Last weekend dropped that flag. The response was a bawl of fatalism. Public mood, as the week wore on, reminded me of that moment in a Samuel Beckett play when a character identifies hope, not despair, as the real killer.
Byways of Laois, highways of Wexford, they can relate to this grimace. A retrospective of Beckett’s work could be staged in O’Moore Park, Portlaoise or Wexford Park. Performances would be thronged. The hurling community in both counties well knows that yen for ordinary despair.
Expecting much risks scorch. Despite Olympic level backsliding this week, there was nothing daft in discerning, last January, seven or eight serious contenders. Each season develops in its own fashion, with a new set of forces shaping the contests. We are where we are and we should not be making September out of June.
While it was a poor few days for smelling the closeness, there were important lessons to be learned.
First one? The centrality of personnel. Go sideways, if in any doubt. Brian Clough was once quizzed on what he considered best advice. The maestro of soccer management instanced an early mentor, who told him: “Son, buy good players.” Money is no use in GAA regard. You are stuck with the contingencies of geography. Yet the dictum about quality holds firm. Approaches come and go, like wingless wonders and sweepers, like third midfielders. Talent endures.
There was poignancy to this truth in a week where Jimmy Doyle passed on after John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer stood up against Limerick in such magnificent style. Not many recent Tipperary forwards could be mentioned for pure skill in the same breath as Jimmy Doyle. Definitely Michael Cleary and maybe Nicky English and maybe Eoin Kelly.
But the man Bubbles? No bothers. Like Doyle in his prime, O’Dwyer has the impudence of genius.
Take current gloom over Cork and their supposed tactical ineptitude. Far more significant was the departure of Darren Sweetnam to a rugby career. Still around, he would be Cork’s best competitor. Sweetnam the hurler is probably as gifted as Austin Gleeson. Both men are akin to a force of nature. Sweetnam’s impact, when introduced at half-time for a floundering Cork side against Kilkenny in the 2012 NHL final, counted as remarkable for anyone and as astonishing for a stripling who was 19 the day before.
How would Waterford be fixed if Gleeson decided to become a back row forward? Recent weeks heard copious mention of ‘system’, a word now trumping ‘gameplan’ in the faddishness stakes. People like these words because they sound cerebral and considered, allowing them to imply that they could, given chance, alter a team’s fortunes.
We might think again. Talk of system is a misplaced emphasis. The notion is that hurlers require no more than willingness to adopt a grid.
Not so. Derek McGrath, as Waterford manager, has fitted an approach around the candidates available. And the quality of the candidates available, from Gleeson down, is quite something. Talent and temperament presumed, which is a large presumption, there is no system in the sense typically meant. There is only desire (and desire’s rudder, composure).
Laois against Galway last Saturday? Laois were destroyed in large part because concession of a sloppy goal in the 18th minute flattened them in emotional terms.
Seventeen minutes into that game, their ‘system’ was frustrating a wind-advantaged Galway at 0-3 to 0-2. Eleven minutes later, 10 points up, Galway were in the Leinster final. Where had the system’s efficacy gone?
A friend in Tullamore was texting me live impressions. He wrote, after that first goal: “Leix have stopped working now. Stopped thinking. Stopped contesting their own puckout if it is landing two yards away.” It was desire that had evaporated.
Waterford’s squad have achieved so much already in 2015 not because of a system. They accrued those achievements on foot of a collective drive to realise their potential. Marching fit, burningly skilful, Waterford acquired these traits not by adopting a system but by pooling their desire.
Talk of system puts the cart of tactics before the horse of character. Naïveté cuts both ways. Never forget contingency where sport is concerned. If Clare, in July 2013, had drawn Kilkenny in Nowlan Park, what would have transpired in that season’s qualifiers?
Same swerve gives Laois to Tipperary, whom they would have beaten in whatever venue. This way round, Kilkenny put out Clare, only to be undone by Cork.
Would Tipp have gone all the way in this 2013 scenario? More than possible. Colossal victory over Laois refreshes their confidence and opens a road to September. And the greatest ever season for hurling dies a death before even being born. Sound enough like Samuel Beckett?
Never forget contingency. Another twist of it could transform this season, for all the skite about an immediate Kilkenny-Tipperary All Ireland final and having done of 2015. One twist is injury, as with 2010 and Henry Shefflin.
Besides, with Kilkenny, one reality is being ignored. Their best side, when Colin Fennelly and Richie Power are back fit, will see 12 or 13 men all but guaranteed a place. Brian Cody has never before dealt with this dynamic. Its influence on training, which dictates championship performance, remains to be seen.
The future, weed and flower alike, is green in the ground. A balanced view is never more important than in the aftermath of grievous disappointment, such as last weekend provided in the measure that sunshine provides thirst and Clonmel provides cider.
Yes, highways of Laois, byways of Wexford, current driving conditions are poor. It is raining Beckett and misting Clough. That front might be moving west, towards Limerick.
But weather is different than climate. Weather, like form, is temporary. The potential of desire, like class, is permanent. The trick is to make desire a climate.