We are living in a golden age for hurling

Tony Kelly’s presence today could tip the balance towards Clare, writes Enda McEvoy.
We are living in a golden age for hurling

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe”

— Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in Blade Runner

It could go badly wrong again today and even at this remove, we know how and why. Just think back to May 1, and all becomes clear. Mutually assured sterility. Endlessly reflecting defensive mirrors. The match doesn’t open up in the first quarter, whereupon both sides are stricken with terror, retreat into their carapaces and overthink themselves — and by extension the game — into a stupor. A stupor is precisely the state the attendance have reached by teatime.

It could go gloriously right again today and even at this remove, we know how and why. Think back to May 8, and all becomes clear. Clare are caught snoring inside 30 seconds, give away a second goal a few minutes later and suddenly, wonderfully, a contest has become a cracker.

Instead of being taken prisoner by the occasion, the teams are liberated by it.

One crowd advance to the Munster final while the other head for the qualifiers, beaten but unbowed, disappointed but simultaneously energised.

What’s it gonna be then, eh? Will it be either, indeed, or rather an outcome equidistant from both stools?

The focal on the sráid is encouraging. John Conlon to start for Clare, Pauric Mahony to start for Waterford with Maurice Shanahan due to enter later at a juncture of maximum effect. With all three on the field, the grid is torn up and the narrow lines and tight angles of last month disappear. Where there was heat there is light. Where there were bodies, there is space. Where there was traffic chaos in the middle third, there are long balls to men who can catch the sliotar and make it stick.

The presence of Conlon, the scourge of Kilkenny in the semi-final, would necessitate Tadhg De Burca dropping 10 metres back to play him from the front, as he did with TJ Reid last August. In turn the Waterford half-back line drops back in sync, the accordion folding in on itself. But that still leaves space somewhere, even if it’s at a remove, and the problem for Waterford is that Tony Kelly will be on the field.

The Scarlet Pimpernel of Ballyea, the Thomas Muller of hurling. Nobody in the modern game interprets and exploits space with Kelly’s nose.

Still, what’s sauce for the goose… The presence of Mahony and Shanahan would allow Waterford to go long and early. Inevitably that would create gaps for Patrick Curran and Shane Bennett to exploit and for Colin Dunford to come steaming onto. Now we have a match that can breathe.

This is the day the counties have been plotting for and planning for and training for since autumn. They have to go for it. That doesn’t necessitate abandoning first principles and throwing everyone forward into death-or-glory attacks. But it does mean opening one’s shoulders and avoiding the temptation to paralysis by analysis. This above all, to thine own selves be true.

Losing here after hitting, say, 2-21 would be no bad entrée to the qualifiers. In fact, it could turn out to be the first mile, albeit one with a diversion at the end, on the road to Croke Park in September.

Sweepers, the supposed TB of the modern game?

Waterford will keep theirs. Clare may not. Davy is so fond of doing the unexpected — there isn’t another soul on the planet who would have even dreamed of repurposing Podge Collins as an attacking corner-back, never mind put the notion into practice — that at this stage he may be in danger of doing the expected by doing the unexpected. Lining up in conventional six-two-six formation tomorrow would be an interesting curveball to throw.

One thing, though. Playing with a sweeper is easy. Playing well with a sweeper is anything but. It takes practice and it takes patience and it takes skill. If you don’t believe that just reflect on the hames, even allowing for the premium the conditions put on good handling, Cork made of it.

On which point, incidentally, let’s leave off blaming the sweeper for all the ills of the sport for at least another week, shall we? The fare at Semple Stadium 11 days ago was dreadful as a result of the conjunction of Cork’s ineptitude and the weather. The deployment of a sweeper had absolutely nothing to do with it. End of.

Think of it this way instead. We are living in a golden age for hurling. Seriously.

Back in 2008, Paudie Butler, the then Director of Hurling, deemed the opening 25 minutes of the Cork/Kilkenny All-Ireland semi-final to have been “the best hurling ever played”. Even in the space of eight years that verdict has had to be amended and updated twice, following the All-Ireland finals of 2009 and 2014.

The best hurling ever played? We have seen it. We have lived through it. Be grateful. The game has never been faster, more thoughtful, and more precise. Nor has it ever been viewed as simultaneously asymmetrically and imaginatively as it is being viewed by the likes of Davy, Donal Óg, Derek McGrath and Mick Dempsey. To them the pitch is a blank canvas.

It doesn’t always work and when it goes wrong, it is excruciating to behold. Feel free by all means to argue that the drawn league final was an awful affair because of the sweepers whereas the replay was terrific in spite of the sweepers. That’s not being jesuitical; it was more a case of the early goals and Harold Macmillan’s old “Events, dear boy, events” syndrome.

But today’s managers and coaches are attempting something different, rewriting the lyrics to previously unheard melodies, and for that, they deserve our praise.

Sport isn’t, or at any rate shouldn’t be, static. Where there is stasis, there can be no evolution.

Watching a match in the 1970s, you were watching a match that could have been played in the 1930s. Watch today’s match and you’ll be watching a match that couldn’t have been envisaged even 20 years ago.

We have seen things previous generations wouldn’t have believed.

Sweepers who one Sunday play in front of the full-forward and the next Sunday operate as an auxiliary half-back, two very different tasks requiring very different skill sets. The man in the number 13 jersey dropping so deep as to be initiating attacks from his own full-back line. Patrick Curran’s goal in the replay last month rooted in Patrick O’Connor’s wayward pass, a cardinal sin in the eyes of the ancients (“Never hit the ball across your own goal!”) but very much a venial sin in the Church of Davy, given O’Connor was attempting to be constructive by switching wings and starting a new attack.

Brian Clough liked to enjoin his players to get the ball “and keep it company”. That’s exactly what Clare and Waterford do. Excellent.

Some other observations.

If the marking will be tight on the field, it will — shades of 1998 — be tighter on the sideline. The Old Stand side linesman may have a busier first half than the referee. The powder that was conspicuously kept dry last month will be employed for cannonades all over the place.

This will not necessarily be another neck and neck affair. Even the most well matched of opponents cannot keep producing photo finishes. Instead it may prove to be an afternoon where someone takes a commanding lead in the second quarter and holds onto it.

Is it credible that for the third successive meeting, Waterford will be leading approaching injury time? Is it credible that for the third successive meeting, Clare will save or win the day with the latest of late bursts? Scarcely and scarcely.

It will probably take another year for them to be able to act in smooth symphony, but a Waterford forward line featuring Mahony, Shanahan, Curran and Shane Bennett, with Austin Gleeson operating 20 metres behind them, is an All Ireland-winning forward line. Of that, have no doubt whatsoever.

A bit of ground hurling. As we know, the cons outweigh the pros in this day and age. Particularly against Clare, who when they get the sliotar won’t hand it back. But Waterford pulled first time on a few balls in the replay, to no visibly distressing effect. They should try the same today, angling them towards the wings to favour the forwards. In terms of forcing the opposition defenders to turn it’s surely worth the risk.

The league finals gave the impression that Waterford’s legs were thrashing a bit harder, moving a shade more vigorously, beneath the surface of the millpond. Eminently understandable; as yet they don’t quite possess the range of gears and change of gears these opponents do — or, rather, that Tony Kelly does.

For that reason and no other, Clare.

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