Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final between Kilkenny and Waterford followed a template we’ve become familiar with this season: A great deal of anticipation followed closely by a vague sense of disappointment.
A contest we expected to develop into a mixture of individual battles and cavalry charges came to resemble a sweep of massed armies back and forth, sometimes contesting and sometimes yielding the coveted middle ground. It’s a new kind of game we’re watching, and people are grumbling, comparing it to Gaelic football to convey their unhappiness.
Is the discontent warranted?
The skill level remains high. It has to, because space is so compressed now in hurling, not to mention the modern premium placed on accurate stick-passing: Players will now customarily control on their hurleys a ball played from 20 yards away rather than taking it directly into the hand, a clear change from the old beliefs.
Last Sunday, Richie Hogan’s striking and handling, to take one example, would stand comparison with any player in any era.
Where does the sense of an underwhelming season come from, then? It’s part expectation: The last decade or so has seen some remarkable entertainment.
A few years ago, Les Kiss, the Irish rugby backs coach, said to some journalists that he’d been to his first hurling game, the sensational 2009 All-Ireland final. Don’t bother going to another game, advised one of the reporters, you won’t see better.
It’s also a matter of re-education, though. Remove your moral objections to the imposition of systems and turn to Inverting The Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson’s masterpiece about soccer tactics.
Read the thoughts of Jorge Valdano of Argentina and Real Madrid on the beautiful game.
“Football is no longer mysterious,” Valdano told Wilson.
“We no longer experience it according to our own imagination because the cameras are everywhere. Pictures on a screen can’t compare with the pictures you can form in your head...
“In South America we have the concept of the ‘pause’ in football, the moment of reflection which foreshadows an attack. It’s built into the game, like music, which also needs pauses, drops in intensity.
“The problem is that this doesn’t work in the language of television. A moment of low intensity in a televised football game is seen by some as time to change channels.
“So, the game is getting quicker and quicker because television demands it.”
Tweak that a little and its applicability to hurling becomes apparent. Valdano’s point about soccer coverage is valid, but incomplete: If a centre-half pulls a striker’s ear off the ball he’ll almost inevitably be captured on camera, but even those dozen or so electronic eyes can’t give an overall view of the ebb and flow of players moving off the ball, drifting around the field out of your eyeline.
Throw in a bigger playing area, more players and a faster ball, and how can we appreciate the new kind of hurling we’re seeing, whether that’s on the box or from a seat in the stand?
In fact, the relatively new development many intercounty teams rely on, the eyes in the stand, may be already outdated: There was a certain amount of grumbling emanating from Waterford last week centring on suggestions that Kilkenny had been trying to source overhead camera footage of Waterford’s league games.
Having eyes in the sky rather than a man in the stand seems to be the way for future tactical decoding: Expect “drone, purchase of” to pop up in a few county board balance sheets in the next couple of years.
The great Argentinian’s point about the game becoming “quicker and quicker” is also pertinent, but needs adjusting for our purposes.
When Valdano says “quicker and quicker” he means the frenetic, hundred-miles-an-hour roller-coaster of the English game.
In hurling, “quicker and quicker” applies to the need for immediate, adhesive control, to the instantaneous shutting down of room to manoeuvre, to the arrival of two or three opponents in a player’s personal space.
Therefore, the faster and fitter the players, the more the field shrinks, the more of those ugly rucks develop, and the traditional fluency of a hurling encounter gets interrupted.
Expect more chapter breaks rather than streams of consciousness in the hurling championship going forward.
We’ll return to this one after Galway and Tipperary on Sunday.
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