Does beating Kilkenny represent hurling’s biggest challenge?

Last weekend’s hurling was a severe disappointment but not without its revelations, writes PM ’O Sullivan
Does beating Kilkenny represent hurling’s biggest challenge?

The way we are about the weather in Ireland, the sleety rain nearly got taken as heaven’s verdict on the games’ quality. To say that both Dublin-Wexford and Cork- Tipperary underwhelmed as a contest would be like saying daughters were a bit of a disappointment to Henry XIII.

There were two kinds of exasperation. The first one came from natives of Cork and Wexford, locals disgusted by the ineptitude of their team’s performance. This frustration concerned pride.

The second kind of exasperation derived from Cork’s adoption of a sweeper system.

This frustration concerned style.

Last Monday, Anthony Daly wrote eloquently on the topic in these pages. He went so far as to wonder whether new rules on the puck-out need to be introduced. Liam Sheedy had earlier spoken in a similar vein.

The views of such experienced individuals cannot be wished away. Next winter, there will have to be calm discussion on the direction in which the most beautiful game is headed.

The matter is not simple. This tangle of frustrations has the making of a picky knot.

For some commentators, preoccupation with sweepers is fine and handy.

John Allen wrote this month in a column: “Like it or lump it, the end game is slaying the stripy dragon and keeping it slayed.” Consider this claim: does defeating Kilkenny represent hurling’s biggest challenge? If nothing else, the claim is elitist. Equally, the notion’s corollary is that most of the code’s problems will disappear when one county is beaten. Plainly enough, this proposition is odd to the point of silliness.

Yes, the landscape has changed beyond recognition. But history remains a great corrective for present perspective. Kevin Egan, one of the finest local columnists, writes for the Offaly Independent.

He recently glossed Offaly’s All Ireland success 22 years ago: “Nobody would have said that preparations were ideal in advance of the Leinster championship of 1994 under Eamonn Cregan, with a league campaign that included a one point win over Kerry, a draw with Laois and a loss to Dublin and yet look how that year turned out.”

I remember Nickey Brennan stating in the mid 1990s that Kilkenny hurlers simply would not run up mountains and swim rivers before breakfast so as to win an All-Ireland. Brennan was having a pop at Clare’s regime under Ger Loughnane.

Yet those winning caravans moved on, as will the current ones. It is the way of sport. Besides, does contemplating Kilkenny hurling require that much trepidation? Or are some people unable to let go of past defeats?

The shock result from Wednesday evening, when Westmeath beat Kilkenny by two points in their Leinster U21 quarter-final, speaks for itself. So does the Kilkenny minors’ recent exit to Dublin at Leinster semi-final stage.

When was the last time the seniors were the county’s last team standing, the end of May still not upon us? Talk of dragons and death zones seems a bit histrionic.

For Kilkenny, the hard truth is that the last six seasons at minor have been poor to very middling, with player improvement difficult to discern. Player improvement, rather than silverware per se, is the genuine prize. Until this factor is addressed, these shocks will keep arriving.

The reality is that Kilkenny have won three minor All-Irelands and two U21 All-Irelands in the last 13 seasons. It is certainly not the stuff of dream machines and groaning conveyor belts. I mentioned that fact about the last 13 seasons to a lot of people when the Kilkenny minors were beaten. Everyone did a double take. Surely the figures could not be correct?

Count it up, I said.

The word ‘shock’ is all around. But was the Westmeath result that much of a surprise? Many of their U21s have been playing with the seniors, the Seniors, who won Division 2A and did really well in the Leinster round robin, where they topped the group.

Westmeath hurling is making progress and every luck to them, across the grades.

They should receive whatever assistance possible from various quarters. The county has 15 hurling clubs, eight of them senior. This numerical disadvantage is significant and should be mitigated in whatever way possible.

Specifically, Westmeath cannot waste a single promising hurler. Anything that needs to be done to maximize personnel should be done. This issue is far more important, ultimately, than the knot around sweeper systems. That cat’s cradle will resolve itself in time.

Of course, the best help of all is self help. Noting the omnipresence of negativity within Offaly, Kevin Egan remarked in another recent column: “Thousands of supporters have gone to Offaly games and watched as players have struggled with certain skills yet how many of those took the next step and undertook a coaching course, studied best practice in that field, and then went out to their local club and offered help with the U10s?” The query is more than fair. Offaly GAA apparently has the lowest take-up on coaching courses in the country.

Nothing is easier than complaining and moaning and cribbing.

There is never any difficulty in locating problems. Solutions are gold dust.

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