bottles of Macardles and going to the dog fighting.