ready for battle Limerick v Tipp is a contest to stir the blood, a supreme moment in a sporting calendar disfigured by a demon plague
IN his potent-as-bourbon chronicle of the Rumble in the Jungle, Norman Mailer titles the chapter where Muhammad Ali erupts to take out George Foreman and announce himself as a miracle of the species, “The Executioner’s Song.”
It is a lyrical, brutal, vivid headline – Mailer liked the phrase so much he deployed it to name a later Pulitzer Prize-winning tome – and one that raced across the decades to Semple Stadium last Sunday as Limerick deposited killshot after killshot into an exposed Banner gut.
Here was a snuff movie put to a rhythmic soundtrack: The thwack of hurl and sliothar and rampant, green-uniformed firing-squad, in perfect, pitiless harmony.
The Executioner’s Song.
As the rest of the country put their clock back an hour, Limerick rewound two years: To that August Sunday in Croker when they permitted their people to believe in magic.
There was something beautiful and ominous and appetite-whetting about the return of Munster hurling.
Not even Tony Kelly’s afternoon in the company of angels – Clare’s 17-point sorcerer evoking an old description of Roger Federer, “A creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light” - could exile Limerick into the badlands of doubt.
As John Kiely’s crew separated themselves from Clare by approximately the width of the Shannon estuary, it was impossible not to mentally fast-forward.
To a contest that, if it falls someway short of the global, immortal reach of Ali and Foreman stepping into the African night 46 years ago, will nonetheless rivet the hurling universe.
Tipp and Limerick will step between the ropes, not in a Kinshasa jungle clearing, but by a reimagined coliseum by the banks of the Lee.
Still, the Pairc Ui Chaoimh collision of the last two All-Ireland Champions – and the two clear favourites for December glory – will summon forth, in many minds, its own clap-of-thunder rumble of foreboding.
On the first day of November, the heavyweight credentials of this duel will be enough to warm the spirits against winter’s chill.
Limerick, when they sweep imperiously across the plains as they did in Thurles last week, trail an All-Blacks style aura.
So many of their players are as muscular as earth movers and ooze the ruthless efficiency and impeccable work ethic that have for years been New Zealand’s impressive calling cards.
Gearoid Hegarty, Tom Morrissey and Kyle Hayes are constructed like powerhouse All-Black centres, their phenomenal athleticism and blue-collar hustle decorated with the kind of artistic flourishes that brought this half-forward line a combined 12 points from play last weekend.
The same trio were central in grinding away Tipp’s soul in last year’s Munster final, contributing 1-9 on an afternoon when Limerick appeared on the cusp of creating an empire on which the sun might not set for several years.
Instead, the eclipse came just weeks later, when Brian Cody blocked out the light in the All-Ireland semi-final.
For all that Limerick hinted at eminence over 12 untouchable months, their application for greatness must be accompanied by a second McCarthy Cup.
Tipp would rise from the bloodied field of that 12-point Munster slaughter last summer to seize hurling's most prized silverware.
Both teams, then, arrive at Pairc Ui Chaoimh aiming to right a wrong in their backstory.
Limerick’s loss to Kilkenny halted in their tracks a force of nature that seemed to be on the brink of redefining the ancient game.
Tipp, led by titanic commissioned officers, Seamie Callanan, Paudie Maher and Noel McGrath, made the biggest prize their own in 2019, yet their Munster final undressing means they too are travelling the redemption road.
If Limerick scored an eye-popping 36 points last Sunday, Callanan and John McGrath will have noted how a single speculative high ball to Aron Shanagher detonated panic in John Kiely’s denuded, makeshift full-back line.
That he netted in each of his eight championship appearances last year speaks of Callanan’s well-honed carnivore instincts.
That 11 Limerick players would score last Sunday and that they could spring Seamus Flanagan, Darragh O'Donovan, David Reidy and Peter Ryan from the bench speaks of their oceanic depth.
This is a contest to stir the blood, a supreme moment in a sporting calendar disfigured by a demon plague.
No one game can exorcise all the dark spirits with which this terrible plague has unleashed, but the top of the bill event in a hurling soaked hurling weekend - Galway/Wexford, Kilkenny/Dublin and Cork/Waterford forming an impressive undercard - can offer an antidote to all the circulating despair.
Anybody who observed Anthony Daly's eyes watering with emotion after last weekend's opening Sunday Game montage (is there anybody in the 13.8 billion year history of the universe who loves anything the way the engaging Clare man loves hurling) were reminded of how the championship's return gift-wrapped a lovely parcel of hope.
It makes a difference to so many lives. It touches so many corners of a Covid-tormented land.
Limerick and Tipp might well amount to a rehearsal for the Christmas All-Ireland final (assuming we get that far), but, with the calendar so condensed, the losers face not only a mental bruising, but a vicious game-a-week schedule.
In Mailer’s Rumble in the Jungle account, succinctly titled “The Fight”, he weaves the local Bantu philosophy into the narrative.
One line from that doctrine resonated with him as he listened to Ali and Foreman unite in their rejection of defeat.
It was the Bantu line announcing that “Humans were not beings, but forces.”
Those who are ringside on Sunday – or at least, in these Covid days, tuning in from afar – as Tipp and Limerick conscript every molecule of will in pursuit of those executioner’s song lyrics, will hardly be inclined to disagree.