“Oft hope is born when all is forlorn” – JRR Tolkien.
Eleven months ago, hurling headed into the All-Ireland semi-finals stage with the sport in chaos.
The threat of sweepers and defensive mindsets were only trumped by the increasing duopoly of Kilkenny and Tipperary. Crowds dwindled, competition faded. Even the Munster Championship failed to inspire.
Last August, a meagre 34,432 meandered into Croke Park to watch what was expected to be a formality for Kilkenny against Waterford. For an All-Ireland semi-final, that is pathetic.
Hurling, the best sport on earth, our national treasure that had stood the test of millennia, was in danger of going stale.
The Déise, notorious for their defensive structures, were expected to roll over as the men in black and amber marched on to another coronation. However, Derek McGrath’s side had their own eyes on the throne, and pushed forward. The All-Ireland champions had no answer.
What occurred throughout those 70 minutes may not have caused a seismic shift in the sport, nor indeed did it act as a catalyst, but by God, it marked a turning point for the sport we all love so well.
Déise naivety ensured that the Cats clawed their way back into the tie to force a replay. The following weekend produced two of the greatest games in recent memory. Sure, Tipp and Kilkenny won through, but there was a renewed belief amongst their inferiors.
2017 brought with it a sense of new beginning on the landscape. Tipp’s shock victory (not the result, but the manner) gave hope to those in the darkest corners.
Nonetheless, the Premier flexed their muscle throughout the League, as Kilkenny waned. Was this a new dictator, but the same tyranny?
What has since transpired has been nothing short of remarkable.
Last September, even the most frugal of bookmaker would have offered long, long odds on Kilkenny, Tipperary and Waterford taking part in the qualifiers. Yet here we are…
A remodelling of an unstructured potential in the south-east, a rebellion in the south, and a tribal surge in the west has caused chaos throughout the country.
The masses have taken the law into their own hands. Hurling is back, baby.
Ask anyone who was in Wexford Park last week, or in Semple Stadium for either of Cork’s Munster Championship scalps, or those in the Gaelic Grounds at the League final.
The buzz has returned. There is an air of unpredictability, a thrill of not knowing what’s going to happen next.
There are no more foregone conclusions. When any two of Cork, Tipperary, Waterford, Clare, Wexford, Kilkenny and Galway take to the field this summer, it’s a free-for-all.
Some of the established stars are struggling. Athleticism is the new name of the game; just look at Chin, Lehane or Whelan – young hurlers setting this summer alight.
The b̶a̶c̶k̶ trap door will be merciless, with so many big fish still swimming. But it’s a small, small pool with only room for two to emerge.
The Leinster and Munster finals ought to produce fireworks. Of the four teams involved, they only have two provincial titles this decade between them. To those who feel there is no longer a place in our game for the provinces, just take a look at these two deciders, and observe the scenes at the full-time whistles.
As the race then turns for the final straight, we can only be sure of one thing: nobody has a clue what’s going to happen. That’s the beauty of it.
Heading into the final four last year, none of this seemed possible. Eleven months on, who could have imagined it?
It’s a cruel and random world we live in, but the chaos is beautiful.