Well, what a summer it’s been for hurling people. After years in the doldrums, Cork and Wexford have made memorable comebacks onto the main stage. Attendances have been up around 50% on what they have been in recent years. Even 8,000 people are showing up to see minor championship games on a Monday night. On Sunday we’re likely to see another near full house as Galway and Tipperary square up to each other in the first of the 2 All-Ireland semi-finals. Anyone would think that this is one of the best championships in living memory. Here’s the funny thing though. It hasn’t been.
Now before I get accused of being a negative Nelly, I’m not saying that this hasn’t been a memorable championship in some ways. Certainly, Waterford and Wexford’s victories over their arch nemesis were cheered to the rafters, and understandably so. But while Kilkenny’s demise has been welcomed by neutrals desperate for change and increased exposure for our beloved game, it hasn’t automatically equated to an increase in quality across the board.
Say what you want about Kilkenny’s domination of the sport over the last decade and a half, there was no doubt the calibre of their hurling was top class throughout the era. The 2008 All-Ireland final is probably the most complete team performance ever seen in Croke Park, and their battles against Tipperary in the finals of 2009, 2010 and the drawn final of 2014, were amongst the most glorious exhibitions of hurling ever seen.
The counter argument to Kilkenny’s success over those years, is that they were one of the first counties to implement a more defensive style, of drawing their half forwards back into midfield and defence. The 2005 semi-final defeat against Galway was a watermark in the side’s history, as they conceded 5 goals in a spectacular shootout. But after that defeat, protecting the goalmouth became an ever more important part of the Cats strategy. Brian Cody Martin Fogarty and Michael Dempsey drew up a tactical plan to reduce the amount of goals they conceded, and it worked a treat.
From 2006 onwards, Kilkenny withdrew their half forwards and midfield further back the pitch to create space for their, admittedly brilliant, inside attackers. Since then opposition players and managers have been doing whatever they can to counteract their strategy. Alan Markham’s deployment as sweeper when Clare played Kilkenny in the 2004 All-Ireland quarter final may have been the first time a side were obviously trying to tactically out-think Brian Cody’s men. But what seemed just a one off at the time, has actually become a completely new style of play in and of itself.
Of course, any conversation about this topic cannot be made without using the dreaded S word. Michael Duignan’s twitter comment during the Waterford Wexford game a week ago may have been rash, but it was merely echoing what thousands of people around the country are feeling. I mean, sure, we can understand why a team would try to shore up their defence, and some players, most notably Waterford’s Tadhg De Burca, seem to have the role down to a tee. But the more cautious and controlled approach to defending and clearing the ball, contrasts sharply to the more spontaneous and, arguably, more exciting methods of the past. Take, for example, a much-vaunted Kilkenny man from before.
One of the most beloved hurlers in the past decade was Kilkenny’s Tommy Walsh. But if the Tullaroan man was still playing in the inter-county game today, he would be an anachronism. His style, as he once mentioned in interview, was based on an edict passed on to him by one of his old school teachers: “Go for the ball as if you love it, and hit it as if you hate it” As a result he was one of the most spectacular players in recent GAA memory, with his high catches and long booming clearances down the field. But if he was to play now, people would focus less on his ability, and more on his efficiency. Sure, he can hit the ball long, but where is he actually hitting it to? And with the way there are less forwards nowadays, a lot of his clearances would be finding themselves towards a spare back.
The absence of ground hurling is another cause for nostalgia. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s teams, particularly Offaly, made hitting the ball on the floor one of the major parts of their style. Nowadays players seem more obsessed than ever about getting the ball into their hands and making a percentage play by hitting it short or hand passing it to someone else. What has happened therefore is that “rucks” are becoming as synonymous with hurling as they are with rugby, as players become ever more desperate to get the ball into their hand. Managers may argue it’s more effective, but it certainly isn’t easier on the eye.
Allied to that, while, on the face of it, it looks to have been a great hurling summer, a lot of teams will not be evaluating their campaign that highly. Limerick have had great success at under 21 level this year, but their senior side is still struggling badly. Dublin had an extremely poor year and were well beaten against Galway and Tipperary. Clare underperformed in all 3 of their championship games. Offaly are in more turmoil than ever. Wexford, had a very good year, or very good 6 months from January to June, but their style is not one that would win the hearts of the neutrals. The quarter finals that took place in Pairc Ui Chaoimh last week were great occasions, but will not go down in the annals as wonderful games.
If we are really to get down to the brass tacks of the matter, ask yourself this question: how many great games have actually taken place in the hurling championship this year? Well, Tipperary and Cork for sure, no question. Waterford and Kilkenny was hugely exciting, no doubt, but for large parts of the game the quality, particularly on the Kilkenny side, was sorely lacking. The Wexford Kilkenny, Cork Waterford, and Wexford Galway games had their moments, but it’s highly unlikely that they will go down as some of the greatest games to have taken place between the counties.
With the emphasis now on tactics, you could say Hurling is becoming more like soccer. But is that what we want? They are two games with completely different characteristics. Hurling reads more like an action movie, all fire and brimstone, while Soccer is like a slow-paced drama. In recent times, our national sport has become more influenced by the possession based nature of the “Beautiful game”. But scoring still trumps possession. Playing a short-passing game is fine if you have players with the pace and highly attuned skills of the mid-00’s Cork side. But if you don’t have those attributes and instead spend your time driving wides aimlessly from 70 or 80 yards out, it won’t win you many followers or, more importantly, many games.
Funnily enough, and as heretical as it may seem to hurling lovers, the Gaelic football championship has arguably been more entertaining this year. The introduction of the mark and teams desire to push up on the oppositions kick out has made the game more attack minded and watchable. Mayo are probably the most entertaining team in either hurling or football at the moment, such is their commitment to attacking play, and inability, as it were, to be involved in boring one-sided games.
Now maybe these are just the rantings of an old fogey who always declares “Things were better back in my day” and thinks that modern music is too loud and annoying (it is though). And that’s not to say that such musings haven’t been mentioned in the past. The great Wexford team of the team of the 50’s and 60’s were one of the first to introduce catching the ball as a new tactic. It was revolutionary at the time, but some people objected to it on the basis that it reduced the amount of overhead hurling in the game which, bar the odd spectacular goal ala Jimmy Barry Murphy in 1985 against Galway, has never really made a proper comeback since.
The good news for hurling followers around the country though is that we are hopefully looking at some high-quality action from here on in. Judging by the recent past, Galway and Tipperary should be one of the games of the year. The two sides have produced epics in both 2015 and 2016, and their rivalry has been one of the most enduring of the last decade or more. Cork’s attacking style has been refreshing all year, and while Waterford are certainly the most defensive of the remaining sides, they did open up in the semi-final twice last year in those classics against Kilkenny. They may think they need to do so again if they are to reach a final.
Considering the standing of the 3 sides in the semi-final, people may accept that the sweeper system, while certainly beneficial in reducing a side’s concession rate, is not necessarily one that guarantees outright success. Perhaps Waterford will prove us wrong this year. Or perhaps, as has been proven in the past, the more attack minded side will win the day. Whatever happens there’s hope, and a certain belief, that we will have 3 great games ahead of us.
And we will need that, because, despite the general narrative around hurling at the moment (and it is fantastic it’s getting so much attention) the actual action has been quite poor. So, let’s hope we have a memorable end to the championship. Not just in terms of a changing of the guard, but in excitement and quality too.