Munster and mysticism go hand in hand. While bandwagon hopping has defined much of the rugby phenomenon that has swept through the province, those that wore the red jersey long before professionalism spoke with reverence of the honour.
Christy Ring was no different when it came to the wearing of Munster Blue in the Railway Cup, in which he featured in no less than 18 winning teams between 1942 and 1963.
“Every game has its own importance, and, of course, everybody likes to win,” said Ring, quoted in Val Dorgan’s marvellous portrait of the Cloyne maestro.
“Blackpool (the home of Glen Rovers) people would be very disappointed if they lost the county championship. That’s their number one. Cork people want to win the All-Ireland. That’s their number one. In the Railway Cup you are honoured if you are asked to play.
“You are playing on a man that has been picked by his province – usually Leinster in my day – a man that their selectors think is the best in that position. In my time, it was a great honour to be associated with the other counties. I’m sure they thought the same about playing with me.”
Ring himself has become a mystical figure since his death 30 years ago, much of it founded on the back of titanic Munster final battles when facing Mick Mackey’s Limerick.
Indeed, much of the greatness and grandeur of Munster final day was made possible by both Ring and Mackey’s majesty, sending thousands onto their bike saddles from all corners of the province to witness their feats.
The late Raymond Smith is the journalist that most sportswriting anoraks would readily associated with the lustre and reminisce associated with the second Sunday in July.
In fact, no one has captured the essence of the occasion as well as Smith before or since, with the opening chapter of ‘A Century of Gaelic Games’ devoted to Munster final day.
“Thurles has been the Mecca for hurling men on great Munster occasions since 1940 when Mick Mackey and his men in the Green and White threw down the gauntlet to Cork in a titanic drawn game and replay with another draw and replay following in 1944. They would recall ’44 as the ‘Bicycle Final’.
“Old timers will tell you of men cycling long distances (even the 90 miles from Dublin) to Thurles or getting to the Cathedral Town in agonisingly slow turf-burning construction trains.
“And they will tell you too of hardy souls, for whom hurling was ‘the fix’, dosing down under the stars in Liberty Square and waiting for another ‘shot’.”
In this, the 125th anniversary of the GAA, some may have argued that the ideal scenario on Sunday afternoon next would have been the meeting of Tipperary and Cork; it may have further heightened the mysticism. It goes without saying that this august journal is glad it ain’t so!
Tipp fans will relish the prospect of witnessing their team win a Munster title on home soil for the first time since 1991, when Declan Carr’s men edged out Cork in an epic replay.
For Waterford supporters, victories in Thurles have largely defined the modern era; the wonderful contests against Cork establishing the greatest Munster rivalry in this still infant century.
While the 2002 win over Tipp in Cork ended a 39-year wait for silverware, the 2004 victory over Cork in Semple Stadium ranks as one of the Deise’s finest ever performances.
‘That’ goal by Paul Flynn and ‘that’ catch by Ken McGrath still raise the neck hairs when recalling a decider which was arguably the greatest Munster final of them all.
A year earlier, John Mullane rifled home a sensational hat-trick in the Munster final defeat to Cork, announcing his talent to the rest of the country in so doing.
Next Sunday, Davy Fitzgerald will look to the De La Salle man to spearhead the Waterford attack, a role he has taken to with relish as evidenced against Limerick.
Seven months ago, Mullane inspired his club to a Munster crown on a heavy Semple sod against Adare.
He’s already hit 10 superb points from play in Thurles this summer and another healthy contribution would go a long way to directing Waterford towards a ninth provincial title.
Tipperary have deservedly won their way through to the final and will need little motivation given Sunday’s venue. And while they faltered in stages against Cork and Clare, the purple patches they hit in both outings were sufficient to see them across the finish line.
Liam Sheedy’s team are widely recognised as the most likely team to challenge Kilkenny, although both Galway and Dublin really put it up to Brian Cody’s side in the best Leinster Championship for years.
Their League final display proved that they can mix it with the Cats, and the Championship to date suggests that if Kilkenny are to make it four-in-a-row, they’ll do it with few canters to call upon. One imagines that’s just how Cody would like it to be.
Oddly, all the more so when once considers the paucity of the first Waterford/Limerick tie, Tipperary go into the Munster final with more questions hanging over them than their opponents.
And given Waterford’s wounded list, the expectation lid has surely been blown off by some Premier supporters ahead of Sunday’s clash. But any clued-in Tipp fan knows that Waterford make for most dangerous opposition.
Over the past decade, Deise fans have been spoiled by the regularity of their county’s appearance on the most special day on Munster’s sporting calendar. And, even in defeat on the big provincial occasion, Waterford’s hurlers have never left their faithful fans down.
The electricity among excited fans en route to Semple from Liberty Square, the whiff of burgers in the Thurles air to paraphrase Raymond Smith and the sense of something special makes Munster final day stand alone.
That Waterford’s minors will also contest next Sunday adds greater significance to this day of days, fuelling hope that worthy successors will one day fill the jerseys worn by today’s heroes. It also serves as a welcome rebuttal to all this ‘Waterford are finished’ nonsense perpetuated by some Dublin-based scribblers.
Come Monday morning next, it would be only mighty if we Waterford lads and lassies find ourselves walking that little taller, pausing on the street to trade stories about another magical day in Semple.
For if the men of Waterford emerge from Tom Semple’s field with Munster trophies as companions on the trip home, 2009 will be long recalled by those with hurling in their hearts.
No doubt, such success would, in time, feed into the mystique of Munster Hurling Final day. Here’s hoping!