Hawthorn captain, Luke Hodge, will soon play his last game for the AFL club. Earlier this year, he announced he was leaving. Australia’s International Rules captain in 2015, the 33-year-old is revered in his native country, although the sight of him cynically pushing Paddy McBrearty into a Hill 16 goalpost two years ago, a shove which hospitalised the Donegal man, hasn’t yet left us.
His 300th appearance for The Hawks, earlier this month, prompted a wave of commemoration. The club released a video, entitled ‘For ‘The General, We Stand’, in which supporters, and celebrities such as former Australian cricket captain, Ricky Ponting, literally stood up in respect for his achievement.
Hodge’s last game will be against the Western Bulldogs on August 25. At the request of Hawthorn, the game has been moved to a Friday, which suits TV just fine, as it is an occasion befitting a major viewing slot. Hodge has been instrumental in four Premiership titles, but Hawthorn have only a faint hope of reaching the play-offs.
Like Hodge, Stephen Cluxton has won his game’s ultimate honour on four occasions. This Saturday, he makes his 89th championship appearance, going one ahead of Tomás and Marc Ó Sé. There will be no such garlands thrown at his feet and neither would he want any. There will be the odd gushing tribute, but the 35-year-old would be annoyed by fuss.
If he cared to tell us, Cluxton would make as light of the accolade as the Ó Sés did of theirs. Were it something material, he’d treat it with as much disdain as he did the match-winning ball when Tomás Ó Sé handed it to him soon after the 2011 All-Ireland final (for the record, Cluxton didn’t kick it into the crowd, but along the ground towards the sideline, where stewards had congregated). That moment resonates now, as Ó Sé hands over the baton to the man who moves ahead of him in the ‘caps’ list.
Some will scoff, arguing it’s easier for a goalkeeper to attain such a record. After all, doesn’t former Tipperary netminder, Brendan Cummins, hold the equivalent record in hurling, with 73 SHC appearances? And doesn’t Cluxton have a couple of seasons to go before he can match the longetivity of others, like Anthony Rainbow, with Kildare? And if you’re going to talk about evergreen, nobody comes close to Tony Browne, do they?
Valid points, yes, but, fundamentally, they would be ignorant of Cluxton’s genius, his ability to reinvent, and constantly improve himself. Nobody has seen as much championship football, but nobody has played as much good championship football, either.
He was an All-Ireland winner in 2011 and a protagonist in a subsequent three. The hammer whom Kerry, in last getting the better of Dublin in championship, back in 2009, hammered.
Jim Gavin has done several great things for Dublin football, but one of them, certainly, was making Cluxton captain. Having turned 31 at the time, it gave him the title that was already his in spirit. The appointment invigorated him. It compelled him to come out of his shell, at least inside the camp. For years, he led by example, but leading out the team meant he had to accompany his actions with words.
Gavin even twisted Cluxton’s arm to perform media duties, although that was always going to have a short shelf-life, given his longstanding reluctance in such circumstances. He was captain of Ireland’s International Rules team under Anthony Tohill, in Australia, in 2011, but deputy, Ciarán McKeever, was rolled out for press matters, an arrangement which stupefied the Australians.
His avoidance of the spotlight has contributed to the intrigue that surrounds him, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for anything other than humility. Two days after the 2011 success, it’s believed he was back in class, as a secondary school teacher, in St Vincent’s, Glasnevin, refusing to indulge his awe-struck students and ordering them to open their books. Recently, his aged car was commented upon on national radio. Dublin players don’t want for much, but then Cluxton would never have been one to indulge in the trappings that go with playing football for the county.
Against Monaghan on Saturday, Hill 16 will show that they can count. As he mans their goal, Cluxton will be showered with cheers of ‘Stevo, Stevo’, but that will be it. Roy Keane never wanted praise for doing his job. Likewise, Cluxton won’t wish for salutes for performing his pastime, even if he has excelled in it.
A low-key recognition of his feat would be in keeping with how he modestly goes about his business. And, unlike Hodge’s pending farewell in Melbourne, we can’t say when and where it will end for Cluxton. What we do understand about him is enough to get by and to marvel.
GAA’s ‘fairness’ not helping runners-up
The GAA will argue they’ve at least tried to make life fairer for provincial runners-up. The seven-day, never mind the six-day, turnaround to their qualifiers is a thing of the past, with the exception of replays.
But the safety net for the four remains threadbare.
This year, only Galway, of the provincial losers, made the last-eight and they are now out of the competition.
At least, next year, they will have three games, instead of one, but, even at that, the prospect of that series of matches, after the height of a provincial final and the low of a qualifier, will be a gauntlet few will survive to make the All-Ireland semi-finals.
Last year, two provincials runners-up made the quarter-finals, with Tipperary making the semis.
In 2015, only Donegal won their qualifier and then they lost their quarter. In 2014, three recovered, yet Donegal made it past the last eight.
Four years ago, Cork and Donegal rebounded, only to lose their quarters. Five years ago, only Down, defying the six-day turnaround, followed provincial defeat with victory, but that was short-lived, as Mayo crushed them in Croke Park.
The GAA might wish it otherwise, but, in the long run, progression in provincial championships only suits the winners. There was that outlier year in 2010, when all four champions lost their quarter-finals, a season which prompted calls for them to receive a second chance.
That now comes in the form of the ‘Super 8’, but the restructure wasn’t prompted by a trend, unlike the fate of those who come so close and yet so far.
Ryan thinking of more than 2017
‘Cutting off his nose to spite his face’ is a refrain that has been heard more than once since Michael Ryan’s decision not to recall Cathal Barrett to the panel for Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final against Galway.
Jackie Tyrrell, a man who knows a thing or two about full-back hurling, says Tipperary won’t retain the title without their 2016 All-Star. And that may very well be true.
Tipperary’s problems in the full-back line are obvious, regardless of the fact that Barrett struggled there against Cork, before his injury, but Ryan clearly believes that parachuting Barrett back in would be a betrayal of those who have towed the line this summer.
By prioritising the morale of the group over the expediency of an All-Ireland semi-final, he hasn’t so much taken a gamble as calculated what, in the long run, is right for them.
Demoting Barrett from the panel, Ryan drew a line in the sand.
After all, discipline has been an intermittent issue for Tipperary, going back to Babs Keating’s second period in charge.
By insisting that breaches of it are wholly unacceptable, he has set a benchmark for the future.
Tipperary might miss Barrett on Sunday, but not half as much as he surely misses Tipperary now.
This lesson, while chastening for the 24-year-old, will be a valuable one for a superb young hurler, as it will be a message to fellow players that certain behaviour can’t be tolerated.
The proverbial short-term pain for long-term gain.