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Wheel turns full circle in hurling revolution

By John Campbell

Just over a year ago Sunday Independent journalist Damian Lawlor was returning home from a double-header in Thurles when he came up with a great idea.

Waterford and Kilkenny had gone to extra-time. As did Wexford and Clare and it was one of those adrenalin-filled days that made you treasure hurling. But there was something in the Kilkenny performance that made Lawlor believe we were in the grip of another period of revolution for hurling.

The idea was brilliant, as was the execution of the book that spawned from it; 'Fields of Fire.' A few months on from its' publication, we are looking at an All-Ireland final of Kilkenny and Tipperary. Real bluebloods.

It appears to be a swing back in a traditional direction, a real 'Empire Strikes Back' moment, but it's more nuanced than that.

The coaching culture, particularly at under-21 level in Clare, brought about their All-Ireland. Donal Maloney and Gerry O'Connor had applied a business model in terms of how they go about accounting for their coaching.

Limerick, who ran Kilkenny to within an inch of their lives in the semi-final, are also a rising force, so vividly illustrated in their Munster title last year.

The appointment of Joe Quaid as coaching officer in the city, along with the rise city club Na Piarsaigh and the schools cradle of Ardscoil Ris, are all pointers towards a bright future in a town swamped with rugby success over the past 15 years.

Last year's All-Ireland minor title for Waterford – only their third triumph at this level – was a clear follow-up from their combined colleges All-Ireland win. Now, traditional football clubs such as Dungarvan were producing three or four minors that had a day of glory in Croke Park, so they are clearly closing the gap.

Cork have been able to manage with a dysfunctional underage set-up because of the scale of their county and the role of colleges such as UCC and CIT in polishing up their brightest and best. Along with having an iconic manager in Jimmy Barry-Murphy, Cork have managed to stay in the mix, though there is probably not one other county that could manage the feat.

Then we have Galway. It feels as if they had a year off after reaching the 2012 final and weren't quite able to seal the deal. Under different management, they'll be back next year and keen to reassert themselves.

Which leaves us with Tipp and the Cats. Two counties that it doesn't really matter what they do, will always be around.

In Laois, it takes men like Pat Critchley and Cheddar Plunkett to form initiatives such as the Setanta Project in order to bring their under-14s to winning titles at 'A' level, but there is always the fear that once these charismatic leaders depart, the foundations could go from underneath them.

Tipp manager Eamon O'Shea did two things this season – he scoured the local Championship and came back with some faces from the under-21 triumph of 2010, such as Cathal Barrett, James Barry and Niall O'Meara.

Then he took training all over the county and stitched together a team and its public after they felt a disconnect had grown between them.

In Kilkenny, it's simple enough. They have been blessed with playing resources for the last decade and it won't dry up.

Earlier this year, 100 children turned up for an under-14 trial to make the squad of Kilkenny CBS.

At the end of 'Fields of Fire', Lawlor noted that Kilkenny would be back.

They would target the Walsh Cup, for what it's worth. Then, they would go after the National League like their lives depended on it. It didn't, but they pulled it off anyway, and then it would be all systems go for a Leinster title and get into an All-Ireland final. And so they are.

And so are Tipp. Good to be back.

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