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Highlights on Off The Ball

John Duggan: A hurling final between Limerick and Waterford is as unique as 2020

John Duggan writes that amidst the pandemic, we may have understandably forgotten how novel this ...

John Duggan: A hurling final b...

John Duggan: A hurling final between Limerick and Waterford is as unique as 2020

John Duggan writes that amidst the pandemic, we may have understandably forgotten how novel this All Ireland senior hurling final pairing actually is...

"We'd five of them, and Dan the Man got none, we got five, but I'll tell you what - my heart goes out for Waterford. If we weren't there, we'd have wished Waterford to win the All Ireland, but that's the way sport goes." Limerick manager Richie Bennis, on 'The Sunday Game', after the 2007 All Ireland semi-final.

It's been a difficult year for everyone, but it's hurling final week and there is light at the end of the tunnel with this pandemic. Things may be looking up.

My uncle from my mother's side of the family, who is 86 and lives in Limerick, told me a story that he used to walk into the Gaelic Grounds ten minutes into a Munster championship match. He wasn't a diehard fan, but he'd amble in and catch a bit of the action. I spent nearly every weekend visiting my grandfather during the mid to late 1980s in Limerick, and the city reflected an Ireland that was down on its luck. It was poor and in Limerick, it rained incessantly. Still, we found things to do; day trips to Kilkee, or spins in the Hillman after mass to view the Shannon river down by Ranks Flour Mill. I later graduated to playing pitch and putt in Mungret. It wasn't Angela's Ashes, but it was a place that didn't have much going for it during a sobering time. Limerick hurling didn't have much going for it for decades - the green and white have won two All Ireland titles in eighty years; in 1973 and 2018. Waterford's only All Ireland triumphs came in 1948 and 1959, the second victory after a drawn game which fell on the week my parents were married. 17-year-old Eddie Keher played on the losing side in the replay for Kilkenny.

I love hurling, and that's why I join the dots of my life to it with personal memories. It binds, it's that important. I am Dublin born and bred, but my love of iománaíocht was passed down from my father and the Newmarket on Fergus club in Clare. So it's Dublin for football, Clare for hurling.

My teenage years coincided with the Banner breakthrough and the moments in those years are locked in the memory vault. 1995, I have written about before. 1997 holds recollections of working in London for the summer and drinking in a pub in Ruislip with a Wexford ex-pat stranger, watching Clare beat Kilkenny in the semi-final. I flew home for the final and in the closing stages, with Clare and Tipperary level, Jamesie O'Connor picked up the sliotar right in my eye-line. I witnessed the ball go over the bar for the winning point, as Ger Loughnane raised his fist behind the goal. It wasn't long before I was buried with my father in a headlock by this random Clare fanatic when the final whistle went. The 2013 replay I watched in a London pub, yelling at the TV as Shane O'Donnell had the game of his life. The following February, a storm ground a train to a halt in Thurles. I was anxious as Davy Fitzgerald had kindly facilitated the Liam McCarthy Cup to be in my possession for three hours in Quin, the old homestead. I spent €150 on a taxi from Thurles to Quin, arrived there and there was no electricity in the village. The Cup was in a sports bag. Cue a candlelit tour of the Liam McCarthy in the assorted pubs, to the amusement and delight of the locals. One feels very fortunate to have lived through these moments.

Love of hurling is why I am thinking of all of the proud Limerick and Waterford people who are going to be as nervous as hell on Sunday, in their homes, or in the 'gastropub'. It's great for them. I'm buzzed for them. The aristocrats of hurling in Munster have always been Cork and Tipperary. So if the world of Gaelic Football outside of The Pale is turning the air blue about Dublin's iron grip on the Sam Maguire Cup, let's embrace the refreshing nature of this hurling pairing and enjoy the contest.

In the 133 years since the first All Ireland final, Limerick have appeared in 18 deciders and Waterford have reached seven of them. This will be the first-ever clash of these particular counties in the showpiece game. Only twice before have all Munster counties met in the final; Clare and Tipperary in 1997 and Clare and Cork in 2013.

Thinking back to the day when Limerick ambushed Munster and League champions Waterford by scoring 5-11 in the 2007 semi-final lent me an insight into why the 2020 iterations of the counties are in Sunday's final.

In the barren years, Limerick would catch fire on occasion, and hurl with pure abandon. They've always been a county to feed off the crowd. They were a 1 to 15 team, no elaborate tactics, just pure hurling. It was perhaps a lack of savvy and the pressure of expectation that cost them the 1994 and 1996 finals, each defeat as sickening as the other. Waterford brightened the sport in the noughties, their swashbuckling style lighting up the summers - and their free hurlers were household names; 2007 Hurler of the Year Dan Shanahan, Ken McGrath, Tony Browne, John Mullane. It's the only downside of the safety aspect of helmets - the contemporary hurler isn't as well known. Marketing people, take note.

The 2020 Limerick and Waterford teams are different. There's a fearlessness that I see. John Kiely is a manager who inspires and Limerick's 2018 winning team had an average age of 23, their successful mentality borne by success in the Under 21 championship and at Fitzgibbon Cup level. Paul Kinnerk's coaching is a major asset. Limerick have some really gifted players - Aaron Gillane, Cian Lynch, Gearoid Hegarty, Kyle Hayes - but it's the use of half-backs and half forwards in a dominant middle third that has set them apart as the best team in the country in the last couple of years.

Waterford are fascinating because they are the county with momentum. They ran Limerick to four points in the Munster final and it's this surge that may see them reverse what happened in 2007. Only, on this occasion, it's the big one, not a semi-final.

Waterford are run entirely by Tipperary people, with manager Liam Cahill the figurehead of that. Cahill and Mikey Bevans have a proven track record of All Ireland success at underage level with Tipperary and they are transferring their template to Suirside. Cahill made some hard personnel calls when he took the job and has effectively reconstructed the Deise defence from the side which lost the 2017 All Ireland final. It's work rate all the way with Waterford and they possess talented men; Austin Gleeson, Stephen Bennett, Tadhg De Burca - to name three. That focus on the process for both counties and the absence of supporter fever will concentrate the minds on the 70 plus minutes.

For Limerick, it's the chance to carve themselves as a great team in the history books. That's what winning two All Irelands in quick succession does.

For Waterford, it's the opportunity of giving their people a feeling most of them have never experienced in their entire lives. It would be a unique Christmas present as a unique year draws to a close.

May the best team win.

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