Hurling was different when they let fly

Hurling was different when they let fly
KILLER B’s: Kerry captain Adam O’Sullivan and team-mates celebrate with the Richie McElligott Cup following their All-Ireland U20B HC final win over Down in Navan.

Some weekend for the hurling, the weekend before last.

The reason I bring it up is less to talk sweepers or Saxons and more to do with TG4 during the middle of last week.

It offered a quick comparison between the game of hurling these days and the game of hurling just over 20 years ago. The game shown was the Leinster final of 1996, when Wexford and Offaly served up a stirring battle before the former came out on top.

Yours truly had a 10-year-old nearby on the couch who picked out the first and most obvious difference (“Where are the helmets? Really? No helmets? Someone’s going to get hurt.” They did, too).

I was reminded of a point Nicky English made about his playing days in these pages last week, in the Hurling Hands piece: “I think at that time there was a lot more of what you might call unscripted play, pulling on the ball and so on.

“It was a lot less predictable, what a fella might do. He could pick the ball or let fly, you wouldn’t know...

“I know Johnny Callinan said (in this series) that you don’t see as many finger injuries these days and I wonder if that’s part of it, the game was is more scripted now, if you like.”

Well, the proof of Nicky’s observations was plain to see on TG4 last week. The amount of first-time pulling was, by an unscientific estimate, about 400% more prevalent than in any game in the last five years. Both sides had players who seemed to love nothing more than pulling hard — ‘letting fly’, Nicky’s description, was on the nose, as was some of the pulling.

Each time they did there was a resounding cheer, but each time it also resulted in lottery regarding possession. Sometimes the ball went to a team-mate. Sometimes it went to an opponent. In either case, there were no guarantees.

This was the main takeaway for this viewer. The emphasis in the modern game on possession above all, on maintaining your hold on the ball even if you have to go backwards, meant that the sight of players smashing the ball upfield without a care was almost jarring.

Another contrast was the behaviour when the ball got stuck between players: The relieving wind-up-and-pull was acceptable within limits, but what wasn’t as evident was the rapidly-developing ruck.

This is now so accepted as a part of the modern game that a manager will cite his side’s success in such encounters as a key element in eventual victory. The 1996 footage was a reminder of a game that wasn’t as particular about pulling on the ground — and, interestingly, a game with a lot less free-hand tackling compared to modern matches.

Was there any glimpse of the future in the old footage?

Perhaps. Offaly’s John Troy set up an easy chance for a team-mate with a side-step and a no-look handpass, just the kind of economic, efficient move that a 21st-century coach would like.

In the same vein, Offaly midfielder Johnny Pilkington offers a reasonable facsimile of Cian Lynch’s goal against Cork last year almost quarter of a century avant la lettre.

Pilkington steamed through the centre to take a handpass off the shoulder which flatfooted the Wexford full-back line completely, and the Offaly man finished from close range.

This isn’t to slag off the 1996 game. At the time, none of us was saying ‘that was great but what this game really needs is a puckout hit 20 metres to the corner-back’. I doubt anyone had any complaints about a storming game that ended with a win for the romantics’ choice, Wexford.

But things have changed. As luck would have it on Saturday in Portlaoise I was sitting next to the TV co-commentator on that 1996 game, former GAA president Nickey Brennan. A friend texted him last week to say the game was being re-shown, and he turned it on.

“What did you make of it?” I asked.

“Honestly,” he said. “It was like a different sport altogether.”

Sheen puts his money where his mouth is

I caught something out of the corner of my eye the other day — the Homeless World Cup, which was played in Cardiff last week, coming to an end on Saturday.

This event has been running for almost 20 years and is widely credited with helping its many participants’ self-worth and confidence, but it was in danger of not going ahead this year for financial reasons.

Actor Michael Sheen stepped forward, however, putting up the cash to run the 2019 edition.

“Something like this can change people’s perceptions,” he told the media last week. “The idea that the homeless are this block to be pitied or given charity or to be judged or stigmatised is blown apart when you’re watching them playing and cheering them.”

Credit to Sheen for putting his money where his mouth is.

Not-so-sweet 16 at minor grade

I don’t want to overdo the focus on the weekend before last, but you surely noted the ‘scenes’ at the end of the minor game between Galway and Wexford. It was held up for quite a while after a row at the end. One of the Galway players had to be stretchered-off. The replays weren’t kind to some of the Wexford minors, as it appeared the Galway player came in for harsh treatment more than once.

This isn’t the first time there’s been an issue with discipline since the age grade was moved by one year. Is there too much pressure being placed on players who are too young to handle it?

An acquaintance, who has been in a few minor dressing rooms over the year, quantifies the difference this way: at 16-and-a-half, a player is still a boy; but, at 18, he’s a young man.

Certainly, if you loiter in the tunnels of a GAA stadium before an inter-county minor game, it can be startling to see just how young some of these players look. It’s hard to square the fresh faces with the pressure of having to go out and perform in front of 40,000 people or more.

Should the age be brought back up to 18? You may have heard noises being made recently about pushing the minor cut-off to 19, with the U20 grade being abolished.

That raises different questions: will the new grade still function as the retention link between senior and underage, the way the old minor and U21 grades did? Should the new grade be dropped from club activities?

In any event, to this observer, U17 is simply too young.

Skin in the game

It weighs over 9kg and is about 2 sq m in area. It is as rainproof as a wax jacket and is in constant communication with your brain.

It’s your skin.

And no, I hadn’t given it a lot of thought either until I picked up

The Remarkable Life of the Skin

by Monty Lyman. The skin’s ability to regulate our temperature, the science behind rubbing your skin to reduce pain, the reason we don’t understand blushing... this book’s a gem, one that everyone can read with instant application.

Who isn’t interested in their own skin, after all?

Sweat glands and first-time pulling,

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