By Jimmy Rhatigan
IT WILL go down as one of the great sporting battles of our time.
It was not a classic, but an epic it most certainly was as two squads of unbelievably committed warriors put their bodies on the line.
And, in recognition of its powerful and history-making qualities we reckon it is still worthy of front page coverage today, Wednesday, five days after the event, in a mad, mad world where news is stale in a matter of seconds.
The Kilkenny, Wexford Walsh Cup Final at Nowlan Park was perhaps a rival for the Battle of the Little Big Horn, or Custer’s Last Stand in 1876, in which Leighlinbridge man, Colonel Myles Keogh lost his life.
Colonel Keogh had Clara, Kilkenny connections and would probably have been eligible to wear parish and Kilkenny jerseys.
Aptly, a son of Clara, one Lester Ryan, was in the thick of the action art the ‘Park on an afternoon that was hardly apt for a strawberries and cream party but certainly proved to be a winter wonderland for early year hurling.
For courage and resilience, the Battle of Nowlan Park, perhaps the greatest South East Derby in hurling history, was spectacular.
Powder keg failed to ignite in extra time
In a dour stand-off, finesse and subtlety were evident too but predominant were courage and loyalty as Braveheart-like gladiators who would have brought a smile to the face of Scotland’s William Wallace showed the kind of grit and nous that would have ensured their survival in the Coliseum of Rome.
Yes, we are exaggerating a tad but surely that licence is allowed after a Walsh Cup confrontation that will certainly be recorded as the best final clash since the inception of the competition, will also be remembered for its history-making prowess.
The Tom Walsh Cup is in memory of former Leinster Council chairman, Thomas or Tom Walsh and dates back to 1956.
While the cup would always have been respected, it would certainly not be up there with the MacCarthy Cup, the prize for the blue riband of the small ball game.
But Saturday’s war of attrition may have catapulted the series to new heights considering it heralded the birth of a free shoot-out to separate the teams after normal and extra time failed to prize apart two dogged squadrons.
It also added a new dimension to the hurling family name of Walsh as former Kilkenny All-Ireland goalkeeper, Michael Walsh made his debut as a local radio commentator while his son, Dicksboro and Kilkenny Captain Fantastic, Ollie Walsh led our local troops into battle.
Then of course we had Padraig and Walter Walsh who wear their hearts on their sleeves.
The final signalled the arrival of the hurling year of 2018 as spectators piled into Nowlan Park for a clash that grabbed the imagination, perhaps because of the Davy Fitzgerald/Brian Cody factor but also because of the legendary battles in hurling history between the South East neighbours.
The first half of the tie was terrific, the second was even better but, understandably, extra time faded like a damp squib, a powder keg that failed to ignite again after it had been exploding right through normal time.
The extra 20 minutes following 70 pulsating minutes took their toll, cramps, aching limbs and inevitable early season tiredness which reduced the epilogue of a hurling drama to a slugging match in the final round of a heavyweight boxing contest.
Both hurling finalists were willing but found it nigh impossible to deliver the knockout blow that would have earned silverware.
Wexford followers did a Nowlan Park Jig
At the end of normal time it was 1-22 each. Wexford edged in front with a Paul Morris point, the only score of half one of extra time, giving Wexford the lead for the first time in a game in which they had trailed by as many as eight points.
Alan Murphy squared it with the only point of the second period to make it 1-23 each.
Conor McDonald made it 1-24 to 1-23 in favour of Wexford. In injury time it was Alan Murphy who came to Kilkenny’s rescue again, 1-24 each and into the shoot-out history books.
It was hard to credit but after 90 minutes, drama was still unfolding at the rate of knots.
Wexford missed two free shots from the 65 metre line and Kilkenny who had played with 14 following the sending off of Richie Reid, looked literally stooped to conquer as they proved most accurate from frees.
Then it all went on pear shaped. Score grabbing hero, Alan Murphy hit wide after Lester Ryan had also missed.
The tie was back in the melting pot.
Mark Fanning scored for Wexford, sub John Walsh missed for Kilkenny and the big Wexford following did a Nowlan Park Jig.
Fast forward to future quiz competitions in our city and county and the questions will be asked.
What was different about the 2018 Walsh Cup Final? What father and son were involved as match radio commentator and team captain respectively?
And, inevitably, name the manager that was sent off for protesting during the game.
The name of the hugely respected Brian Cody will be whispered.
Don’t mention the war may be the wry comment.
Speaking of war it would be perhaps fair to say that Wexford won a major battle at the weekend.
On that score, Kilkenny look well poised for MacCarthy Cup action which after all is the real war between hurling giants.
And if the script for the remainder of the season is even half as good as the drama penned for Saturday’s crazy journey down the old bog road, then we are in for a rip roaring season.