WHEN the 2018 season ended, hurling felt blissfully in the midst of another ‘golden age’.
Galway’s breakthrough All Ireland win, in 2017, was followed by Limerick’s last season. After Clare’s memorable win in 2013, this hurling era was certainly glistening with gold.
Nine teams started out the 2019 summer with realistic ambitions of winning Liam MacCarthy. The last time the championship pack was so strong was 1999, when nine teams also had a chance.
The difference then was that the championship was knockout and most of the contenders had fallen by mid-June.
Under the new system, the game is in a great place. But, for the magic to keep happening, the empires still have to be able strike back. And, in 2019, they did.
The old-firm of Tipperary-Kilkenny was back. Kilkenny may have dominated the modern era, but Tipperary finished the decade as they had started it: as All-Ireland champions.
The quality in 2019 was nowhere near as brilliant as 2018, but there was still enough drama to make it another enthralling hurling summer. And there were compelling sub-plots.
The Saturday night knife-edged drama in mid-June turned one of the longest days of the year into some of the most agonising seconds in GAA history. The final minutes of the Dublin-Galway and Wexford-Kilkenny games were chaotic fusions of suspense, excitement, joy, anxiety, fear and devastation for players, management, and supporters.
Galway, favourites for the All-Ireland at the start of the summer, went out on scoring difference. Less than 24 hours later, Clare beat Cork, but they also departed the championship on scoring difference, the damage having been done after heavy defeats to Tipperary and Limerick.
It was the first time that happened in GAA history, but the hurling championship is so tightly balanced now that it was bound to happen sooner rather than later. On that night in mid-June, the four teams — Galway, Kilkenny, Dublin, and Wexford — could have all either qualified or been eliminated.
Nobody wanted to envisage that nightmare scenario of teams exiting on scoring difference. Yet such an unforgiving system saw the 2018 All-Ireland finalists, and the Clare team they narrowly beat in an All-Ireland semi-final replay, dumped out of the championship after the round robin system. Waterford, All-Ireland finalists two years ago, departed the championship after failing to win a game.
They weren’t the only teams to be razed in the championship’s white heat. Carlow manned up, but didn’t have enough man-power to survive the inevitable scorching. After beating Galway, Dublin thought they had their foot close to the summit, but Laois pushed them off the cliff edge.
Cork looked dangerous, when taking the backroads into the main battlefield, but a hail of Patrick Horgan bullets wasn’t enough to shoot down Kilkenny.
Limerick looked imperious in the Munster final, but the deathly trend of the Munster champions falling at the All-Ireland semi-final was maintained. Kilkenny hunted them down and Limerick fell to the floor.
Wexford were glorious and victorious on Leinster final day. That glory looked set to be extended, when Lee Chin rattled the Tipperary net midway through the second-half, but Wexford seemed more spooked than inspired by a five-point lead with an extra man, and Tipp sprinted past them.
The old-firm was new again, but the hurling summer was one long, constant stream of talking points: Greg Kennedy’s presence on the field as Dublin’s maor foirne stirred the hornet’s nest in Nowlan Park; Shane Dowling’s wonder strike for Limerick against Kilkenny; Cork ending a decade without an All-Ireland for the first time; Seamus Callanan’s lust for green flags; Mark Fanning’s golden penalty in the Leinster final; Limerick’s missing ’65 in the All-Ireland semi-final; TJ Reid’s ascension into the pantheon; Brian Cody’s enduring greatness.
But Laois were the story of the hurling summer. Their victory over Dublin, in Portlaoise, engulfed their players and hurling supporters in a tidal wave of joy and ecstasy.
The win was Laois’s biggest result since the 1985 Leinster semi-final. Laois’s pocket history ever since has been defined by constant defeat and disappointment, but that afternoon reminded everyone of why this truly is a golden age for the game.
Laois rattled Tipperary in the All-Ireland quarter-final, but by the end of the summer, the empires had emphatically struck back. Winning another All-Ireland with this Kilkenny team would have been Cody’s greatest achievement, but getting them to the final underlined Cody’s genius.
Tipperary’s firepower has always set this group apart, but the tone of Tipp’s second-half performance in the final — even with an extra man — carried huge echoes of how Kilkenny used to routinely strangle the opposition; annihilate them in the air and make them feel like they’re hitting the ball against a brick wall. Kilkenny were never destroyed on their own puckout like they were in the second half. Tipperary were deserving All-Ireland champions.
The old may have become new again, but, even in the midst of another ‘golden age’, the old-firm of Kilkenny-Tipperary playing out a fifth All-Ireland final in 10 years still seemed a fair way to bring such a glorious decade to a close.