Conventional way isn’t the only way to compete

If you hear what sounds like a klaxon, it’s because what follows is a mention of hurling and the movie “Gladiator” in the same breath.

Conventional way isn’t the only way to compete

Bear with us — it’s not exactly what you might think.

We refer specifically to the scene where The Battle of Carthage is reconstructed in Rome’s Colosseum.

Having seen a Maximus-led “Barbarian Horde” defeat the heavily-armoured Legionnaires of Scipio Africanus, the illegitimate emperor Commodus turns to the ringmaster Cassius and says: “My history’s a little hazy, Cassius, but aren’t the Barbarians supposed to lose the battle of Carthage?”

To quote another mythologically-inspired flick, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Maximus and his following slaves found themselves “in a tight spot”.

Yet, despite being outgunned, they manage to overcome the planned outcome and supposedly insurmountable odds through a combination of wit, grit and strategy.

They form, they protect, they counter-attack. They win.

Gladiatorial is a term festooned upon hurling but sometimes myopically. The connotations are often only made when it’s one-on-one combat. Saturday’s rousing game in Thurles was an obvious example.

“Kilkenny v Tipp. 15 on 15. Awesome. Hurling the winner,” tweeted Kilkenny chairman Ned Quinn.

Liam Sheedy was of similar mind: “An absolute pleasure to see @TipperaryGAA and @KilkennyCLG going head to head and giving us a super first-half... no sweepers”.

Tomás Mulcahy posted: “Draw a fair result - ?? Class hurling - and win your own ball !!”

Quinn, Sheedy and Mulcahy, all incredible hurling men, were only saying what they felt but the digs at the likes of Clare, for the five seasons prior to this year, Waterford and perhaps now Wexford were thinly-veiled. They are far from alone in their thoughts.

“You hate a game going wrong or tactics being involved. The way it is with ourselves and Tipp I suppose both teams go out to hurl” — the words of TJ Reid, one of the stars of Saturday’s game, last year after beating Tipperary having lost to Waterford in their league opener.

Let’s not kid ourselves that Saturday, while beguiling, was epic only by March standards. Were it to be played in July or August, it would be deemed as enjoyable but only that. There were 18 wides.

The second-half, although it featured that mesmerising three-minute cameo of non-stop hurling, paled in comparison to the quality of the opening period.

Notwithstanding the mitigating circumstances for such, we lost count of the number of times players failed to gather the ball in the air or on the ground. The series of “rucks” wasn’t so pleasing on the eye.

But because Tipperary and Kilkenny have delivered so many times and prefer to go toe-to-toe those negative aspects can be forgiven or ignored. It’s a long time since either of them was depicted as the Barbarian Horde.

It’s a long time since either of them had to structure themselves as phalanxes to keep out the opposition although Kilkenny might have been advised to operate a sweeper last September. Maybe pride was their downfall in that regard.

Calling them traditionalists doesn’t go far enough; orthodox or zealots would be far more appropriate.

Hurling’s very nature as a game, the difficulty attached to mastering it, will ensure it remains, for the most part, an elitist sport. But, at this stage, perhaps we can spare ourselves some of the snobbery?

Had Wexford set up as conventionally as Limerick and Galway last month, they wouldn’t have qualified for Division 1A in 2018 with a game to spare.

“We can’t afford to be purist yet,” said Liam Griffin yesterday morning.

He also told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland programme he wouldn’t care if Wexford carried the ball up and down the field in “wheelbarrows” if it meant they gained promotion.

It’s a downright shame Griffin’s sense of realism isn’t shared by other hurling personalities. The sweeper system has obviously been used as a crutch by teams to make them more competitive.

Davy Fitzgerald recognised his team hadn’t the physical stature to take on the likes of Kilkenny and Tipperary head-on. Waterford were and perhaps still are too green to expose their players to one-on-one duels across the field.

To make fairytales, they had to fortify. The decrease in the number of goals in Division 1A has been partly attributed to their operation of the sweeper system in recent seasons but it has hardly damaged the product that is hurling.

Waterford averaged 21 points a game across last year’s championship and league. In losing two of 17 games in 2016, Clare scored an average of almost 25 points per outing.

Earlier in Gladiator, as Maximus’ popularity rises in the Roman outpost of Zuccahbar, he single-handedly kills six gladiators with ease before indignantly addressing the crowd: “Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?”

Mickey Harte last year said he’s not in the entertainment business. And he’s not.

Neither was Jim McGuinness. Neither is Fitzgerald or Derek McGrath.

But if their exploits can help level the playing field, shouldn’t that make things just as compelling as what we saw in Thurles on Saturday evening? Or are we so blind as to believe conforming is the only way to enthral?

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Hurling League needs new blueprint 

When the GAA do get around to stratifying the All-Ireland senior football championship – and they most certainly will – they may recognise there are more than two tiers required.

Hurling, at present, have four at championship level but the results in Division 1B would indicate there is the need for either another layer or a more condensed field in the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

What the hammerings handed out to Laois, Kerry and Offaly have done at the very least i s further underline the shortcomings with this league structure.

Introduced in 2012, the six-team divisional format has rightly had its critics.

Too ruthless in Division 1A, too polarised in Division 1B, it is flawed and the introduction of quarter-finals on foot of Cork’s relegation in 2014 whereby teams finishing 10th were rewarded ahead of those ending up fifth and sixth only amplified that fact.

That the last two winners of the league have come from Division 1B could be used as a defence for the system but when Division 1A teams have been so focused on remaining in the top flight it is hardly surprising those directly beneath, who have hardly been as stretched in their round matches, look fresher in the knock-out stages.

The truth is Galway, Limerick and Wexford should in the company of the six sides above them.

A nine-team Division 1 with a promotion/relegation play-off built in looks a better option if there is an appetite for extra games between teams who are proven to be able to compete with one another.

There should be but better league blueprints have been shot down before.

Dubs’ run has to inspire Kerry 

This Saturday is the day for unbeaten runs as England bring their all-time record-equalling streak of 18 matches to the Aviva Stadium hours before Dublin hope to create history in matching Kerry’s greatest run of 34 games in Austin Stack Park.

Éamonn Fitzmaurice has been determined to play down Kerry’s prospect of stopping them emulating the Kingdom’s 1928-33 achievement and rather discuss the significance of a victory.

Marc Ó Sé, writing in the Irish Mail on Sunday, spoke of Dublin’s peerless pool of talent when everyone knows what Kerry has coming down the assembly line. An béal bocht, how are ya!

However, Fitzmaurice and Ó Sé w i l l undoubtedly appreciate it is an opportunity to frank the unenviable record this Kerry team has developed against Dublin.

In 2015, they became the first Kerry senior team to lose three consecutive championship matches in Dublin not to mention the fourth straight loss in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final. They must ask themselves if they want to be another footnote in this Dublin era of supremacy.

A defeat to beat Dublin in four days’ time would also mean a third straight home loss for Kerry, which would only do damage to rediscovering their era, which we discussed in this column last month.

There are too many reasons for it not to be more than just a round five league game. Whatever the result, Dublin’s dominance is staggering

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