PM O'Sullivan: Kilkenny hurling seems in limbo, caught between two shores

There is a coldness at the heart of genius ― that “splinter of ice”, in Graham Greene’s phrase. Hogan’s black helmet silked into an executioner’s hood
PM O'Sullivan: Kilkenny hurling seems in limbo, caught between two shores

Kilkenny backs and Galway forwards vie for possession of the sliotar during the Leinster final. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Some years ago, I interviewed Richie Hogan.

First noticed? His hands. They were like slabs, matted hair on the back, twice as big as regular issue.

I thought of those hands after Hogan’s transfixing goal in this year’s Leinster final.

2020, our difficult time, deserved a score of unique 20:20 clarity.

How did he manage it? His second touch, right arm fully extended, flicking up the ball off the ground around the Galway goalkeeper? Arm fully extended… A miracle of raw finesse.

Then third touch, teeing up. Fourth touch, finished up.

Bang. Blink. Gone.

There is a coldness at the heart of genius ― that “splinter of ice”, in Graham Greene’s phrase. Hogan’s black helmet silked into an executioner’s hood.

Ger Fennelly hails from Ballyhale, same as me. Therein lies sole similarity. He was the stylist’s stylist, elegant and durable and coldly ferocious. Perhaps Kilkenny’s finest hurler during the 1980s, this man possesses, in uncanny degree, the exact same hands, the same slabs.

Noel ‘Lou’ Walsh, a friend dead since early 2018, told me about comment when Fennelly emerged during the mid-1970s. Back then, Noel attended matches with older acquaintances, men grizzled and watchful, men who had been young in the 1930s, when Lory Meagher hit zenith.

“That Fennelly lad has the exact same go as Lory,” they said.

He is going to be pure brilliant.

So the matter comes to us, knowledge of the mystery, coming to us like a secret candle only quiet knowledgeable gossip can light. I must find someone in Tullaroan who can tell me about Meagher’s hands. Those people are there yet. But no doubt his pair was as Fennelly’s pair, as Hogan’s pair. Noel put me peering round the curtain at that candle.

I dearly wished him alive to see such a goal. His Monday smile would have been a bonfire.

There is a line in Kilkenny hurling, a physical descent of the gift. There is this ability to get off a stroke within your own body space, to strike on the move without breaking stride. Hallmark? A stroke from in front, elbows tight to body, left side, right side, no matter. Power derives from slingshot wrists, ball gone a beat quicker than seemed possible. These lads never need to step sideways.

Richie Hogan’s hands symbolise an older world, a hurling world in which close skills, the tracings of genius, centred on strokeplay. For our 21st century arena, close skills more concern possession-harvesting ability when the ball is on the ground in a crowded middle third. Once upon a time, rucks happened in Lansdowne Road.

Recall the astonishment and delight that greeted Hogan’s wonder goal in Croke Park.

This noise was also a rumble of discontent. People found something so unpredictable a tonic. Plenty observers baulk at the contemporary game, its ping pong dynamic, shot after shot after shot. But the media is all but dominated by a brave new world brigade.

You can make the sliotar fluorescent yellow. You can change the weight of it. No matter if incoherent philosophies of hurling seize up the day. This season, Wexford ran into entirely predictable buffers.

Caught between two shores

Meanwhile, Kilkenny hurling seems in limbo, caught between two shores.

Tomorrow’s All Ireland semi-final with Waterford offers oars. The near shore, now five years distant, remains unprecedented success. The far shore is clasped in mist. When will Kilkenny land their 37th senior title? Some natives reckon the mid-2020s.

A view out there: the county simply failed to keep up. You would wonder. The reality is that Galway and Limerick, who contest Sunday’s semi-final, tweaked a Kilkenny template established during the mid-2000s.

Those counties’ approach constitutes another inflection of power hurling, an eschewal of seven defenders and four midfielders and forwards incapable of winning their own ball. These emphases lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 2017 and 2018.

Tipperary’s approach, successful in 2016 and 2019, is a slicker cousin’s power game.

Truth told, Kilkenny were outstripped at their own game ― in winning All-Irelands, at any rate.

You would wonder but none of those realities mean the current crew do not face serious questions. As was clear in the Leinster final, Kilkenny can become oddly fazed on their own puckout. That evening, their defenders held an impromptu onfield seminar on whether puckouts should keep going long or start staying short.

The nub? Defending a puckout, Galway left two of their forwards on Kilkenny’s three full-backs. This tactic allowed midfielder Pádraic Mannion to drop back as a temporary sweeper behind their half-back line. Otherwise Galway did not play with a seventh defender.

You cannot keep making the same bad bet and avoid going broke. That evening, Kilkenny going long meant three on four or two on three or one on two. Galway dominated that hand of cards.

Contemporary hurling is often a game of bluff and counter bluff, gambits for exploiting mismatches learned from rugby league’s impact on rugby union, from rugby union’s impact on Gaelic football, from Gaelic football’s impact on hurling.

Kilkenny realised the three on two in their full-back line needed to be used. They began running out the ball, often in risky fashion, to where it could be delivered directly to their full-forward line, bypassing Mannion. Some joy was found in this regard.

These topics have become elementary stuff, except in Kilkenny. I hear believable talk of players’ frustration at a lack of pre-match analysis. They evidently do not practice short puck-outs in training.

For this scenario, the full-back should not stay in the centre but step significantly closer to one corner-back, creating a clear and present two on one.

Tomorrow’s opponents pose fresh questions. Revived by Liam Cahill’s management and Michael Bevans’ coaching, Waterford are good and maybe really good. Unless Kilkenny improve significantly in midfield, there will be no All-Ireland final.

Not even with Richie Hogan’s hands back on the oars.

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