PM O’Sullivan: Return of the serious stuff. Otherwise known as championship hurling in July

Both Galway vs Waterford and Clare-Cork obliged. There were plenty of wobbles and no end of bobbles. Melodrama came home to Thurles and Limerick
PM O’Sullivan: Return of the serious stuff. Otherwise known as championship hurling in July

Joe Canning of Galway, left, and Aidan Harte react after their side's defeat in the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Round 2 against Waterford. Have we seen the last of the sport's top scorer of all time? PM O'Sullivan thinks so. Picture: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Hurling found spaghetti western weather, chance event turned proper frame.

Proper, because that kind of film embraces a wobbly tone. The serious stuff, of course. The never more serious stuff of heat and dust, bullets and nooses, death upon its horse.

Otherwise known as championship hurling on a baking day in July.

That kind of film has its own inclinations, its specific pleasures. The lethal holds hands with the flippant, comedy of terrors beside comedy of errors. The drift of a harmonica being played can be wind up or threat. As with sport, there is no pause between sublime and ridiculous.

We are talking about melodrama, everyone’s favourite way of being enthralled without being overwhelmed.

Both Galway vs Waterford and Clare-Cork obliged. There were plenty of wobbles and no end of bobbles. Melodrama came home to Thurles and Limerick. The two contests witnessed exactly this type of combat, in that none of the four teams produced an even performance.

Although there are no cacti in Semple Stadium, the place sees any amount of spikiness. The good, the bad and the ugly alike featured. Divvying up the ratios is quite simple. Waterford very much exceeded being good in establishing a 13-point half-time lead. Then Conor Gleeson got himself sent off for an ugly swipe across Joe Canning.

Even so, Stephen Bennett’s 54th minute free swelled Déise advantage to 16 points, 1-25 to 0-12. Then Galway woke up, like an old gunfighter poked in his pride. Jason Flynn goaled in added time, slicing the margin to three points, 2-20 to 1-26. The frame tightened to drawn faces.

These leaders turned mighty in tight spot, striking three points on the spin. Although Flynn lashed in another goal, that fistful of Waterford scores, bookended by a closing Bennett free, proved sufficient.

The overall bad, being honest, is Galway’s situation. Winning one senior All-Ireland over the last 10 seasons seems poor return for a serious bulge of talent. Meanwhile Waterford move on rightly buoyed, Gleeson’s suspension aside.

Joe Canning passed into the history books, via a nine-point haul that left him hurling’s highest championship scorer. The same moment saw him depart, in all likelihood, the Galway jersey. Thirty-three next October, he has given all and took some of the finest scores ever seen.

So many instances and so many days… Canning’s goal in 2015’s Leinster final remains something else altogether. Anticipating and anticipating the drop of a long impromptu clearance, catching and pivoting and striking in one seamless movement, the knot that stayed a ribbon.

Even the net seemed astonished, as the Bolshoi Ballet met the fields of Portumna.

That goal was liquid instinct, Wimbledon genius transplanted to Croke Park. His goal in 2012’s drawn All-Ireland final, one hardly less indelible? Ice in the head.

He ran off James Regan’s incision, taking a popped handpass. Then Canning bevelled across the Kilkenny defence, feinting without hesitating, heading for the one spot where he could only goal, via master blaster effort. Once there, he surely netted, Superbowl genius transplanted to Croke Park.

No one in the history of the game struck a sliotar cleaner than Joe Canning. But his legs are gone with a while. An alarm pealed in my head when I saw Galway trying to slot him into midfield during this season’s league. The idea obviously was to carry him somewhere for his free-taking, his presence.

Understandable thinking but terrible logic. Somewhere in 2021 could never have been midfield.

To protect their defensive spine of Gearóid McInerney and Daithí Burke, Galway required two fast mobile midfielders. This protection, during the current team’s heyday, got provided by David Burke and Johnny Coen. Said duo are no longer up to the job. New candidates required.

New candidates for 2021 were never properly auditioned. Shane O’Neill and colleagues erred once in considering Canning for a midfield role, however free the brief, for this summer. Doing so automatically undermined their defence. Dublin delivered the concrete truth of this error in their Leinster semi-final filleting of middle third.

Then O’Neill and colleagues erred a second time in picking Canning at full-forward for do or die with Waterford. He might have operated reasonably well from corner-forward, floating around and creating space for the two men inside, because this figure always needs to be marked. He might have thrived in some degree.

But there arrived another factor, another lapse in logic. For this afternoon, Galway decided to operate with two full-forwards on three full-backs. This decision derived from a wish to create a spare body out the field in the shape of Seán Linnane, nominally a corner forward. Linnane was dispatched out the way, a hand at all points of engagement.

This arrangement meant two chasing three in Galway’s inside forwards. How did management reckon Canning possessed the legs for this task? Their notion, daft in the abstract, played out equally foolishly in practice. Conor Gleeson getting himself sent off prevented double-digit defeat. Somewhere for Joe Canning could never have been full-forward in that 2021 set up.

The cluck in hurling forever stops with the manager. I hear Shane O’Neill is a good and admirable individual but his tenure with Galway has been undermined by ridiculous tactical decisions.

Last season, he took on Limerick with a sweeper-centred arrangement. This decision meant seven defenders for the challengers and a free role for Barry Nash, the opposition’s rookie in defence. At times in that second-half, Galway had four men in their full-back line on their own puckout. I was incredulous.

Even so, they were but three points adrift at that final whistle, 0-27 to 0-24.

Galway could have beaten Limerick, with any bit of sense, and would have beaten Waterford in the All-Ireland final. Now they might not win a sixth senior title for a fair spell. They need to build a new team.

Tradition is a kind of landscape, something always there, something always to be negotiated.

Does the historical fact that Clare have beaten Cork in fewer than a third of their championship meetings count a savage amount? More often than not, you would have to say, despite that Banner All-Ireland final victory in 2013.

This afternoon, Clare lost to Cork by two points. The main divide was profligate shooting. Cork were far more economical. Cooler, in a word. Gunfighter cool.

Wides are the opium of Banner hurling. Their players tend to shoot from mad angles in an attempt to create a wash of confidence. And maybe this dynamic is what happens in an unforgiving landscape, where that harmonica is an unending reminder of being watched.

Next weekend will deliver more heat and lust. The stakes, like the gallows, are getting higher.

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