After a less-than-auspicious start to my new practice of going to Tramore hurling matches it seemed only fair to give them, and the lowest rung of our beloved sport, another chance. So it was that we (I’ll get back to the ‘we’ in a moment) found ourselves in Portlaw on Sunday morning for the clash between Tramore and Portlaw in (it says here) the Eastern Hurling League Group 1. I emphasise this because I’m right confused as to what the EHL is. Initially I assumed this was Tramore’s second team playing Portlaw’s second team, but a friend of my older brother was there and he explained that this was mostly Tramore’s main team playing mostly Portlaw’s main team. I’d probably head over to the Waterford GAA thread on boards.ie and ask how exactly the club scene works, but after my recent bollocking I’m probably persona non grata, so if some kindly soul reading this could explain it to a prodigal GAA son then I’d be most grateful.
As I noted earlier, the plural in ‘we’ was significant as it included my two nephews. Trying to keep a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old under control meant that I could never be 100% sure of the score, and it duly appears that I was wrong (see accompanying image), missing a Portlaw point early on. I mention all this because maybe it was possible that I was right and the referee was wrong . . . no, not a chance. Having seen a referee undergo a minor nervous breakdown a couple of weeks ago, it was refreshing to see Robert Dunne engage in an exercise in how it should be done. Constantly up with the play, understanding of the difference between filthy play and the merely careless (without giving such carelessness a free pass), and happy to explain his decisions without attempting to be all chummy with the players in the mode of Dickie Murphy, it was a relief to see that good officiating exists at the lower ends of the GAA. And while the GAA Scoreboard might be a great app – certainly an improvement on the inside of a packet of Major cigarettes, the choice of the discerning scorekeeping spectator in days of yore due to its non-glossy paper – there’s no substitute for, uh, giving the game your full attention.
For there was a game here, and unlike the Tramore-Bonmahon game it was played in the right spirit from the off. It may seem incongruous to reference the Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund the previous evening, but both games showed how important the mindset of the respective teams is in creating an entertaining spectacle, for just like the soccer game this was surprisingly enjoyable fare. It’s probably just as well that Eamon Dunphy didn’t see it though as Portlaw cut Tramore to ribbons in the opening stages. At one stage I wondered whether Tramore were playing with 14 men, appearing to be physically one short in the full-forward line and mentally one short in every other line as Portlaw got to every ball first and were able to offload with ease. A quick count told me the awful truth – Tramore were simply terrible, and the scoreline of 3-11 to 0-2 after about 20 minutes was ample testimony to that.
Then something strange happened. Tramore’s tiny corner-forward, the same chap who got cleaned out in the previous match that caused the referee to walk off the pitch, or if not him then this twin brother, scored a marvellous Mullanesque over-the-shoulder score and Tramore suddenly went nap, rattling over three further scores without reply to take the bare look off the scoreboard by half-time. You could also see how Tramore’s spirits were lifted by a stunning save by the goalkeeper right at the start of the second half, and the moving of Tramore’s number 6 yielded almost immediate dividends when he pounced on a mis-hit free for a goal. It was soon evident that he was the star of the show for Tramore as his possessing of excellent ball-winning ability and the vision to pick out a teammate in space allowed Tramore to at least keep up with Portlaw on a point-for-point basis. Thus when the Portlaw goalie made a horrible blunder in dropping a routine catch right on his own line – who’d be a goalkeeper? – to gift Tramore a second goal, the gap was trimmed to nine points and for one brief moment you wondered whether we could pull off an astonishing comeback.
What’s this ‘we’ business, pale face? When it looked like Tramore might be good it becomes ‘we’, eh? And, alas, ‘we’ weren’t having these thoughts for long as a fourth Portlaw goal put the kibosh on them. The game petered out after this, an off-the-ball incident which had the Tramore bench in an uproar and led to what looked like a conference between the various parties on how to deal with it being the most noteworthy incident – another sign of the difficulty of having only one official at a game, and this was a much more civilised way of dealing with it.
Overall, it was a great experience. I expected to feel kinda pleased with myself for making a contribution, however small, to grassroots of the GAA rather than just turning up in Thurles and Croke Park a couple of times of year. No less a figure than John Galvin was an umpire on the day, so to be following in the footsteps of as legendary a Waterford Gael as himself was very satisfying indeed. What I couldn’t have hoped for, or at least demanded, was that it would be such an entertaining sixty minutes of sport. I wasn’t being facetious when comparing it to the Champions League final. Two teams evenly(ish) matched, keeping it clean, and attacking at every opportunity is a recipe for a good spectacle, and if the stakes weren’t quite so high nor the stage as cathedral-like as Wembley, it was still worthwhile. Did Homer not make the Iliad from such a local row?
There was also an unexpected bonus. I’ve often wondered whether I was a small bit thick that I couldn’t read the game in the way someone like Giveitfong can do. I put it down to getting too caught up in the intensity of Waterford matches to take time to analyse the game properly. That, and being a small bit thick. This may still be true but watching this game, in so far as I could with having to keep an eye on Ernie and Bert (NB not their real names), was most revealing. Not only were we close enough to literally touch the players if you had a hurley in hand, but the slower pace at this level meant you could understand so much more. Gaps in lines became obvious. The players who were on top stuck out, as did the players who were struggling badly. So this is where you learn about the game! You learn a new thing every day . . . many more lessons needed.