Ger’s salty barb tastes of Munster angst

Forget your fancy salt, Himalayan pink or Hawaiian red. No seasoning bests Ger Loughnane’s way with Feakle salt. 
Ger’s salty barb tastes of Munster angst

Plain condiment makes for plenty crunch in this weekend’s NHL semi-final between Clare and Kilkenny. According to Loughnane, the last two seasons saw other counties stand idly by, allowing an underwhelming Kilkenny side to overperform.

The original interview, running to nearly 12,000 words on the GAA’s official website, is terrific. Everyone should read it. Loughnane offers abundant insight on hurling in the 1990s, perceptiveness done scant justice by newspaper excerpts.

If anything, the former Clare manager was more critical of Cork, Galway, and Tipperary. But champions are forever the headline act and the spotlight swung to Kilkenny-related comments.

Yes, Ger Loughnane did make some disobliging comments about their current panel. Those strictures were cogently answered by Colin Fennelly. He instanced Kilkenny taking all four competitions on offer in 2014, an unusual achievement. So is winning the All-Ireland after surviving an NHL relegation final by a point, as happened last season.

Fennelly’s core point is ungainsayable. You need not be as brilliant as Red Rum to win the Grand National. You need only be as good as Rule The World, in a given year.

Yet cogency, however calm, is not the nub. Deeper and more compelling emotions are abroad. The interview’s telltale line, as regards Kilkenny, was not the one deeming them “functional beyond belief” or the disbelief about so average a team “going for three in a row”.

Not at all. The telltale line was this one: “Three in a rows were so hard to get before Brian Cody came along. And teams that won three-in-a-rows were legendary teams.” The nub is Loughnane widening his focus beyond the mid-2010s to the whole of hurling history. His point is that Kilkenny have overturned the settled outlines of that history.

Loughnane adverts to what obtained before 2006. He does not say so directly but what obtained was Munster supremacy. To wit: Cork and Tipperary alternated, top of the senior roster. Christy Ring had eight All-Ireland medals. John Doyle had eight All-Ireland medals.

2006 and after, Kilkenny repeatedly rode the elevator to the top floor. They took the vase of Munster supremacy and dropped it on the pavement. Every last vestige shattered to high heaven. Item: 2008 was the first time that the county went sole top of the senior roster.

All is changed, utterly. Kilkenny currently have 36 senior titles, six ahead of Cork at 30. The widest gap previously arrived in 1990, when victory gave Cork 27 titles to 23 for both Kilkenny and Tipperary.

That moment could not have been briefer. Tipperary won in 1991. Kilkenny managed a double in 1992-93. So their functional double in 2014-15 was an absolute departure, establishing an unprecedented gap.

Those figures represent seismic change in a mere decade. Understandably enough, some people have yet to wind their head around the coordinates. Ger Loughnane’s pique registers the aftershock. The Munster world has been turned upside down.

The Feakle native is not alone in his discomposure. Present bitterness in Cork has a Jacobite edge, in that they feel Kilkenny stole their future. Quizzed in 2006 about who might beat Cork, their manager John Allen replied: “Ourselves.”

Is the bitterness any wonder? Victory that September would have bestowed a legendary three in a row, 31 titles to 28 on the senior roster, and the departure of Brian Cody.

Right now, in Tipperary, there is a sort of concussed stoicism. Even so, I detect concealed respect for Kilkenny’s hurling since 2009, its splice of physicality and finesse. Tipp employed the same splice in the 1950s and 60s.

Funnily enough, there is less bitterness than in Cork circles, which sharply departs from tradition in two regards. Last September, several Tipperary players sent good wishes to Kilkenny counterparts, saying they hoped the All-Ireland final would go their way. Trash talking from some Galway players during the All-Ireland semi-final had been a severe annoyance.

Those who travel to Semple Stadium on Sunday will be especially keen to see how Clare line up. You cannot see that facet on television.

Here is where Ger Loughnane’s indictment of Kilkenny’s functionality is, as Colin Fennelly put it, “weird”. If you wanted to see functional hurling, in the negative sense of the adjective, last summer’s Munster quarter-final between Clare and Limerick was the game to watch. That encounter was a stodgefest. Pouring bodies into the middle third, as patented by Davy Fitzgerald in 2013, is surely the very definition of productive functionality.

Sure, nobody is neutral, whatever the pretence. I am not neutral. But we can all try to be fair, mindful of fact and coherence.

So it was intriguing to be emailed during the week by a friend from Lusmagh, one of the GAA’s sharpest observers. He said: “The constant swarming of five tacklers around a ball carrier, and said ball carrier being unable to effect a suitable offload, and a supporting player unable to make a supporting run where the ball carrier will spot him, is killing hurling, not Richie Power coming off the bench to pick crucial scores.” Its lack of agenda might grant this perspective weight.

Yes, all is changed in this decade, save for one regard. Ger Loughnane’s strictures resume emphases of the last decade. As Loughnane later admitted, All-Ireland quarter-finals for provincial champions were introduced so as to make winning All-Irelands more difficult for Kilkenny. Those quarter-finals were deleted when the gambit did not work.

It was a funny time, the 2000s, like all times when unique achievement is afoot. You heard this argument that Kilkenny owned unfair advantage in starting from the blocks of uncompetitive Leinster. No matter that Dublin got significantly better as Offaly and Wexford got significantly worse. No matter that Galway arrived. No matter that the pattern, by and large, remained the same.

Uncompetitiveness became a tangled issue. The same moment saw people insisting that Tipperary hurling’s core problem is an excess of senior clubs and therefore a dearth of competitive local games in that key grade. This argument, lack of competitiveness as the itchiest bugbear is perfectly credible.

Yet the same aspersions continued about Leinster hurling. Lack of competitiveness in that sphere somehow advantaged Kilkenny.

Did nobody else clock the contradiction? While either case is arguable, they cannot be held in tandem. To jump across the Munster River outside Callan doable, even in middle age is hardly to vault two states of being.

The Spanish Inquisition, imprisoning Galileo, owned no poorer grasp of science.

We should rethink. This obsession with Kilkenny is to the detriment of the most beautiful game.

The situation in Antrim, Laois, Offaly, and Wexford is a hundred times more important than whether 2016 witnesses a Kilkenny three in a row. But glamour, even false glamour, wins out.

Poets have a nice way of summarising farce. Robert Frost advised his students: “It is immodest of a man to think of himself as going down before the worst forces ever mobilised by God.”

This minute, this weekend, plenty of hurling people might heed Frost’s counsel while on their travels, miles to go before the salt mines of Feakle.

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