John Doyle, not long before he passed away in December 2010, made an intriguing remark about 21st-century hurling.
As with most arresting statements, it took the form of a contrast. He claimed that Kilkenny, as of the 2000s, had started to hurl like Tipperary operated in the 1950s and 60s. The counties’ fierce rivalry left such alteration, as Doyle implied, the startling side of notable.
Whatever its decade, this sort of achievement is always a splice, implacable power forging opportunities for the increments of finesse. The spokeshave finishes axe work, same as John Doyle sent clearances to Jimmy Doyle in 1964, same as Jackie Tyrrell sent clearances to Richie Power in 2009.
Back then, when Tipp always won, Kilkenny looked over much to finesse. They had Jim Langton and they had Seán Clohosey and they were brilliant out, stylists to a tee, but the heat of battle against Tipp made spectators of stylists. Those days, ornamental strokeplay soon ran beside the point.
This affliction ached from the start. One county loved to feel sorry for itself. Tipperary comprehensively took the 1898 All-Ireland final and the Kilkenny People reported: “We have the most scientific hurling team in Ireland in Kilkenny, and if a game was decided on pure science, we would not have to accept running-up honours. But then we are not possessed of the physical science necessary to win a match against such a team as the fearless Tubberadora.”
Note how the dynamic reaches much further back than that well-worn anecdote about the 1916 final. Following said hour, Kilkenny’s Sim Walton said to Tipperary’s Johnny Leahy: “We were the better hurlers.” Leahy produced an immortal response: “We were the better men.”
Sound familiar? Doyle’s view remains a plumb weight. He gave 18 seasons with Tipp between 1949 and 1967, earning eight senior All-Irelands and establishing himself (in Paddy Downey’s wonderful phrase) as the personification of “cold courage”. Long before recent palaver, John Doyle felt the fear and did it anyway.
The forecasts for next Sunday afternoon in Dublin herald wet conditions. Yet tradition remains the first context, beyond form, beyond weather. What previously happened retains a power. Ask the footballers of Mayo.
All-Ireland week invariably takes stock of these matters. Dynamics are constantly being remade and can even alter to the point of inversion. Ironies can abound. Do the hurlers of Tipperary now possess too much finesse?
There are plenty natives who believe so. For Jim Langton and Seán Clohosey, read Noel McGrath and John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer. Ironies can abound.
Current selection conundrums demonstrate the living face of tradition. Does Tipperary manager Michael Ryan start O’Dwyer? Can Ryan afford him and Noel McGrath in the one forward line due to their perceived lack of workrate? Ornamental strokeplay still runs beside the point.
Preferring attacking workhorses Dan McCormack and Niall O’Meara would in one sense offer continuity with the broader Tipp tradition.
Their relentlessness, in tandem with Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher’s input, offers an antidote to mere skill.
Without their cold endeavour, would you have too much spokeshave and not enough axe? Remember 1898 and the supremacy of Tipperary’s “physical science” over Kilkenny’s “pure science”. How much ever changes, in truth?
Long since, Brian Cody drew the relevant moral.
Until All-Irelands started racking at an unprecedented rate, there were plenty within the county who wondered at the Didier Deschamps factor, at the supposed hewers of wood and drawers of water that are current figures such as Jonjo Farrell, Joey Holden, Kieran Joyce, Shane Prendergast, Lester Ryan, and Walter Walsh. Perception can be a devil. After all, this list contains two All Stars and two men who won Man of the Match in a senior final.
All-Ireland finals recent past franked Cody’s wisdom. He stated after 2009, when Kilkenny topped Tipperary right at the post: “You can’t do it with just skill.” For Cody, the ethos is the aesthetic. Beauty articulate flows from duty immaculate, which is an astonishing renovation of his county’s tradition.
Kilkenny succeeded against Tipperary present by becoming more like Tipperary past. Tipperary succeeded less against Kilkenny present by becoming more like Kilkenny past. Ironies can rebound.
Michael Ryan’s crux grips all the more with so much attention on Richie Hogan, bookmakers’ favourite for Hurler of the Year. The world and its collie barks at Hogan’s peregrinations from centre-forward, where he collects ball and more often than not delivers an inspirational point or a gutting pass.
But what countermeasure is best? The centre-back cannot follow without opening goal opportunities through the middle. Therefore an onus falls on half forwards: shepherd Hogan, baulking the freedom required to deliver telling interventions.
Half-forwards must be avid for this work. Can a Tipperary sextet containing McGrath and O’Dwyer counter a Hogan-led Kilkenny attack in this key regard? Then again, turn around the crux: can a forward line without them score enough to seize a Premier day?
These questions are the present’s way of remaking the past.
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