Eimear Ryan: Hurling no longer governable in any consistent manner

Hurling is no longer governable in any practical or consistent manner; getting away with as much as possible has become the default approach for many teams
Eimear Ryan: Hurling no longer governable in any consistent manner

Aaron Fitzgerald of Clare falls after a clash with Gearóid Hegarty. Hegarty is one of many players who admit they play on the edge. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

I did something stupid during a match recently. I was being marked tightly by a defender as we waited for a sideline to be struck. I shuffled left and right, trying to find space; she was in front of me, mirroring my movements exactly, almost as if we were doing a complicated dance routine. 

I became frustrated and decided I would step across her, let her know I was there. However, I mistimed my jostle and ended up hitting her in the back and knocking her to the ground. Their manager protested, but the referee didn’t see it. I regretted it almost immediately.

My point is – we all do silly impulsive things on the field sometimes because we’re annoyed in the moment. I’m definitely no saint and I’m not here to judge. Sometimes, as I did, you get away with it; and sometimes, as Gearóid Hegarty and Austin Gleeson discovered last weekend, you’re punished.

Art happens at the edge, Salman Rushdie once said. More specifically: ‘Great art, original art, is never created in a safe middle ground. Originality is dangerous, as it is at the edge.’ There are many in the GAA world who would agree with this as it pertains to hurling. Though something of a cliché now, the trope of ‘playing on the edge’ goes back to at least the late 2000s and the dominant Kilkenny team that won four-in-a-row. 

Exhibit A – the following quote from a piece by Colm Keys in the Irish Independent in August 2009 about Tommy Walsh: ‘“I’d hate to think he is not a player who plays on the edge,’ remarked Cody. ‘Where are you supposed to play?’” 

Where, indeed. John Kiely seems thoroughly annoyed with the phrase, especially given the fact that it seems to follow Gearóid Hegarty around. ‘There’s a narrative there at the moment that Gearóid is playing on the edge or doing x, y or z, and it’s feeding into people’s decision-making,’ he said on Sunday evening, after signalling his intent to appeal Hegarty’s sending-off. 

What Kiely didn’t mention is that this narrative has been endorsed by Hegarty himself, who recently confirmed his edginess in a number of media outlets. ‘You have to play on the edge,’ he told Paul Keane in these pages in April. ‘It’s either kill or be killed out there.’ Not that the media has played no part in the construction of this narrative. 

Against Tipp two weekends ago there was a shemozzle near the sideline – nothing major, just a general shoving match when the ball was out of play. But who did the camera zoom in and linger on as the players walked away? That’s right – Hegarty, who was already on a yellow card. It was positively cinematic.

As much as we hacks have been wowed by Hegarty’s brilliance over the last several seasons, we’ve also been flummoxed by his looseness with the hurley, which only ever serves as a distraction to his monster talent. (Looseness with the hurley, for the record, is not always a bad thing – Shane O’Donnell, for example, carries his like a tomahawk. But Hegarty has a habit of following through.) 

The only thing better than writing about a great player is writing about a great player with a fatal flaw. It’s nearly Shakespearean.

These narratives, in turn, may affect refs – even subconsciously. But more importantly, they make an impression on opposition players. If a player has such-and-such a reputation – particularly a player as important as Hegarty or Gleeson – then, as their marker, you might be more inclined to wind them up. You might even be more likely to hit the deck, as Aaron Fitzgerald did, if the same fella swings at you carelessly.

It’s been interesting to watch and read the various opinions of commentators in the wake of both incidents. The general view seems to be that Austin deserved it while Gearóid didn’t. I thought that both were unlucky recipients of the ‘warning yellow card’ – the card that’s dished out early in the game in the hope of keeping lads on an even keel. 

The intent behind these cards is understandable, but can create a trap for a ref later in the game if the same player commits a clear yellow-card offence.

I don’t think Hegarty hurt anyone in either incident, but the camera does show him swiping at Clare players. Some commentators defended his right to do this. Donal Óg, the only Sunday Game panellist who doesn’t care about being liked and is therefore often the most interesting, maintained that Hegarty gets himself involved in unnecessary situations. 

Eddie Brennan agreed, writing in his excellent Monday column that Hegarty too often dares the ref to beckon him over.

The thing is, we’re grading on an impossible curve. When people defend Hegarty they’re not saying ‘he didn’t swing the hurley’ or even ‘that’s not a foul’. They’re saying, ‘this happens all the time all over the pitch and goes unnoticed and unpunished’. Which is true! 

When we discuss these cases, we’re admitting that the game is no longer governable in any practical or consistent manner, because getting away with as much as possible – that pesky edge again – has become the default approach for many teams.

Because of their natural gifts, their physicality, their ability to turn a game – and yes, their reputations – lads like Gleeson and Hegarty are under increased scrutiny from refs, supporters, and opposition alike. It’s a difficult position to be in. 

I think of one of my favourite non-Tipperary hurlers of the last few decades, John Mullane – a brilliantly talented and determined player, but a passionate and emotional one too. Early in his career, these qualities went against him. He was too easy to get a rise out of and he got a bunch of red cards. 

But he worked hard, he grew, and he turned into a disciplined and focused player, one of the all-time greats. How’s that for a counter-narrative?

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