After much to-ing and fro-ing, the League format is settled for 2014. The provisional fixtures are out and using the magic of the intrawebs we’ll be able to update them as more information emerges (translation: at the time of writing, apart from the opening game under lights in Thurles, I’m guessing about the venues).
|15/02/14||Division 1A||Semple Stadium||Waterford||Tipperary|
|23/02/14||Division 1A||Waterford venue||Waterford||Galway|
|09/03/14||Division 1A||Waterford venue||Waterford||Dublin|
|16/03/14||Division 1A||Clare venue||Waterford||Clare|
|23/03/14||Division 1A||Kilkenny venue||Waterford||Kilkenny|
All-Ireland Minor hurling champions. How sweet it is. It’s a strange phenomenon, the way we can get so het up over what my mother-in-law described, innocently but perfectly accurately, as ‘the kids’. We’ve won an All-Ireland in my lifetime, gloriously so. And it’s probably fair to say that the All-Ireland for Under 18′s would not have the same resonance were it not coupled with the Senior final. However, there it is, and it’s telling about its stature that TV3 were quite happy to give it such lavish treatment. In short, it matters. And for 2013, it’s ours.
I was sceptical about our chances, feeling that the old hands like Mattie Murphy who have guided Galway to a further seven Minor titles since they beat us in 1992, would come up with a strategy to cope with what seemed like our lack of strategy based on the games I had seen.
Thinking of the final in 1992, it brings back memories of the summer drivetime show on RTÉ which was in the hands of a chap called Jerry (I don’t think it was Gerry) Foley. He was proudly Waterfordian and bigged up the city and county whenever he could, which was nice. On the Friday before the game, he asked the sports presenter who he would rather see win. ‘Galway’ was the answer, because wouldn’t it be great to see them win since it was a whole nine years since they had won the Minor All-Ireland. It was probably a generational thing, to see Waterford as the traditional power and Galway, who hadn’t won a Senior All-Ireland in all of four years, as the innocents abroad. Either way, Jerry got right huffy, justifiably so, pointing out that Waterford hadn’t won the Minor title since 1948. Jerry, wherever you are, you can be sure the sports presenter in question, wherever he might be, would have been cheering for the Déise this time around.
*****END TANGENT ALERT*****
Dermot Keyes was having none of this defeatism:
@deiseach I’ve seen the lads five times this year. They’ve won games in different ways. Lots of talent. I’m hopeful but it will be tight.
— Dermot Keyes (@DermotKeyes) September 7, 2013
A fair point, and we both agreed that Waterford had plenty of match winners. If they brought their A game, Waterford would win. My concern was that there wasn’t a coherent strategy to get the best of those match winners. Which team would turn up? The one that bulldozed Clare, or the one that flattered to deceive against Tipperary? The one that went toe-to-toe with Cork for 80 minutes in their own back yard and came away with a genuinely famous win, or the one that let slip an eight-point lead in the Munster final?
I needn’t have worried. Two years ago I expressed angst about the powder-puff nature of our underage teams. It was clear against Kilkenny that there was nothing fragile about this Waterford team as they repeatedly burst onto to loose balls and drove the play up the field. On two occasions during yesterday’s game TV3 showed a statistic about the amount of puckouts won. On both occasions they showed Galway were ahead. On both occasions I thought ‘so what?’ The team had picked up where they left off against Kilkenny, brushing off Galway markers with ease and powering forward. But for some tremendous goalkeeping by Cathal Tuohy we could have had two goals from such teak-tough play which might have broken Galway there and then in the first half. As it was it took a spectacular point from DJ Foran with the last puck of the half to give us the three-point lead we deserved. Having cut out the alarming propensity for giving away frees in the Kilkenny game, it was looking very good indeed.
I’m the world’s biggest worrier, especially when watching games on the telly. I’m always convinced the viewer is being deceived, that something is happening stage left that is about to ruin your day – the decisive moment in the game would typify this idea, although in this case it wasn’t our day that was about to be ruined. So when someone like me was watching and not having a complete nervous breakdown, it was a sign that Waterford were on top. Even when Galway put together four unanswered points to draw matters level, I didn’t feel . . . okay, I was very nervous, a couple of tough free chances being missed not helping. But no decent team, and Galway Minor teams are always decent, is going to be completely bereft of periods of dominance. A lot of energy would have been expelled in that period and it was so obvious enough that even I could see Waterford still had the winning of this. We were soon back in the groove, stretching the lead back to four points and keeping Galway on the back foot.
Then came the moment. It happened off-screen as the director showed the replay of a Waterford point, although kudos must be given to Mike Finnerty for keeping up with the action on the field rather than concentrating on his monitors, so we missed Patrick Curran brilliantly dispossessing the Galway back from a short puckout. We didn’t miss him bearing down on goal and finally ramming one past Tuohy. Jesus. It was about to happen. Waterford were going to win the Minor All-Ireland. Sure, you couldn’t help but recall the implosion in the Munster final, but there was less time for Galway to come back, momentum was now decisively with us, and there weren’t 20,000 Tribesmen in the stands giving them a gee-up. It would have been the comeback to beat all comebacks for Galway to save this and the team gratifyingly kept the boot down on maroon necks to ensure that there was a not-particularly flattering eight-point margin of victory when Cathal McAllister blew the final whistle.
All-Ireland winners in Croke Park. There were times when I thought I wouldn’t see the day, which is a terrible thing for a 36-year-old to say. And in case anyone in Waterford was worried that too much weight is being put on the success of a team of chisellers, the post-match interview with Seán Power would have soon put them right. He was in no doubt that this was a Big Deal, emotionally spelling out just what this means to a county like Waterford. Even during this period of sustained competitiveness for the county, the season has always ended on a downer. You win things during the season but come September you always look back at what might have been. Not this year. For only the fourth time ever (the 1929 Minor final was not played until February in 1930) we can look back on the last Championship game and say “we did it”. The future is bright too, with so many players looking the real deal. But as chief Vitalstatistix said, tomorrow never comes. Today, we’re All-Ireland winners and my own little chiseller, barely two months on this planet, gets to see an open-top bus down the Mall this evening. Not that he’ll appreciate it; I’ll have more than enough enthusiasm for two of us. Final word today to the ever-dependable Dermot Keyes:
I’ve been at a Ryder Cup, I saw fat Ronaldo score a hat-trick at Old Trafford, I’ve seen Munster win two ERCs. Nothing tops this. #Deise
— Dermot Keyes (@DermotKeyes) September 8, 2013
I managed a small essay about the Senior final. This is going to barely amount to a big paragraph about the Minors. This isn’t an indication of what I care about the most. All my energies for tomorrow are focussed on throw-in at 1.15pm. But it’s hard to say anything original about them. Never stopped you before, sez you. Shut up, sez I, I’m not in a playful humour. Of two games I have seen, Waterford were soundly beaten by Tipperary and came out on top after a white-knuckle ride against Kilkenny. I think the talent is there to take home the Irish Press Cup – it’s curious how that name has stuck with me since the days when the Press was the paper of choice in our house; the in-house-style guide meant all references to the paper, even in the context of the Minor trophy, were in upper case. Pompous enough for any blogger. Anyway, I fear that while the talent might be there, the game plan is not. ‘Go out and play, lads’ might have worked fine back in the day when teams were thrown together between sessions for study for exams and sessions with a bag a cans, but to see a team play in such a freeform manner against Kilkenny, their seventh outing together this year, was mildly scary. Galway, on the other hand, are old hands at this. They are likely to have too much for us. We’re going to have to hit them so hard that by the time they know what’s happened, it’ll all be over. Say a little prayer…
As the clock counts down to the second Sunday in September, you may have been under the illusion that the winner of the Irish Press Cup will be determined by which team is better / plays better on the day. Well more fool you! The Hawk Eye fiasco in the Limerick-Galway semi-final on Sunday has completely changed the dynamic. The result now will be entirely dependent on the outcome of Limerick’s appeal. That doesn’t mean we know who is going to win, but all the discussion post-match will focus on the impact the appeal and subsequent replay, or lack thereof, had on the result. For your convenience, I have prepared The Come on the Déise All-Ireland Minor Final Hawk Eye Appeal Results Matrix™ so you can better appreciate where the talking points will be coming from:
What was that? Maybe they’ll award the match to Limerick because had the point been awarded then, all other things being equal, they would have won the match in normal time? Nah, that would be stupid!
Miracles never cease. For once, the National Hurling League finds itself not having to defend itself against charges of unfairness/irrelevance/pointlessness/boredom/all of the above as the fate of nearly every team went down, quite literally, to the last puck of the final round of matches. Had Waterford or Cork conjured up late goals in their respective games then the table would have spun like a top. As it was, there is some slight irritation to see the All-Ireland, Munster and Leinster champions in the top three places, giving an unfair impression of as-you-were. But overall it has been a rollercoaster contest, and given the usual denunciations of the League format for being all of the above, the authorities have much to be pleased about.
Sadly for them, and happily for those of us who like to be disagreeable for the sake of it, it’s never that simple. Each team’s performance will only be properly assessed in September. No doubt there was some pundit somewhere who wrote a preview of last year’s All-Ireland final and opined that Galway’s playoff torment last year when they only got past Dublin after a replay was really a blessing in disguise as it toughened them up for what was to come. Clare and Cork will be hard pressed to see those advantages from their current perspective. Then there’s Waterford, the only team without a game between now and the Championship. Will we be better off for coming into the Clare game fresh, or worse off for not having another game in which to iron out the kinks? No sod knows, but that won’t stop experts rushing in to fill the vacuum of knowledge with their considered opinions.
While I may scoff at the meanderings of pundits, all the while hopefully giving off a sense of awareness of the irony of a blogger scoffing at the meandering of pundits, there is ultimately no damage done by their retrospective know-it-all attitude to the League. More serious is what happens next. Not at the top of the League where Tipperary, Kilkenny and Galway will trip over themselves to downplay its significance, all the while skirting around the challenge provided by whoever emerges from the Limerick-Dublin promotion playoff, a team that will be as high as a kite from the relief of escaping the abyss that is Division 1B. No, the serious business is the result of the Clare-Cork relegation playoff.
I’m not one for conspiracy theories. It’s always amusing how people rub their chins in a told-you-so fashion about how they predicted the draw for the Championship, particularly the qualifiers, before it happened. Note that these predictions are never revealed until after the draw was made. It’s not as if you would need to put your prediction in a sealed envelope with a postmark on it or take a photo with the newspaper from the day the prediction was made for it to be a verifiable vision of the future. All that’s needed is to put it on a message board and viola! the corruption of those in positions of power is laid bare. Maybe those making these self-evidently foolish accusations of corruption are plants designed to distract from the true seers and their plaintive cries, lost in the wilderness of obfuscation. It’s genius, I tell you, evil genius!
Okay, that paragraph went off on a tangent too far. The concern from the Clare-Cork game is simple. If Cork get relegated and they change the format of the League then all suggestions that the GAA is hard-wired to bow to the needs of the Big Three will have found a solid example from which even the loopiest of conspiracies can claim validity. Despite the thrilling 2013 season, the current League format is not without problems. Tom Dempsey got a lot of stick from Waterford supporters for blithely talking around us on RTÉ’s Sunday Sport programme as if we don’t exist, but anyone who listened to him a lot through the spring will have heard his repeated objections to the one-up-one-down format of Divisions 1A/B, and he’s right. It’s simply not fair that Limerick should have to enter a playoff against Dublin to see who gets promoted, just as it was unfair last year that Galway had to playoff against Dublin last year despite winning two games to Dublin’s none, and finishing ahead of Waterford on points difference but losing on the head-to-head - they might feel some small sense of satisfaction that it was us who lost out to them on the head-to-head this year.
It’s unfair, but no one in authority cares as long as it’s only the grunts who count their All-Ireland successes in single figures that fall into its clutches. So you can well imagine the hysterics that will erupt in Croke Park should Cork find themselves in Division 1B next year. When Cork failed to fulfil fixtures in the 2008 NHL, their only penalty was to have the games awarded to the opposition, one of which happened to be against Waterford. There was understandable fury in Wexford as Waterford were effectively gifted two points while Wexford played and lost to a full-strength Cork. Had it been the other way around, and Waterford ended up losing to Cork in a playoff to see who got into the knockout stages, it would have been Waterford who ended up in Division 2 for 2009. Every action that was taken was designed to accommodate Cork – God forbid that they might be penalised for distorting the competition in the manner they did – and we were the lucky beneficiaries of those actions. With all that in mind, can you see the GAA accepting the status quo should Clare beat Cork and the Rebels find themselves slumming it with Antrim and Laois/Westmeath next year? Yerra, the League will seem ripe for another restructuring and the success of Division 1A in providing so many thrills and spills in 2013 be damned.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Headquarters will be pleased to see that no one is safe. Maybe they’ll respect the integrity of the process. I’m happy to be proven wrong, and it’s why I’m hoping Clare beat Cork. If this happens and Cork are banished to the quicksands of Division 1B, I’ll be delighted to hold my hands up and say I misjudged those who run the association and their motivations. Should Cork lose though and the League is rejigged to keep them in the standards to which they are accustomed, I may find myself donning a tinfoil hat with all the other kooks claiming that those making the Championship draws don’t rattle those balls/hurleys in the pot with sufficient vigour.
(originally posted by Giveitfong on boards.ie)
In the first half yesterday I thought Waterford showed all the symptoms of a team which was unable to handle the new level of expectation which had been placed on them after the win over Tipperary. For the first time they were being widely expected to win this game, and the weekend papers devoted acres of space to the new pretenders.
You could even see in the prematch warm-up that Galway meant business, and they got stuck in right from the throw-in, playing with confidence and drive. Waterford, by contrast, had the jitters. Their first touch was desperate, their decision-making was poor and they made loads of mistakes. Watching the replay, I counted nine Galway scores (and four missed chances) which came directly from Waterford errors.
Fair dues to the management who got the team’s heads right at half time, and they played much better hurling in the second half. Unfortunately, playing against the wind made it difficult to land scores from distance, while Galway crowded the goal area to snuff out goal chances, as Waterford persisted with long balls into that area.
While it is true that Galway probably would have won the game more comfortably if Joe Canning had been even half his normal self, the fact is that Waterford also missed a lot of good chances. The referee’s eccentric refereeing didn’t help their cause either. I counted eleven incorrect decisions that he made which went against Waterford. Most of these came in the first half when Waterford could have made better use of the frees they should have got. I was amazed to read in today’s paper that Stapleton gave Waterford thirteen frees in the second half and Galway just one. I presume someone let him know at half time that he hadn’t been exactly fair to the home team in the first half.
While Waterford’s skill level is high and their attitude has been top-class, they need to go beyond this if they are to be serious contenders. The supply of ball going into the forwards throughout the league has generally been poor. This is particularly important when you have a lot of small forwards who find it hard to gain possession in one-on-one situations. They need early, low, ball played into space and not to players.
If they are going to play a ball-winner at full forward then the ball needs to be played into him and he needs support players to feed off breaking balls or hand passes. When Waterford had the gale force wind against Cork they were playing only one or two players in the full forward line. Last week against Tipperary when playing with the wind they put Seamus Pender in full forward but wouldn’t send the ball into him. I remember at one point yesterday when a long ball was played in and Pender had four Galway defenders in attendance while there was no other Waterford player within 30 yards.
One of Waterford’s potentially greatest attacking assets is the way Kevin Moran is able to break forward from midfield. However, very little ever seems to come from these sorties, with Moran either running into trouble or out of ideas. The management need to work on making the most of these situations, with support players running alongside Moran, or moving into designated places to receive through balls. Alternatively, once Moran breaks the line in midfield, he should find the spare man when the next defender comes up to face him, rather than taking him on too.
The management surely must also realise that placing Maurice Shanahan at full forward is a waste of time, and you can see that he is just not comfortable in that position. I thought he did much better in the half forward line in the second half. There were also signs of improvement in Pauric Mahony’s play when he came on as a sub. I think that our championship team should have Shanahan, Prendergast and Mahony in the half forward line – three tall men who will cause opposing half back lines a lot of problems.
Although things didn’t go well for Ray Barry, he still showed signs of having something to offer. He took up a lot of good positions and showed on occasion that he could win his own ball. Anyone who has seen him play for Waterford under-age teams and for Lismore will know that he is a very talented and versatile hurler.
I was amazed after the match when someone remarked to me that he didn’t think Darragh Fives had much of a game. I thought watching the game “live” that he did very well, and after seeing the replay on TV I would say he was possibly Waterford’s best player on the day. His constructive use of the ball is a key feature of his game.
Despite being a super wing back and then centre back for the county minors, and being a star centre back on two winning UCC Fitzibbon Cup teams, I suspect that yesterday was the first time that Fives started a competitive game for Waterford in the half back line. He had the misfortune of starting off with Waterford two years ago as a corner back when they were stuck and then, when he did well there, was left there. He is the kind of player who would play well anywhere, but playing him at corner back was a waste of his talent.
The same fate befell Jamie Barron who started off with the county minors at corner back when he was 16 and was then kept there for two more years. Last year he was still there with the under 21s, despite being the top scorer in the county at senior level with his club.
I also think Stephen Daniels has more to offer Waterford in the half back line than at corner back. His strength, drive and ball-winning ability are perfectly suited to wing back. With Shane Fives doing an excellent job in one corner and Noel Connors now available for the other, I think a half back line of Darragh Fives, Brick and Daniels and a midfield of Shane O’Sullivan and Kevin Moran would give us a unit in this sector of the field better than most other counties.
I remember the day of my cousin’s wedding shindig last August because it was the day of the Mayo-Dublin football semi-final. Or was it the other way around? Either way, the particular set of cousins from which she hails have no interest in the GAA but between the jigs and the reels we ended up seated with my father’s cousins family who were very interested in the GAA, so the conversation was punctuated by periodic hammering of refresh buttons to see what was happening in the big game. And there was much rejoicing when the news came through that the Jackeens had gone down. It was good to see that even the much-garlanded Rebels were motivated by base pettiness like that rest of us.
The conversation eventually turned, as these kind of hearty, good-natured exchanges between like-minded Gaels always does, to Waterford. Or, or specifically, to Waterford’s failure in recent times to win the ultimate prize of the Liam McCarthy Cup. One of them said to me, without being either unkind or patronising, that it was a pity that Waterford had not won the All-Ireland. My response, and I’m proud to say I didn’t skip a beat in saying this, was to say that in the last 10-15 years we’ve experienced riches beyond our wildest dreams. I said it because it is true, but I’m pleased that I said it without any unconscious if-buts-or-maybes. They all nodded with the understanding of people who knew instinctively what I was talking about – for Waterford supporters, the last fifteen years have been a glorious time, and no-one from Cork is in a position to say otherwise.
All of this was said in the aftermath of another cruel defeat, coming up short against Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s Cork when it looked like we had them over a barrel, and I felt our glory era was about to go the way of silent films and Marathon bars. Yet here we are seven months on and even if the improbable worst happens and Waterford end up being relegated, we have at least demonstrated that reports of the death of Waterford hurling have been greatly exaggerated, much to the delight of headline writers and Mark Twain-enthusiasts everywhere.
I know hope is a dangerous thing. Morgan Freeman and John Cleese have both said as much, so it must be true. But hope is usually born from events that inspire hope, and those events are good things in themselves. This year I saw Waterford draw with Cork and beat Tipperary, games that looked hopelessly lost with only a handful of minutes remaining, so it’s perfectly reasonable to feel energised by those events. I’m not going to be at Walsh Park today and it’s great to be able to say that I’m disappointed at not being able to go, because back when the League fixtures were announced I was expecting to view this game as a chore. All too often in our history that is what attending Waterford games has been like, and it’s important that we enjoy those moments when it is not. Go out and give them hell, Waterford.
Update 1710: so we survived, if not without a few hairy moments as we loitered on the wrong side of the three point handicap right up until the last minute and Kilkenny and Cork flirted with a draw for all of their game. It’s a disappointing end to the campaign, particularly when you review a second quarter shocker where we didn’t manage a single score with the wind. But we can at least look forward to doing it all again next year. Either Clare or Cork can look forward to playing, shall we say, less exciting opposition next year. Forgive me if that thought puts a warped smile on my face – if not one on the face of the Cork cousins.
The 2013 National Hurling League has been a blast. How much of a blast? This much of a blast:
So it’s been a blast, and that’s even before you consider the satisfaction to be had from individual wins like last Sunday. Amazingly my match report, written in a frenzy of inspiration on Sunday evening rather than having to be dragged out of me throughout Monday, managed to understate the thrills and spills of the closing stages of the game. Thankfully Giveitfong was on hand to note how things were even more dramatic than I had described, with the Lar Corbett effort that dropped short coming when the teams were level rather than Tipperary being a point ahead like I said, and doffing the cap to Brian O’Sullivan for calmly hustling Brendan Cummins into a hurried clearance that led to Kevin Moran’s winning score. It’s only fitting to acknowledge a sequence of events that, all other things being equal, moved us from 5th to 1st on the Division 1A table:
Enjoy that? Good, because it’s time to move on . . . okay, look at it one more time, then we’ll move on.
Given Waterford’s Herculean efforts, it’s a bit galling to have to confront the possibility that it might not be enough to preserve our top flight status into a 16th consecutive season. Then again, in the A < B < C < A world of this year’s League we should be grateful for any advantage. It seems head-to-head counts only when there are just two teams on the same number of points, so that’s not going to be an issue for Waterford – if we only have five then Galway will also have five and two more teams will have to have five so points difference is going to be what matters. After much chewing the fat on the Waterford GAA thread on boards.ie, we’ve worked out that any of the following outcomes means survival:
- Waterford beat Galway. No-one can overtake us then.
- Waterford draw with Galway. We finish ahead of Galway and any combination of results in the other games will leave at least two other teams below us.
Should we lose, then we can still survive if:
- both the other games result in a win for someone, anyone. That would leave two teams on four points and we’re safe.
- one of the games ends in draw but we lose to Galway by three or fewer points. We finish ahead of the loser of the game that wasn’t a draw and of Galway by one point.
We’ll end up in the bottom two if:
- we lose and both of the other games end in a draw. Everyone ends up on five points and seeing as we currently have the second-worst points difference we can only get worse.
- we lose by more than four points and one of the other games ends in the draw. We’ll finish ahead of the other losing who will only have four points but behind the winners of that game, the two teams who drew, and of course Galway.
It’s convoluted, but the good news is that the scenarios which involve us staying up are far more likely than ones which see us going down, relying as they do on draws. When playing Dublin last year one ear was being kept on the game between Kilkenny and Galway, and we needn’t have worried as Kilkenny had taken Galway to the cleaners by half-time. It’s not hard to see an enraged/worried Kilkenny – the idea that they might be worried will no doubt enrage them – doing something similar to Cork, which leaves us just needing someone to be a point ahead at the end of the Clare-Tipp game. And if we win, all of this is moot and we’re in the League knockout stages for the first time since 2008. But on the day that Dungarvan Colleges bearded the St Kieran’s lion, let’s only have one Waterford team getting notions above their station, mkay?
It came as a relief to those of us looking for a serious discussion of this year’s drawn All-Ireland final – am I the only one to sigh mournfully at losing our most noteworthy contribution to GAA trivia? – that Brian Cody issued a back-handed mea culpa for his ludicrously over-the-top reaction to the free from which Galway equalised. Had it been for the winning score then it might have been understandable, but in the context of a draw it was needlessly incendiary. He had shrugged it off by the time it came to talking to the media though, and he resolutely refused to say anything bad about the referee, so his behaviour didn’t dominate the discussion of the match. Joe Canning waited a couple of days before his comment about Henry Shefflin’s supposed lack of sportsmanship, but he too was saved from a media tsunami of indignation by a hilariously self-pitying contribution from Eddie Keher, his interview best summed up by balls.ie - Eddie Keher Blames Society For Kilkenny Not Winning The All-Ireland. In the end, most of the discussion was about the match.
And what a match it was, laden with intrigue and intensity. This was just as well, because it concealed that the game wasn’t of the highest quality. It was only moderately surprising that Galway hit wide after wide, especially as the game barrelled towards its dramatic conclusion. I’ve seen a quote attributed to George Best where he responds to a friend, who expressed relief upon seeing Roberto Baggio stepping up to take the decisive penalty in the 1994 World Cup that he was glad it wasn’t him (the friend, not George) taking it, by saying that he’d love to be in his (Baggio’s, not the friend’s) position. That’s all very well George but that was only the World Cup at stake, not the All-Ireland, and I almost cried for Joe Canning when he missed a relatively straightforward free in the first minute of injury time that would have levelled matters. Score, and they’ll remember you for years. Miss, and they’ll remember you forever.
His nervousness was understandable. What was Kilkenny’s excuse? As wide after wide piled up you couldn’t help but grumble that had they been this profligate in 2008 we might only have lost by a more respectable 15 points. Then there was the extraordinary decision of Henry Shefflin to take a point when presented with a penalty with only two minutes to go. The scores were level, Henry has an excellent record from that distance and the odds are that any saved shot would ping over the bar for a point or out for a 65. Going for a goal was effectively a free shot to win the All-Ireland yet over it went to the stupefied disbelief of Michael Duignan in the commentary box. Clearly Galway had them rattled and its something the Tribesmen would do well to remember for the replay.
What really struck me about the match was how, shall we say, robust it was. My wife spent most of the game spluttering with outrage as anyone with the sliothar had to wade their way through a forest of limbs and hurleys to try and earn some space. Most of the comment after the game was about how manly it all was – football types routinely lament that their game has become sanitised in comparison to the teak-tough endeavours in the small ball game, and Sunday’s match would be Exhibit A for the prosecution.
But there’s nowt manly about slamming a hurley in front of a man and there’s even less manly about having three or four hurleys fencing a player in. It seems to me, without any empirical evidence to support it, that the rules of hurling have not kept pace with the fitness levels of those playing the game. It has long been obvious in rugby, but watching Iarla Tannian have to hurdle timber every time he won the ball was the first time it ever looked that way in hurling. The great Waterford team of the late 50′s were famed for delightful use of quick ball, but even if you have the skills you need the space in which to perform and there’s no chance a player could do that in the modern game.
Look at the way we send out players lined up from 2-15, left corner-back to right corner-forward. You play the ball towards your man and hope he has the skill and strength to beat his man. That’s the way it is. Except it isn’t anymore. Play the ball into your man and watch him get instantly surrounded by two or three opponents. If he wins the ball, they clamp onto him like leeches and it almost becomes a lottery as to whether the ref will give a free for fouling or for overcarrying. Barry Kelly got most of those 50:50 calls right that day, and perhaps that’s the sign of a great ref that you’re good at predicting coin tosses. But something’s wrong when you’re relying on a referee’s ingrained grasp of subtlety for a game to thrive.
The game was a good day’s work for hurling. All the talk of how hurling is our national sport will be shown up for the cant it is over the next few days as the whole country stares agog at the collective hyperventilation emanating from Mayo and Donegal. So it was nice for a buzz to be generated from a hurling game and to be able to do it all again after the inevitable madness in whatever county triumphs this Sunday has subsided. But the excitement was mostly about the tightness of the result and the possibility that someone was going to take down Goliath. You can’t rely on that every time.
What can we change in hurling? Is it a time for different equipment, or different rules relating to shoulder charges? Would hurling really be so damaged by a little less ‘manly’ contact and a little more room in which players can manoeuvre? I’ll probably get pilloried for suggesting that the rules of our glory game, codified as they were by Cúchulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhaill after a clash between the Red Branch Knights and the Fianna with one set of goals on Malin Head and the other on Mizen Head, need to be changed. I’m not convinced though that the game Sunday week last is as good as hurling gets.