Cork GAA legend Ray Cummins talks hurling tactics, Rebel woes and the death of the dual star...
One of four men in history to win All-Star awards in hurling and Gaelic football is explaining something.
Ray Cummins is as trim now as when he was redefining forward play 40 years ago in both codes. The former Cork and Blackrock star, full-forward on the hurling team of the millennium, is so strongly identified with his position on the field it’s almost a surprise that that light-blue pullover doesn’t have 14 on the back.
Over coffee in Kinsale he says he’s looking forward to this afternoon’s GPA lunch in Croke Park, at which he and Mayo’s Paddy Pendergast will each be awarded the GPA Lifetime Achievement Award.
“It’s unusual, very welcome. Any recognition from your peers is great. In a way, though, I’m not big into individual awards in a team sports. Why? When last did a corner-back get a man of the match award? It’s a team effort, and the team depends on everybody functioning to the maximum.
“As far as I’m concerned, it was the fellas that I played with that made me, whether at club level or county. That’d be my only reluctance.”
With Tipperary’s dazzling All-Ireland final fresh in the memory, he doesn’t have to reach far for a modern comparison.
“Seamus Callanan had a dream All-Ireland final, a dream for any player, but the quality of the ball coming into him was brilliant. That’s the point I’m making — you never get to an All-Ireland until you win the matches along the way, and that could be because of the defence doing the business in tougher games along the way.”
Cummins never managed Cork, never pushed himself forward as a pundit. A pity. The thoughtful observer is quietly spoken, but has well-defined opinions he’s prepared to stand over.
“I still follow the game closely, it’s something in your blood, something that you never lose. What interests me is how the game has evolved over the years, and how teams have evolved with it.
“I think at times there’s an overemphasis on video analysis, often there’s an overemphasis in coaching on drills, but by drills I specifically mean exercises which have no bearing on what happens on the field of play. I’d describe it as textbook stuff.
“It seems to me there’s an overemphasis on that, because hurling is a simple game. In my view it’s not particularly suited to some of the tactics being employed, the sweeper being one of them. If a player can hit the ball over the bar from one hundred yards, which many players can do now, then what’s the point in having seven backs in your own half?” The full-blooded exchanges at the sharp end of the championship restored his faith in hurling, mind:
“I was worried about the way it was going until the Kilkenny-Waterford games — the first one in particular was one of the best I’d seen.
“The intensity, the striking, the accuracy . . . fellas have very little time in the modern game to steady themselves and shoot, and yet the accuracy is incredible.
“That game was great, certainly until Waterford started to retreat, and the replay and the All-Ireland final were outstanding as well.
“The speed and athleticism of players today is incredible. I was worried but those games were super, they showed how the game should be played, and how it can be played.”
Cummins gives due credit to the modern player’s conditioning.
“These fellas are far superior athletes to us. They have the support in all areas — you hear about the Dublin players getting their meals supplied to their houses and so on. We went to the States once and I got dehydrated: this was a time when we didn’t know what dehydration was.
“Nowadays the strength and conditioning, the diet — something we never considered — and the general attention to welfare means they’re far superior athletes.
“Would I like to have played now — I’m not sure I would have survived, to be honest. Fellas would have slagged me that I never went out beyond the 21-yard line because I wouldn’t have been able to get back in if I did go out.
“It’s a different game, a different era. The effort and training they put in now, that’s far superior to what we did. That level of training I think may have taken a lot of the fun out of it, because the games are at a stage now where they’re professional in every way apart from being paid. I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed it — sport has to be kept in perspective.
“I was going to say it shouldn’t take over your life, but it took over my life because I was involved so much. We had more fun, though. I could be wrong, but we didn’t have to take it quite as seriously as players do now. I hear of players being in gyms three and four nights a week, but I never saw the inside of a gym.
“Now, there’s a far better understanding of what’s needed to develop fellas and so on, it’s a scientific approach, but I think we probably enjoyed it more.”
Part of that enjoyment stemmed from the savage club competition Cummins was part of at local level. He played on a legendary Blackrock team which collected county titles — and All-Ireland club titles — in rotation, almost, with rivals Glen Rovers and St Finbarr’s.
“It’s something that bothers me nowadays about the game in Cork. You mentioned intensity earlier, and I don’t see the level of intensity that was there in our time, and I think that’s affecting the Cork team at intercounty level. At that level we can’t put up with the intensity other teams are able to produce, plus we seem to be lacking in physique.
“Also, the refereeing in club matches in Cork seems too finicky to me, to prevent intensity. The slightest shoulder and there’s a free, but the refereeing is completely different at intercounty level, where the likes of Tipperary and Kilkenny are playing at a different level. That’s where we’re suffering.
“I don’t have a magic wand that’d solve this, but there are so many back doors and so on that there isn’t as much enjoyment for spectators, even. People know their teams have a second chance.
“There’s a lot to be said for winner take all, straight knock-out, as a format for championships. You’d be reluctant to go to first- and second-round games, because you know the teams have a second crack of the whip, they know that — and there’s no intensity in those early games as a result.” Other specific challenges have hampered his county also, he adds.
“One issue in Cork which we haven’t responded to yet, I think, is the loss of the Christian and Presentation Brothers as coaches. There are also fewer male national school teachers — that’s not to say there isn’t great work being done by female teachers, but we haven’t reacted quickly enough to the loss of that number of coaches.
“Hurling in particular is a game that needs a lot of coaching and a lot of practice — it’s a very attractive game for kids when they learn to protect themselves and they’re properly coached and so on, but it needs that constant effort, learning and coaching, to do so.” Even when the coaching is top quality, the pressure on younger players is a cause of concern for Cummins.
“I think the way dual players are more or less extinct, that’s very sad. Part of it is down to the sheer number of games being played but to have fellas make decisions at 16, 17, about what game to play... fellas don’t develop fully until they’re into their twenties, and a player who’s stronger at hurling in his teens might end up a better footballer when he’s fully mature a few years later.
“That’s the kind of pressure kids are under, but I think managers, with a bit of goodwill, could manage this, particularly with the levels of knowledge and expertise about physical fitness nowadays. The number of matches with the back door and so on would complicate that, but it saddens me to see fellas at minor being forced to make a choice.”
He’s being honoured today as a hurler, but Cummins was a devastating force at full-forward with the big ball as well. Those hurling All-Irelands came either side of the 1973 football title, after all, and it’s All-Ireland football final weekend...
“It was a great highlight. At that time Gaelic football played second fiddle in Cork, certainly. I can remember times we’d go down to the old Athletic Grounds to train and the gates would be locked, we wouldn’t be able to get in.
“It was long before mobile phones, so you can imagine how hard it was to try to find a club field to train on when that happened. Not only were you fighting the opposition, you were up against the establishment within the county as well, but that created a great bond within the team.
“Billy (Morgan) has more scars from battles with the establishment than any of us. Donie (O’Donovan) was tremendous as well. There were a lot of leaders on that team, too, right throughout the field, fellas who were well able to fight for their rights.”
Kerry came with Mick O’Dwyer’s golden boys just then, though.
“There’s no doubt in my mind they were the best team, though it’s hard to judge across eras. Certainly in my lifetime they were the best —though Dublin could be changing my mind in a couple of years — but Kerry were skilled, motivated, well organised. And they didn’t have to fight the battles we had to fight either.
“The relationship with them would be good, it always has been. In our time there was little opportunity to meet socially. That’s why players valued All-Star trips and the Railway Cup, you met players from other counties, and maybe realised they didn’t have horns coming out of their foreheads. We’d meet up with the Kerry lads regularly enough for golf, say.” Who’d be the shark in that group?
“God, they’re all pretty handy. Mikey Sheehy is a man you’d worry about, certainly.” When Cummins focused solely on hurling he picked up three All-Ireland medals, one as captain in 1976. It mightn’t have been the pinnacle, though.
“Obviously that’s the ultimate achievement for an intercounty player, captaining your county, but winning an All-Ireland title with your club is very special — the fellas you grew up with, that you knew all your life. Those were very special.
“I’m the world’s worst are remembering matches, though. They’re a blur. One runs into the other. Fellas ask me, ‘do you remember such and such happening in this game’ and I can’t remember them at all.
“The odd thing would stick with you. But nothing significant.” He’ll be in Croke Park tomorrow, but that’s not always a given.
“Generally I’d be as happy to sit and watch it at home. I could never watch a match in a pub, too many fellas giving a commentary.
“I’d go if Cork were involved but generally I’d stay at home. For one thing, you’d feel maybe you’re depriving someone from one of the participating counties of a seat, and for another, as an event it’s being ruined.
“For me the beauty of going to an All-Ireland final, for years, was that you’d be sitting next to a fella from another county, you’d be chatting away and sharing your thoughts on the game. That was the joy of it. Nowadays there’s so much music blaring out at half-time that it destroys the event. You literally can’t have a conversation with the person next to you. This need for razzmatazz . . . there are too many distractions, for me.
“The game is the thing.”
For Cummins it always was.
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