Where other sports are merely games

The world of hurling was a seam running through our lives.

Sean Dunne.

Hurling was our game.

Donal Foley.

EMERGING FROM the blizzard of white and blue that is Waterford these days, we thought we’d give an ear to a couple of the natives and their thoughts on the game ahead of the All-Ireland final, the two men quoted above.

Sean Dunne was a gifted poet who worked for this newspaper before dying tragically young in 1996, still in his thirties. His name as a poet rests on collections like The Sheltered Nest, but he also wrote a lovely, lyrical memoir of growing up in Waterford in the fifties and sixties.

The eagle eye of the poet is much in evidence when it comes to selecting details of childhood, and his father’s love for Erin’s Own GAA club is sketched vividly. Dunne senior contributed club notes to the Waterford News and Star, and his son recalls him turning an image over and over his head: “The players were buzzing like bees around a honey-pot – how does that sound?”

Sean Dunne himself confesses in the book that he didn’t quite pick up the passion to participate in sport, but he enjoyed watching: “I was happy to be a spectator, relishing moments like Martin Óg Morrissey taking a free, or the tension as teams fought for winning scores with only minutes to go in a game.”

Dunne turned early to poetry and headed to university at eighteen, leaving Waterford, but the city left its mark. So did hurling: “No matter how small my talent or how little my interest, it was as much a part of my life as the wallpaper in my bedroom.”

Another snapshot of Waterford life comes in Dunne’s memory of the All-Ireland finalists coming home in 1963, the players on the back of a truck inching its way along the quay having narrowly failed to make it three All-Ireland titles after 1938 and 1959.

DONAL Foley, born in 1922, grew up in Waterford and remembered the 1938 win well, having been present for the first game in the successful campaign, the win over Cork in Dungarvan.

He went onto national fame as a journalist and in his memoir, “Three Villages”, published thirty years ago, he recalls the game-breaker for Waterford – ‘Locky’ Byrne, who won All-Irelands with Kilkenny in 1933, 1935 and 1936 before transferring his allegiance to the Déise.

“He scored three goals that wet June Sunday,” wrote Foley, “with such panache and ease that he seemed that day to have discovered some magic hurling formula all his own.”

Foley’s book offers a neat balance to Dunne’s later work, not least for its insight into how Ferrybank, that vexed territory: Foley’s father chaired a meeting at which some natives of Ferrybank spoke in favour of becoming part of Waterford and some advised remaining in Kilkenny.

The deciding vote was taken in “deep silence”, recalled Foley: “The Waterford side had scored a narrow win. There was no applause, no crowing of one side over the other. But there was great sadness in some hearts that we had turned our backs on home.”

Sporting options were limited in the Ferrybank of the time, he remembered. They were aware of the professional soccer team in Waterford while rugby they regarded as a “game for snobs played by bank clerks”, and Gaelic football a “bastard version of mixed up soccer and rugby” (presumably that was meant in a bad way). One game stood out.

“Other sports were merely games or pastimes. Hurling was different, and a way of life.”

Well put. And well worth remembering this weekend.

Contact michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

Ball in hand, world of trouble

LAST year this column had an interesting chat with Ger Loughnane up in Shannon. Over the toasted special and hot coffee the Galway boss made an interesting observation about primary possession in modern hurling.

“One feature has been the ability of hurlers to win ball out of the air,” said Loughnane in July 2007.

“It’s a skill that’s out of this world. It was never perfected as well as it is now — you have lads flaking on the ball and a small man like Tommy Walsh can reach up and come away with it. It’s phenomenal.”

Far be it from us to contradict Ger, but one impression from last Sunday’s All-Ireland final is that fielding the ball cleanly — particularly among forwards — isn’t the boon it once was.

There’s been a lot of non-specific discussion of what makes Kilkenny so good, ranging from generalised guff about the fact that there’s no other serious challenge to hurling as the top sport in the county to sundry other semi-libellous propositions we need not go into here.

But something Kilkenny do very well is tackling in groups. It’s noticeable that when an opposition player contests his own puck-out, for instance, that Kilkenny players descend on that player from nearby sectors: if a ball is landing on an opposing wing-forward, then, he can expect a Kilkenny corner-back, centre-back, centre-fielder and possibly a wing-forward to join the wing-back marking him.

In that context catching the ball is almost counterproductive. The traditional top outcome for a puck-out is that the target player fields the ball cleanly, turns and then dictates the play up front.

By tackling that puck-out target in numbers, however, Kilkenny make a weakness out of a traditional strength: if the opponent catches the ball cleanly he’s surrounded by at least three opponents and isn’t going anywhere, either coughing up the ball or overcarrying it. If he doesn’t catch the ball cleanly then nine times out of 10 the ball is going to go to one of the rapidly-converging Kilkenny defenders coming to augment the wing-back.

Waterford probably suffered more than most teams last Sunday from that Kilkenny development. In the likes of Seamus Prendergast, Dan Shanahan and Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh they have accomplished catchers of the ball, but outnumbered by Cats time and again, they couldn’t win the ball to establish a bridgehead. To top it off, Tommy Walsh — as described above — and JJ Delaney are superb fielders in their own right. In a 50-50 battle you’d back both of them to win more than their share of ball anyway, and thus it proved in Sunday’s game.

Up front Kilkenny stock their own half-forward line with excellent aerial competitors Martin Comerford and Eoin Larkin are well able to contest the dropping ball, but Henry Shefflin is in a class of his own underneath his own puck-out, with two particularly impressive trademark moves.

Sometimes Shefflin — who stands well over six feet tall — doesn’t engage with his marker in the pushing and shoving underneath a Kilkenny puck-out, waiting until the last possible second to launch himself across the defender to win the ball, his momentum then carrying him into the centre and goalwards.

When the Kilkenny man is caught up in grappling with an opponent, he has a devastating ability to deflect the ball onwards past his man — not with a wild pull but by angling his hurley to bounce the sliotar into space behind him. His size and strength is an asset in this case, as he’s able to keep his hurley steady while holding off his opponent.

Other teams will come up with strategies to combat these developments, but at the moment nobody executes them as well as Kilkenny, so those other counties are suffering.

It would be a source of grim satisfaction to a lot of older hurlers to see the (dis)advantage now gained by catching the ball cleanly counteracted by the grand old art of overhead pulling, which would seem to be one of the few options to get around the group tackling as well.

What money on Brian Cody and his backroom to come up with a way to stay ahead of the posse, however?