Eimear Ryan: Limerick and Tipperary serve up sodden war, but hurling remains as much dance as it is fight

Tipp fumbled profusely, but somehow Limerick did not; they seemed to be operating in different atmospheric conditions to their opponents
Eimear Ryan: Limerick and Tipperary serve up sodden war, but hurling remains as much dance as it is fight

Limerick's Tom Morrissey gathers the ball ahead of Cathal Barrett of Tipperary in the rain at Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

For Tipp hurling fans, last Sunday was sobering viewing. To be honest, I was nervous even watching the teams attempting to ‘warm’-up in the conditions, everyone’s gear dark and shiny in the rain. 

‘You’ll catch your death,’ I hissed at a sodden Liam Sheedy, willing him to put on a woolly hat. (I only ever talk to people through screens now, so you’ll forgive me for thinking this might actually work.)

The ref threw in the ball as quickly as humanly possible, not to leave the players standing around. In this terse, impatient championship, we don’t even wait for the anthem to finish before getting the match underway.

Though the much-maligned sod held up admirably, Páirc Uí Chaoimh did turn into a bit of a slip ‘n’ slide as the game went on. When a player hit the floor, he seemed to travel several furlongs before coming to a gentle halt. With no crowd in the background, you could nearly hear the white noise of the rain through your telly’s speakers.

Understandably, Tipp fumbled profusely, but somehow Limerick did not; they seemed to be operating in different atmospheric conditions to their opponents. They were able to tiki-taka their way right through the heart of the Tipp defence, while Tipp’s attempts to string together moves broke down in the face of tireless Limerick hounding. While Tipp trudged through the wintry conditions, Limerick might as well have been playing on a scorcher in May.

The only real bright spot for Tipp was debutant Jake Morris’s one-handed flick for a goal in the 19th minute. Callanan’s gorgeous dipping pass was eerily reminiscent of Cian Darcy’s inch-perfect lance to Jason Forde in a league match against Galway last March. How long ago that seems now.

But even that bit of sorcery was cancelled out seconds later when the irrepressible Aaron Gillane kicked a goal of his own. It was another instance of Limerick beating Tipp at their own game. All the talk last year of Tipp’s deep bench? Have you met David Reidy, Seamus Flanagan, and Pat Ryan, otherwise known as the closers? With a final tally of 3-23, Limerick proved for a second week on the trot that it will take a surplus of 30 points to beat them.

In short, Tipp weren’t playing — or were stopped from playing — to the standards they’ve established in the last few years: winning puckouts, mopping up the breaks, and distributing the ball intelligently. The up-and-under puckouts of the second half were hardly constructive, as Liam Sheedy admitted afterwards, but neither were the short puckouts of the first. 

The five-point lead established by Limerick in the opening ten minutes was scarcely breached all match. At the end, the nine-point gap should by rights have been even greater, Noel McGrath having shown his experience, as they say, to set up his brother John’s goal in the final quarter.

Of course, you can never write Tipp off, and as a supporter, I want to believe that there’s another All-Ireland in this squad, while also being conscious that some of these players have gifted us three All-Irelands over the course of a decade. “Paudie Maher, who is 31 this year,” Ger Canning said ominously at one point, apropos of nothing. 

Class is permanent in the 2010 cohort, but form may no longer be as constant or as consistent as it once was.

When you look at Limerick, on the other hand, it’s not so much a question of ‘do they have another All-Ireland in them’, but ‘how many’. 

There’s so much to admire about this side: their calmness, their buoyancy, their faith in their own method of play. Being apparently indifferent to the conditions is another tick in the plus column.

If I haven’t emphasised it enough already, these were conditions. ‘It’s like the Battle of the Somme out there,’ said Dalo in the second half, as it continued to lash unmercifully.

His tongue was firmly in his cheek, but it did make me think about how often we reach for war metaphors — and we all do it — when we talk about hurling. Think about how we market the Fenway Hurling Classic to Americans as ‘Ireland’s warrior sport’, codding them into visions of Cúchulainn and swords and spears. How often do we invoke soldiers, battles and trenches when speaking of our national games?

It’s a stale metaphor no matter what sport you’re discussing, but maybe it makes more sense for sports like American football or rugby. Something about a line of men running directly at another line of men makes us think of going over the top, or the Charge of the Light Brigade, or the extras in Braveheart sprinting across the Curragh in kilts.

In rugby, hitting your opponent is sort of the point; and in sports like boxing, it’s all there is. But in hurling, the ball is the point; physicality is secondary (if also entirely necessary in the modern game). Hurling is soft as well as hard, graceful as well as furious. It is as much dance as it is fight.

In David Foster Wallace’s famous 2006 New York Times profile of Roger Federer, he wrote about how difficult it can be to write about the beauty and grace of sport.

“Men may profess their ‘love’ of sports,” he wrote, “but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervour, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s.”

Still, one of the things I love about the discourse around hurling is its deep appreciation of beauty. There are synonyms, of course: savage, unreal, class. But always there’s an underlying wonder and delight at what these players can do with a stick and ball. A ‘kinetic beauty’ as DFW put it. Even in the most inhospitable of conditions; even in a deluge.

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