The hurling championship had been widely criticised this summer until last Sunday’s drawn clash between Kilkenny and Waterford. The replay yesterday was just as good and who knows what today’s clash with Galway and Tipperary have in store.
This summer’s hurling had been hugely disappointing, with the Munster championship in particular coming under massive scrutiny. Contests were marred by a combination of poor attendances and poor quality hurling.
The weather also played a massive part in hampering the good nature of the games. Tipperary’s first-round encounter with Cork was never going to be a great spectacle with Cork’s use of negative defensive tactics. However, the torrential rain certainly didn’t help.
The Munster final in the Gaelic Grounds was also marred by the indifferent weather while both semi-finals were played in windy conditions. The hurling was poor and one cannot use the weather as an excuse for the standard of hurling. However, it certainly didn’t help in terms of excitement and the usual enthralling nature of the championship.
There were elements of physicality, aggression and intensity missing. The crowds were down. There were little positives heading in to last Sunday’s semi-final clash. All was about to change however, as you can just never write off a sport that keeps on giving.
The raw aggression, intensity and sheer skill that was displayed last Sunday in the drawn game and yesterday evening’s replay was simply a joy to watch. That was hurling at its best. Some pieces of individual skill on show were breath-taking.
For Waterford, Austin Gleeson was simply outrageous. The Mount Sion man has it all and his performances on both occasions epitomised the excitement and class surrounding the two clashes. Pauric Mahony and Jamie Barron were also superb while Tadhg de Búrca was a rock at the back.
Richie Hogan’s pin-point accuracy, Michael Fennelly’s raw power and strength, Colin Fennelly’s finishing ability and Paul Murphy’s monumental defensive displays were the players and traits that shone for the Cats.
Waterford’s ability to play with freedom, abandon and passion were key ingredients to two super clashes. Derek McGrath’s decision to abandon the sweeper system was a bold and brave call that came agonisingly close to paying off.
When Kilkenny are pushed to the collar, there is a real air of anticipation and excitement from the hurling world that the dominant kings can be beaten. However, their response in the face of adversity is simply remarkable.
Brian Cody’s men never are a team to lie down and their ability to spring a newcomer to surprise the opposition is simply frightening. Liam Blanchfield’s performance yesterday was outstanding, on what was the Bennettsbridge man’s championship debut.
The drawn game was an intriguing, exciting, high-quality contest and many felt that last night’s replay wouldn’t be half as good. However, Waterford and Kilkenny both proved everybody wrong. Last night’s spectacle was simply outstanding. Thurles under lights. An incredible atmosphere, Two teams not backing down in any way. Yesterday’s clash was hurling at its best.
Remarkably, in the 140 plus minutes of action, there was rarely a point where things boiled over. The discipline of both teams must be commended. In fact, it was probably the two management teams who were the least well-behaved.
After a late TJ Reid and an even later Richie Hogan point gave the Cats the victory over the Déise, the contrast of emotions was staggering. Both teams gave it their all and both also knew that they were part of a special. Derek McGrath was close to tears and Brian Cody gave the biggest smile he has ever given upon the conclusion of the game.
Both games were simply superb but further images of happenings after James McGrath had blown his full-time whistle epitomised the special nature of hurling. The first, being a young Kilkenny girl consoling the heartbroken Waterford free-taker Pauric Mahony. The second being, Maurice Shanahan signing autographs after the game.
If Galway and Tipperary can produce anything like they produced this time last year, we are in for one of the best weekend’s of hurling in living memory.
Simply, you can never write off the game of hurling.
Seán Ó Murchú, Pundit Arena