Goliaths don't just happen. Goliaths are made. And in Kilkenny, a small rural town south of Dublin, building a Goliath starts at an early age. The same way children in Los Angeles may walk around town dribbling basketballs, the kids in Kilkenny walk to and from school ready to hurl.
“The majority would have their bag and a hurl in their hand,” said Richie Powers, a Kilkenny resident. “It's part of a tradition in Ireland. Hurling in Kilkenny is what we concentrate on, and then there's other counties that would concentrate a bit more on the football.”
Powers, a broad man with massive forearms and a strong jaw, was a star hurler for Kilkenny—as his son, also named Richie, is now.
Training kids young is a big reason why Kilkenny generally hammers opposing teams. But something happened about a month ago. Kilkenny played Galway—a team that nobody expected to win—and in the last seconds of the game, Galway forced a tie.
Powers, breathing deeply, said he hoped Kilkenny would win the tie-breaker.
It was the only time I ever heard a Kilkenny fan say they 'hoped' for a victory.
About four hours before the title match, street vendors in Dublin sold headbands, hats, and t-shirts for Kilkenny and Galway fans. The vendors noted the popularity of Galway gear, and the streets filled with fans wearing the Galway colors: maroon and white.
Ollie Newell had work the next morning at 6 a.m. but still drove five hours round trip from Galway to see the match.
“There's a difference between watching it on TV,” he said. “You get to watch the full match, but I love the atmosphere here.”
Newell and his friends said the Kilkenny fans didn’t seem pumped.
Closer to the match, the Kilkenny fans, dressed in amber and black striped jerseys, started pouring in. They were boisterous, some openly mocking the Galway team, calling them cowards.
The two groups of fans reflected the small versus big—the David versus Goliath. The Galway fans just seemed happy to be there, while the Kilkenny fans had swagger like the final was just another night at the pub.
The game started at the 80,000 seat open air Croke Park Stadium, with the feel of a college football game between bitter rivals. Like college football players, hurlers don't get paid. The fans refered to hurling as an amateur sport, and expressed a sense of deep local pride in their team. So when Galway star Joe Canning scored the first point of the match with a swing that sent the puck almost 70 meters, the fans in maroon and white went wild, waving flags and rising to their feet.
A few minutes later, Kilkenny’s Henry Shefflin—perhaps the best hurler ever to play the game—tied the match with a casual swing of his hurl. Two minutes after that, Kilkenny went up a point. And then another, and another. The Kilkenny fans roared. Then, Galway scored two goals, which are worth three points. Seconds later, Kilkenny scored a goal and then a quick point to make a tie between Goliath and David. By halftime, Kilkenny led by just two points.
After the half, Kilkenny scored two points quickly, and appeared to be in total control. But then Galway’s Joe Canning, playing with a bum knee, raced towards the goal, battled past defenders, and belted the puck for a three point goal. But with a foul called, Galway only received one point.
After the point, Kilkenny, scored again and again and again. A Galway player, in frustration, swung his hurl at a Kilkenny player’s head, and was tossed from the game. Fifty-seven minutes into the match, Kilkenny scored a three-point goal. Goliath was up 25-14. Many Galway fans left the stadium with 15 minutes left to play.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Galway players fell to their knees, and watched Kilkenny celebrate in a pile, some of them with their hands and heads bloodied. Kilkenny beat Galway by 11 points, which is like a basketball team winning by forty. The Galway fans didn’t even talk after the game.
Eight-year-old Luke Dunn, one of those kids you’d see walking to school with a hurling stick, was one of the many Kilkenny fans who just seemed relieved.
“Because we've won loads of All-Ireland's already,” he said. “We finally beat them.”
And when you root for Goliath, sometimes a sense of relief is more welcome than the thrill of victory.
This segment aired on October 6, 2012.