Saturday, September 6, 2008

The All-Ireland Hurling Final, The Most Important Fixture in the World This Week

In Croke Park tomorrow, Kilkenny will take on Waterford, in what is perhaps the most important sporting fixture in the world.

For those who don't know what hurling is, and let's face it, that's just about everybody who's not Irish, hurling is the fastest field sport in the world. It's faster than soccer, faster than rugby, and even faster than ice hockey...

Kilkenny, the reigning champions, will take on Waterford in the All-Ireland Hurling Final in Croke Park, where 83,000 fans will pack themselves in to see one of the greatest sporting spectacles the world has seen this or any other year.

Hurling, to the un-initiated, is the national sport of Ireland. It has been played in Ireland for around 2,000 years. But it wasn't until 1884 that the GAA formed and created an All-Ireland competition.

The sides have 15 men, including a goalkeeper. The pitch measures out at around 150m long and 100m wide. There are goals at either end, which resemble rugby posts. And you get three point for scoring a goal and one point for scoring above the goal.

What marks Hurling out from other sports is that it is played with a stick called a Hurley (caman in Irish, pronounced kam-aun) the ball that it's played with is roughly the size of a tennis ball, but is as hard as a hockey puck, this ball is called a sliotar (pronounced shh-litter). So the players need protection, in the form of helmets.

Another factor that makes Hurling so special are the players. The players are amateur. The GAA is an amateur organisation, even though the players regularly play in front of crowds from 5,000 to 85,000.

The sight of a hurling player in full flight is a joy to behold, and seeing him as he solos the sliotar before putting it over the bar is something that every fan of any sport should see at least once.

To solo the sliotar, the player must balance the ball on the large part of the hurl whilst running at full pace. Baring in mind that the players usually run the 100m in around 12 seconds, doing this with the hurl while balancing the sliotar is no mean feat.

Check out the sport in all its majestic glory.

Tomorrow, Kilkenny are striving for a third title in a row. They would be regarded as the home of hurling, but they haven't won three in a row since 1911. And they are unbeaten in the Championship in three years. They find themselves rock solid favourites at 3/10.

Waterford, on the other hand, go into this match after a poor start to the season, which saw new manager Davy Fitz take over only 10 games ago. Waterford have not won the Hurling Championship in 49 years and find themselves as underdogs at 3/1.

Everything points to Kilkenny winning, and it's easy to see why, but winning three in a row is notoriously hard, and if there is a team capable of stopping an unstoppable Kilkenny, it could be Waterford.