Last weekend was marked by two epic runs in Thurles. In extra-time on Saturday evening, Waterford’s Jamie Barron won the ball near Kilkenny’s 65, spotted a gap and tore into it.
He had plenty of opportunities to take his point but he powered on for the goal, combining a gorgeous dummy handpass with a wicked sidestep in the process. Even the hurley-juggling required to sell the handpass didn’t impact on his shot.
The next afternoon, in injury time, Damien Cahalane stormed out of Cork’s defence with the ball in his hand. Like Barron, he had plenty of chances to strike the ball but he just kept going. Sixty, 70, 80 metres.
A hundred? Shane O’Donnell chased him in his characteristic berserker pose — hurley held aloft like a hatchet — but even the Clare man’s long strides couldn’t catch Cahalane.
The Cork full-back offloaded to Luke O’Farrell who gave it to Patrick Horgan who split the posts. Thrilling, near-mad levels of commitment combined with a clinical use of possession: If that’s not a formula for All-Ireland success, I don’t know what is.
Cahalane and Barron’s heroics were standout incidents in the dying moments of two brilliant games.
These gut-busting runs were arresting not necessarily for their skill or composure, but for their bouldness and single-mindedness.
They demonstrated a desire to do whatever it takes to win, even if it means running the team over the line yourself. After 70 minutes, when players would be forgiven for fatigue or succumbing to cramp, these hurlers have the conditioning to sprint the length of the field to do what needs to be done.
In a wider sense, these two epic runs illustrate how hurling has increasingly become a running game, epitomised this season in the game plans of Cork, Galway, and Clare.
These days, players are looking for ways to expand their solos, to the extent that the ‘bouncing the ball off the ground with the hurley’ trick has become a staple of every hurler’s toolbox.
Forget about ground hurling or lashing the ball blindly down the field; possession is too precious to throw away, and the ball is always safest in the paw.
It’s an interesting development, because the solo run has a chequered reputation. There’s a moment in every young player’s life when they fall in love with soloing, with the freedom and authority it confers.
Many a coach has pulled their hair out trying to break these habits, all the while yelling ‘Let the ball do the work!’ And yet, while we might not readily associate the solo with traditional hurling, its history is a long and interesting one.
Legend has it that the skill was pioneered by Mick Mackey, Limerick giant of the 30s and 40s, who would use it to burst through defences.
The move became so associated with Mackey that when it was adopted by John McKenna, Tipp star of the 60s, he was quickly nicknamed ‘Mackey’ McKenna.
Perhaps the inspirational solo reached its peak in the 1996 Munster semi-final, when Ciaran Carey’s sublime late point (high catch, solo from deep defence, masterful shimmy, strike straight off the hurley) gave Limerick a one-point win over the then All-Ireland champions Clare.
There’s no doubt that the solo run is a thrilling spectacle and an impressive individual feat — but hurling is, in the end, a team game. I’ve had a couple of stints at corner-forward and nothing breaks the heart more than an outfield player who loves to solo.
You’d have snuck away from your marker, gaining a few precious yards and hoping for a quick ball, only for a team-mate’s solo run to give the opposition backline plenty of time to get back in formation.
Sometimes, solo runs are like guitar solos: impressive, even virtuosic, but a small bit on the self-indulgent side.
The game is evolving at such a fast rate, however, that much of the conventional wisdom no longer applies.
There was a time when backs would be roared at for abandoning their position (and more importantly, marker) to push forward, but now it seems every match features a point from a corner-back or three.
Wexford and Clare are particularly adept at this, suggesting it has something to do with the sweeper system; with a sweeper in place, backs feel more secure about pressing forward.
As Jackie Tyrrell pointed out in a recent The Irish Times column, Wexford in particular have reconfigured their sweeper set-up as a launchpad for creating scores, making an attacking virtue of a system often criticised for being too negative.
As the game as a whole continues to evolve, so does the championship. This year has echoes of 2013, with young, energetic teams on the ascendant (Cork, Galway) and the expected stalwarts either gone (Kilkenny) or still waiting to ignite (Tipperary).
That’s the great thing about hurling: whether in terms of skills, tactics or top teams, it’s always making itself new.
If Barron and Cahalane’s runs were inverse mirrors of each other at Semple’s Town End at the weekend, there was another, stranger echo at the Killinan End.
(Credit where it’s due: this wonderful bit of trivia was unearthed by Stephen Long, who tweets at @Stephen_Long.)
When Maurice Shanahan stormed through late in the game to clinch a match-winning goal, it was a near replica of a goal his brother Dan scored into the same goalmouth against Limerick on July 8, 2007 — 10 years to the day.
The brothers even did the same celebration, grabbing their jerseys and brandishing the crest to the crowd. There’s a bit of spooky Semple Stadium magic for you.
I look forward to visiting the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh next weekend for the quarter finals, and I certainly hope to see Tipp play in Croke Park this year, but you have to admit that there’s something about Semple. It’s probably my Tipp bias talking, but for me it really is the field of dreams.
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