Summer 2018 produced arguably the greatest feast of hurling in living memory.
The revamped Munster championship in particular saw a plethora of standout moments, from an epic battle on Leeside between Cork and Limerick, the drama of Jake Morris and Ian Galvin in Thurles, Clare’s demolition of Limerick in Cusack Park, and that Tipperary ghost goal in the Gaelic Grounds. That’s before we mention the two epics battles between Clare and Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final, the drama of Limerick’s comeback against Cork, and the bated breaths as Joe Canning’s free made its way towards the Canal End in the dying moments of the final. It was exhilarating, unpredictable and as red hot as the weather.
Pundits and players alike hailed the hurling year, while the football fraternity looked on with envy. The Super Eights were arguably saved by David Clifford’s late goal in Clones, as the young pretender ensured that the final round of group games didn’t amount to a dead rubber. The Dubs coasted to yet another All-Ireland, as the rest of the chasing pack struggled to keep up. It prompted something of a winter of discontent for the big ball game, as new rules were trialled and debated and ultimately, in the case of the hand-pass limit, were scrapped. Football needs to be fixed we were told, as playing the ball by hand became the modus non grata and defensive systems prevailed.
It prompted Pat Spillane, who is one of the greatest footballers of all time, to declare in a recent column “Hurling might be portrayed as the greatest field game in the world, but on the basis of what I witnessed it is not the Shangri-La game it is made out to be”. His basic premise was that he watched a lot of hurling league action and both Fitzgibbon Cup semi-finals the previous week, which was a break week in the National football league. He pondered if referees in hurling really bothered applying the rules at all, but I am sure most would agree that sometimes they apply them without actually really thinking about it. Pat also quibbled that the lack of relegation from the top tier was leading to games of no real intensity, and was we know, Pat loves intensity.
He closed his argument by proclaiming that football, which he feels is viewed as the black sheep of the GAA, is not too bad at all. It got me thinking, why does an Us vs Them mentality still prevail in the GAA?
Take it on a local level. There are those who travel from the deepest parts of Loop Head to support the Clare hurlers all over the country, while believe it or not, the east Clare presence at football games is steadily growing. Look at the amount of dual players we have in Clare, both at adult and underage level. It seems baffling that pundits are so entrenched in defending “their” sport that the bigger picture seems to be forgotten. Why can’t we just enjoy both games for what they are without the needless mentality of “my toy is better than yours”? Both codes have their issues, of that there is no doubt. As we have written about in these pages more than once, the structures of the football championship are well past their sell-by date and need to be revamped urgently. Hopefully the soundings from Congress about exploring a two tier championship will be the starting point. Clamping down on sliotars being thrown rather than hand-passed is certainly something hurling needs to address, along with the spare hand tackle that seems to have become almost par for the course in recent times. That’s where the focus of the pundits should lie, rather than being jealous of their neighbour’s imaginary holiday to Tibet.
An interview with legendary jockey Ruby Walsh surfaced recently where he was having a right old ding-dong battle with former Channel 4 racing pundit John McCririck. The basic disagreement was that McCririck felt Walsh was owned by the punters who backed him in races, which the Kildare man disagreed with. He said his loyalties lay solely with the owners and trainers of the horses he was aboard, as they were the one putting money back into the sport of racing. He felt punters pay the bookies, who in turn don’t contribute to the game they make their earnings from.
It’s hard not to agree with Walsh’s thoughts on what he owes the punters who back him. Gamblers gamble, but a sportsperson’s primary goal is to win. They are two completely separate entities. For example, is it of any concern to Tony Kelly or Gary Brennan this weekend if someone has put their weeks wages on Clare to win? Absolutely not. Why then should be it be of any concern to Ruby Walsh or any other sportsperson for that matter? And while we are on it, there can be no doubt but that the saturation of bookmakers in media sports advertising will soon be viewed in the same light as the cigarette and alcohol companies. Gambling was never more accessible than it is now, and gambling addiction was never more prominent. It is something that needs to be addressed urgently.