A good advert for the game, but not a great advert

It came as a relief to those of us looking for a serious discussion of this year’s drawn All-Ireland final – am I the only one to sigh mournfully at losing our most noteworthy contribution to GAA trivia? – that Brian Cody issued a back-handed mea culpa for his ludicrously over-the-top reaction to the free from which Galway equalised. Had it been for the winning score then it might have been understandable, but in the context of a draw it was needlessly incendiary. He had shrugged it off by the time it came to talking to the media though, and he resolutely refused to say anything bad about the referee, so his behaviour didn’t dominate the discussion of the match. Joe Canning waited a couple of days before his comment about Henry Shefflin’s supposed lack of sportsmanship, but he too was saved from a media tsunami of indignation by a hilariously self-pitying contribution from Eddie Keher, his interview best summed up by balls.ie – Eddie Keher Blames Society For Kilkenny Not Winning The All-Ireland. In the end, most of the discussion was about the match.

And what a match it was, laden with intrigue and intensity. This was just as well, because it concealed that the game wasn’t of the highest quality. It was only moderately surprising that Galway hit wide after wide, especially as the game barrelled towards its dramatic conclusion. I’ve seen a quote attributed to George Best where he responds to a friend, who expressed relief upon seeing Roberto Baggio stepping up to take the decisive penalty in the 1994 World Cup that he was glad it wasn’t him (the friend, not George) taking it, by saying that he’d love to be in his (Baggio’s, not the friend’s) position. That’s all very well George but that was only the World Cup at stake, not the All-Ireland, and I almost cried for Joe Canning when he missed a relatively straightforward free in the first minute of injury time that would have levelled matters. Score, and they’ll remember you for years. Miss, and they’ll remember you forever.

His nervousness was understandable. What was Kilkenny’s excuse? As wide after wide piled up you couldn’t help but grumble that had they been this profligate in 2008 we might only have lost by a more respectable 15 points. Then there was the extraordinary decision of Henry Shefflin to take a point when presented with a penalty with only two minutes to go. The scores were level, Henry has an excellent record from that distance and the odds are that any saved shot would ping over the bar for a point or out for a 65. Going for a goal was effectively a free shot to win the All-Ireland yet over it went to the stupefied disbelief of Michael Duignan in the commentary box. Clearly Galway had them rattled and its something the Tribesmen would do well to remember for the replay.

What really struck me about the match was how, shall we say, robust it was. My wife spent most of the game spluttering with outrage as anyone with the sliothar had to wade their way through a forest of limbs and hurleys to try and earn some space. Most of the comment after the game was about how manly it all was – football types routinely lament that their game has become sanitised in comparison to the teak-tough endeavours in the small ball game, and Sunday’s match would be Exhibit A for the prosecution.

But there’s nowt manly about slamming a hurley in front of a man and there’s even less manly about having three or four hurleys fencing a player in. It seems to me, without any empirical evidence to support it, that the rules of hurling have not kept pace with the fitness levels of those playing the game. It has long been obvious in rugby, but watching Iarla Tannian have to hurdle timber every time he won the ball was the first time it ever looked that way in hurling. The great Waterford team of the late 50’s were famed for delightful use of quick ball, but even if you have the skills you need the space in which to perform and there’s no chance a player could do that in the modern game.

Look at the way we send out players lined up from 2-15, left corner-back to right corner-forward. You play the ball towards your man and hope he has the skill and strength to beat his man. That’s the way it is. Except it isn’t anymore. Play the ball into your man and watch him get instantly surrounded by two or three opponents. If he wins the ball, they clamp onto him like leeches and it almost becomes a lottery as to whether the ref will give a free for fouling or for overcarrying. Barry Kelly got most of those 50:50 calls right that day, and perhaps that’s the sign of a great ref that you’re good at predicting coin tosses. But something’s wrong when you’re relying on a referee’s ingrained grasp of subtlety for a game to thrive.

The game was a good day’s work for hurling. All the talk of how hurling is our national sport will be shown up for the cant it is over the next few days as the whole country stares agog at the collective hyperventilation emanating from Mayo and Donegal. So it was nice for a buzz to be generated from a hurling game and to be able to do it all again after the inevitable madness in whatever county triumphs this Sunday has subsided. But the excitement was mostly about the tightness of the result and the possibility that someone was going to take down Goliath. You can’t rely on that every time.

What can we change in hurling? Is it a time for different equipment, or different rules relating to shoulder charges? Would hurling really be so damaged by a little less ‘manly’ contact and a little more room in which players can manoeuvre?  I’ll probably get pilloried for suggesting that the rules of our glory game, codified as they were by Cúchulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhaill after a clash between the Red Branch Knights and the Fianna with one set of goals on Malin Head and the other on Mizen Head, need to be changed. I’m not convinced though that the game Sunday week last is as good as hurling gets.