Hurling is a tough game. Few are more attritional. Few are more confrontational in their nature.
Fellas get hurt when ash is wielded, sometimes seriously. It’s a risk that every player, even if it’s in the recesses of his mind, is aware of before strapping up and togging out.
Let’s get one thing straight: players that go out to deliberately hurt opponents have no place in any game.
They should be punished accordingly and take their punishment like grown adults, as opposed to trying to avail of every possible legal avenue to avoid serving a suspension.
Those that refuse the nobler path, when the facts against them are so clearly irrefutable, are a disgrace to their respective sports.
Which brings me on to this week’s two center, inspired by a comment made by Liam Griffin in last weekend’s Sunday Tribune.
In his column, the former Wexford hurling manager wrote: “May players who carry on like a couple of the Waterford players did prior to the throw-in in last year’s All-Ireland final be punished for bringing the game into disrepute.
“What happened there, and in the Kerry/Cork football semi-final, was disgusting, low-life stuff that should be stamped out immediately. Disturbingly, those players all walked free.”
Low-life? Walked free? You’d think it was men carrying rocket propelled grenade launchers the hotelier was talking about when referencing both these particular games.
Nobody died after all – indeed, no one was even bloodied, so methinks Mr Griffin ought to get a grip.
In saying that, from a Waterford perspective, there are few who would defend what went on before the All-Ireland final.
An already clearly nervous Waterford side were instructed to do something which didn’t naturally fit with the way they’ve approached their big encounters over the past decade. You just don’t bully Kilkenny that way. One hopes it will prove a lesson learned for ’09.
The 1998 Munster final aside, it’s difficult to recall a significant summer fracas involving the Deisemen. Their hurling has done the talking and they’ve earned the admiration of the GAA public in so doing.
But to describe what went on as “bringing the game into disrepute” is, in my view, an exaggeration. Why? Because the heavy handed approach has always been, however regrettably, part of the game.
As long as there’s been organised sport in Ireland, players have, on occasion, been punched off the ball, had hurleys broken off their backs and had kicks landed on any number of bodily locations.
Given Griffin’s sentiment, one would think that the likes of what went on before last year’s hurling decider had never before occurred in either code.
There have been incidents on GAA fields, a good deal of them away from packed stadia and TV cameras, of an incrementally graver nature than last September’s admittedly unpleasant scenes. Many of those responsible, to use Griffin’s phrase, have also “walked free”.
Regrettably, a little like the on-the-take politician who remains a poll topper come election time, those responsible for wild swings and rabbit punches tend to be hailed as heroes in many a parish.
Forget not that this island of saints and scholars has produced rogues and rascals in equal measure and, for whatever reason; they’re as loved as they are maligned.
‘Getting away with murder’
Few Kilkenny players of this or any generation would fall into that category, but no one could argue that they’ve taken tackling to an entirely different level under Brian Cody.
In keeping with their colours, the Cats ‘swarm’ all over their opponents and have made an art out of staying (just about) on the legal side of physicality.
If they can grab an opponents’ hurley unsighted from the referee, they’ll do it. Just like any team in pursuit of victory, you do what you have to do to win. Shrinking violets don’t win three-in-a-rows. And it’s not exclusively a GAA phenomenon.
For example, take Richie McCaw, captain of the New Zealand rugby team, widely hailed as the greatest player in the world.
To every non-Kiwi, McCaw is equally hailed for “getting away with murder” at the breakdown, being consistently offside and, like any good captain, for getting on the referee’s sunny side.
“He’s world class, and he plays right on the edge,” said Australia coach John Connolly, being a tad diplomatic towards his antipodean neighbour.
England’s Elite Rugby Director Rob Andrew discarded the UN route in New Zealand last summer when it was put to him that the visiting English were cynical tacklers.
“I’m going to give Richie McCaw an England shirt so when he comes in on our side he’s got a white shirt on,” said Andrew, echoing a chorus that’s rung around the rugby world for a few years now.
Looking a little closer to home, Munster back row Alan Quinlan regularly teeters on the brink of a sin bin trip given his, shall we say, ‘eagerness’ at the breakdown.
Granted, what McCaw and Quinlan do is not nearly as cynical as landing a haymaker on an opponent, but what they do is conducted in the pursuit of victory.
Managers and players know the score. They know what they can get away with when the time demands it. And anything that nudges your team closer to the finish line will be availed of. It goes with the territory.
Liam Griffin has won at the highest level. He knows what it’s all about. He’s managed the steeliest of men and when the time called for what’s become known as controlled aggression to be availed of; his Wexford team did what was required. You don’t win All-Ireland titles without that quality.
Teams perceived to be physically ‘soft’ rarely if ever land the big prize, but ‘cute’ teams have by contrast, succeeded. Now, more than ever, technique and strength, sprinkled with a decent dash of cunning go hand-in-hand when it comes to winning the blue riband competitions.
Kilkenny have mastered every possible facet when it comes to modern hurling, but that’s not to say they’re a dirty team. They’ve set the bar that every team must aspire to reaching, all done by operating within the rules as so governed by officials.
Everything they’ve done has been crafted to produce success, and by golly they’ve ticked every box going in that respect.
And, as Liam Griffin knows better than I, hurling is a tough game; always has been, always will be.
And nothing short of a fundamental reclassification of what constitutes foul play will change the off-the-ball stuff that goes on in our games – be it before the throw-in or during a game.