Taking sides in the sweeper debate

Hurling justice delayed, while not ideal, is still justice.
Taking sides in the sweeper debate

Betwixt and between, 2017 gets the All-Ireland final 2016 might well have deserved.

As widely flagged, Galway and Waterford offer a unique pairing for the ultimate day.

Not so well flagged is the manner in which this occasion will audit hurling’s future.

Think I exaggerate? You were not watching live coverage on The Sunday Game.

Following the final whistle and Waterford’s victory over Cork by 4-19 to 0-20, Dónal Óg Cusack moved to rebuke the bulk of commentators, pundits and hurling journalists.

The way Cusack did so was reminiscent of Roundheads and Cavaliers, that old distinction rooted in the British Civil War. Roundheads are true believers, devoted to plainness in structure. Cavaliers are free spirits, devoted to style and expressiveness. Himself a Roundhead, suspicious of anything that looks good to the eye, Cusack enlisted Derek McGrath to his party.

Cusack felt the Waterford manager had yet to receive his due: “There have been negative connotations all over the commentary. Today their short game was outstanding.”

All the while, Dónal Óg Cusack looked meaningfully at Henry Shefflin. Here was a Stepford Cavalier. Shefflin had tweeted during the costive Waterford-Wexford All Ireland quarter final: “One would hate to be playing in the full forward line ? or be a forward full stop”.

Cusack concluded: “I think history is starting to be rewritten a bit.”

I reckon this craic is whitewash in the guise of hogwash. Cusack is analyzing a result rather than a game. The better to focus on the result, he ignores salient aspects of the 70-minute game.

The most important aspect of last weekend’s All-Ireland semi-final was not Waterford’s ‘system’, short or long. This aspect comprised Damien Cahalane’s recklessness, which led to him being sent off. Cork were a point up at that juncture and had a fair chance of edging the second half, since their puckouts were doing better than in the first half.

The game’s second most important aspect? Austin Gleeson not being sent off in the 13th minute, as should have happened, for pulling Luke Meade’s faceguard. Do Waterford triumph in this scenario? Not likely.

What happens if Waterford lose? Was Derek McGrath then wrong to adopt the style of play seen over the last three seasons? Are the Roundheads vanquished by just one result?

Given last Tuesday’s decision, I may as well say Austin Gleeson is as entitled to a bit of ’special pleading’ as the next man. Item: the red card proffered to Cork’s Patrick Horgan in the 2013 Munster final, when he struck Limerick’s Paudie O’Brien on the head. This card ended up rescinded and Horgan started in the subsequent All-Ireland quarter-final.

Yes, Austin Gleeson is entitled to his luck. I hope he sets the final ablaze. But holding the line on discipline remains the GAA’s weakest flank.

There is an obvious further point. If the ‘short game’ in hurling is so wonderful, why did Clare, coached by Dónal Óg Cusack, make such a pig’s ear of their challenge to Cork in last July’s Munster final? Specifically, why did they get roasted by Anthony Nash’s puckouts? Why did the Roundhead game not succeed?

Two reasons: personnel and events of the day, such as a sending off. These reasons negate coherent talk of ‘systems’.

Now, do not get me wrong. Like most people, I thought beforehand Cork would win but was delighted to see Waterford come through. They have 20 good hurlers and half a dozen exceptional hurlers.

Have no doubt they could make the All-Ireland final via an orthodox formation, such is the talent available. Yet we will never find out, because the current crew is grooved in patterns that would be hard to undo.

Besides, the emphasis is productive. You cannot neglect this factor. Making the last four for three seasons in a row, with an NHL title along the way, is a bulge in the Déise tradition.

Derek McGrath and colleagues are about rewriting their county’s hurling history, if not quite on an ultra Roundhead basis. Waterford are renovating their level of success rather than the game of hurling itself.

Natives simply do not care how or why the win occurred. They simply rejoice. And good luck to them. If Waterford win three or four in a row, so be it.

But… There has to be a caveat when you find U14 managers believing a panacea for all hurling ills lies in adopting a sweeper. There is no scaremongering in this observation.

Last June’s relaunched Féile na nGael tournament featured sweeper-centred teams.

Nor is this observation a cut at a county with two senior titles from a county with 36 Senior titles. Not at all. Every county contains galore faddish people. The O’Loughlin Gaels U14 team in that tournament deployed a sweeper.

Last Sunday, Waterford received plenty to enjoy without any need for Roundhead interventions. Back in 2010, I edited an online hurling magazine, Sliotar. One of the best pieces published in it was a preview of the 2010 Munster final, where Cork took on Waterford.

Jim Murphy, a Mount Sion clubman, wrote in eloquent and unsparing terms of a broader tradition: “There is an obvious trend for any seasoned observer of Waterford hurling. The county has always struggled to win matches, no matter what way the odds are. Waterford do not wear the favourites mantle lightly. Nor have they have set the world on fire as underdogs.”

Then the unsparing bit: “Waterford lose or Waterford win narrowly. Take your pick, but that is the Waterford way.”

Murphy was equally pithy on a particular dynamic: “Waterford invest huge emotional capital in beating Cork. Too much sometimes. But the folk memories of horrendous defeats need to be shaken out of the system. ‘Yerra, that’s some county, one ambush and two All-Irelands,’ was the old Cork view.”

Waterford seized their win over Cork, seized it by 11 points. For all that we like drama, and particularly the drama of contrasts, we should realize the coming contest falls between Galway and Waterford, not between Cavaliers and Roundheads.

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