Sunday 8th September 2008 will live long in the memory of Irish sporting fans. No not because of any Olympic gold medal or any victory in an international game, but because of the senior Kilkenny hurling team's display. It is one that can only be described as awesome.
For those of you that are unlucky enough not to be familiar with the wonderful Irish game of hurling, please check out Willie Gannon's fantastic article on the subject. Regardless of whether you know the sport or wish to learn about it, the best masterclass you will ever receive on the game was given by Kilkenny yesterday.
It was a glorious day in Croke Park, the sun a welcome visitor to Dublin's northside. In the curtain raiser to the main event, the Kilkenny minors saw off their Galwegian compatriots to take the minor title on a scoreline of Kilkenny 3-6 Galway 0-13. The battle was close fought with a Kilkenny goal in the closing stages settling the match in favour of the 'Cats'.
Sadly for Waterford it was the closest any team would get to Kilkenny that day. Now the Waterford 'Deise' were up for it, have no doubt about it. It was their first All-Ireland hurling final in 45 very long years. The county had come to a standstill, it was if all of Waterford were at Croke Park. Unfortunately for them, the best Kilkenny team of the current generation turned up.
To our friends not acquainted with the game, Kilkenny are the Kings of hurling. They are akin to the Ac Milan team of the late 80s, Michael Schumacher's dominance of formula one in the early 2000s or the equivalent to USA's basketball dream team. They are supreme yet fallible. In 2004, they let the coveted three-in-a-row escape their grasp in defeat to Cork.
But not this time, by God not this time. In a word they 'annihilated' one of the country's top teams. Waterford have been the nearly men of hurling over the last decade but finally reached the final having defeated many people's favourites in the semi, Tipperary. Commentators suggested if they played with all their passion, belief and skill they could put it up to Kilkenny. Sadly, not for one minute did this look possible. It is no exaggeration to say Waterford were never in the match.
By half-time the scorline was Kilkenny 2-16 Waterford 0-5. When the final whistle sounded it was Kilkenny 3-30 Waterford 1-13, a 23 point victory for the 'Cats' and the first team to ever attain 30 points in an All-Ireland final.
What was so impressive about Kilkenny's win was the style and manner in which they achieved it. They argued over every decision and ran after every ball until the final puck of the game. In a game of such skill they scored from 33 of their 35 chances. They only missed TWO shots in seventy minutes. That is the equivalent of a basketball team missing two shots from all shots attempted. That is but one aspect of the supremacy of this team.
Throughout the game Kilkenny played their own game, never worrying about Waterford. They passed and controlled the sliotar like I have never seen in my 22 years (and I'm from Limerick so believe me I have seen a lot of hurling) and how about manager Brian Cody's gesture on bringing in replacement goalkeeper James McGarry for the last ten minutes. This is a man who tragically lost his wife in a car accident before last year's final. The welcome he got was most fitting.
Now our friends across the water may say 'Ok, we get it, these guys are good, so what? They're best at their sport but somebody has to be'
But it is different. The 15 men on the starting lineup for Kilkenny yesterday are amateur. So too are every other hurling man, woman and child in this game. Yet you have to be Irish to understand the importance of this game to us, or at least live here during championship time to understand. These players get no special benefits, they do not get paid to play. They do get expenses for travelling to training and a paid holiday with the team at the end of the championship calender but the biggest gift they receive is the immense pride that goes with wearing the county shirt.
GAA hurling and football is unlike other sports. A Londoner can support Manchester United, a New Yorker can follow the Dallas Cowboys but in Ireland you support your county. If your born in Limerick, you follow Limerick, if your born in Louth, you follow Louth come hell or high water.
But yesterday, 31 other counties in Ireland looked on in awe and applauded the Kilkenny hurlers. It was obvious that these players gave their all for their county, the intense training these players endured was evident on the pitch. They could of rested on their laurels. Every other county team in the land fears the 'Cats'. They already had 30 All-Ireland hurling titles and prior to yesterday's game they have won six times under the guidance of Brian Cody who took over as manager in 1999. But they did not rest on their laurels and played hurling as it should, giving every last ounce for the cause.
So while I applaud the 'Cats', I must admit to being very worried. I ask who can stop this team that appear just plain unstoppable? Answers on a postcard!
However, yesterday made me proud to be Irish and proud to know, love and play the most Irish of sports. There were no prima-donnas on the pitch, Kilkenny were humble in victory and Waterford gracious in defeat. They knew, as we all knew, that they had been defeated by an unstoppable force.
Perhaps the divers, cheats and money grabbers invading soccer and other sports could spare five minutes and take a look at the most ancient of games preserving its traditions.