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On The Line: Dónal Óg Cusack On Hurling

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

SEPTEMBER MEANS STRIPES

All these years living under the rule of Kilkenny. It’s getting hard to remember any other time. Hard to remember another way. September means stripes. Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome but even those of us who have lost to them and been trampled by them, we have come to appreciate them.

I’ve been to Nowlan Park for some good days and I’ve been there for some very bad days but last Saturday night I was there just to watch. It was brilliant.

Some of us are dreamers and when we dream we give out the old ráiméis about the culture of hurling and how we are going to achieve it or revive it. Saturday in Nowlan Park was full of that culture. It was the first half of a weekend that reminded me what hurling is and could be if we grow it the right way.

I was in the ground 90 minutes before throw-in but so was just about everybody else. There was no warm-up act and there was no premium level for grazing and drinking. Just 24,000 people almost trembling with excitement. It was tribal.

First the announcer. There are changes on the team tonight. Gasp. Nothing more. He plays the crowd beautifully. Just the hint that Henry Shefflin is in the building tonight.

Tipp were cheered off after coming out for a puck-around. Cheered like Christians showing up to fight the lions. Tipp had just gone back in when there was an announcement to watch out for pick pockets. Deep in enemy territory worried men, Tipp men were patting themselves down checking for their 20 Major and their €20, and their kidneys and liver. Tipp men knowing that worse was to come.

GOD IN HIS HEAVEN

Kilkenny came out to a standing ovation, a huge roaring, standing ovation from the heart. The public address system crackled. It was announced that No. 28 would be Henry Shefflin. Madness. I was reminded of stories my father used to tell me when I was a kid in the Cork crowd in the old Athletic Grounds on big days when Christy Ring would hit the grass running. The way my father described the roar used to make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Our giant, our warrior, our genius. He was playing and everything was going to be grand. God in his heaven.

On Saturday night I got to experience that sound, that expectation. I watched Henry as Kilkenny warmed up. You could see he wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t 100 per cent but he was there. We could see him and Tipperary would be waiting every minute of the 70, waiting for the announcement that coming on as a sub for Kilkenny was Henry Shefflin.

Another announcement. Four minutes to the national anthem. I’ve never heard this announced before. Have you? On that note a couple of Kilkenny players broke from warm-up and disappeared down to the toilets like it was a drill. Then Henry made his way to the stands. The roar that went up as he walked up the steps with the other subs was as if they had never seen the man walk before.

I knew by then that whatever bit of heart Tipp had brought with them onto the pitch the pick pockets had got their hands on it before throw-in. They played with all the usual hints about their brilliance and their potential but they didn’t play with the bloodlust and passion that Kilkenny played with. Ultimately they fought hard and had opportunities but they never wanted it more than Kilkenny wanted it.

In the culture of hurling when you strip away the tactics (and Kilkenny are masters of tactics no matter what they say) and the drills, the will and the passion is still there. Kilkenny are slower than they were and the goals are hard to come by but nothing in them was going to let it end right here. Not in Nowlan Park. Not to Tipperary. No way.

This was the Coliseum. It was raw and it was mad. I loved it. It was what hurling is and what hurling can be. We need to grow that culture. We need to remember that hurling is native to ourselves alone but it isn’t just sport - it’s poetry and music and dance and war and culture. The greatest game in the world. We should be bringing it to the world or bringing the world to hurling. Wouldn’t it have been fitting if Michelle Obama and her daughters had been brought to a coliseum of hurling instead of meeting Bono in a Dalkey pub? Then they’d know us as we really are.

BELONGING AT THE TOP TABLE

On to Sunday then. I have to confess I have a soft spot for Dublin hurling. Last year when I was injured I had the good fortune on a visit to a Dublin Hospital to run into Des ‘Snitchie’ Ferguson and his wife, Máire. We had a grand chat and I came away with a bit of a feel for the lost history of hurling in Dublin.

‘Snitchie’ played for Dublin for about 13 years including the campaign of 1961 when they last won Leinster and went on to lose an All-Ireland final to Tipperary by a single point. That was a great team with the Foleys, Lar and Des, the Fergusons, ‘Snitchie’ and Liam, and the Boothmans, Achille and Bernie.

In the past Dublin teams had been made up almost only of country lads playing in the city. In 1952, Dublin played Cork in an All-Ireland final and the mix was about half and half. The 1961 team belonged to Dublin though. They lost that day though by a point after Lar Foley got sent off and for some reason the history of Dublin hurling went into a cul de sac.

On Sunday it was a gracious reminder of that history to see Jimmy Grey, the goalkeeper from 1961 and a great GAA man, present the Bob O’Keeffe Cup to Johnny McCaffrey. The kid hopping a ball on his stick as he walks through Crumlin, Kilmacud or wherever walks in the footsteps of great hurlers who went before. Sunday joined up Dublin with its own history and reminded us that Dublin have as great a right to be at the top table as any county.

And the top table of hurling needs them. It needs for Dublin to be there permanently. It needs for the rest of us to stop saying that the traditional hurling county played badly any time Dublin beat them. It needs for us to stop saying, ‘Sure it’s good for hurling anyway that they won’. Hurling needs for the rest of us to hate Dublin for being so good. Hurling needs a big, swaggering Dublin team with big, recognisable personalities. Hurling needs for the rest of us to know that Dublin IS a traditional hurling county and they’ve worked harder than anybody to revive that tradition.

Last weekend was a landmark in hurling. Kilkenny are waning but they are still defiant and magnificent, and so worth beating. As they decline we are getting to see that they were the tide that lifted many boats. So many counties have had to up their game, have had to learn to do things better. The young hurlers coming through today are a gifted generation. Again we have to take this opportunity and run with it. Be brave, use our imaginations and make sure the tide never goes out again.

EBB AND FLOW

Galway should be part of it but they have to figure it out. They are more tidal than any county. Like Tipp, they have the players to get the job done but the beauty of hurling is those few percentage points of the X factor, the right stuff, the thing we can’t define.

On Sunday they were betwixt and between with what to do about Joe Canning. There is an outcry if Joe isn’t left standing on the edge of the square in every game because, ‘that’s where he’ll do most damage’. Galway sometimes give in to that outcry but standing on the edge of the square if you have Peter Kelly beside you and another back dropping in front of you with any sight of danger is hard even on Joe. It’s worse when the ball coming in is straight down the middle leaving Joe with having to win it and then turn 360 degrees to get a shot off.

Joe needs to be dragging defenders around the place and leaving big gaps behind. Give him the right ball when his body position is right and he’ll score from the dressing room. On Sunday he had 24 plays and exactly half of them resulted in a negative outcome.

(And while we're at it I think constantly going for points from sideline cuts is almost an indulgence. If a score from a sideline cut was worth two points, which I wouldn’t support, it might be worth it but there are more productive and more creative things to be done with sideline cuts).

The uncertainty about Joe is typical of Galway’s problem though and it is a lesson to Dublin for the rest of the summer. Dublin have learned in the last few weeks to open their shoulders and go out and hurl with passion and joy and defiance. When they are doing that, the tactics and the patterns fall into place. It doesn’t happen the other way around.

Most of the counties left standing this summer could do with remembering that lesson. Last weekend was unforgettable but the real lessons weren’t just on the field, they were in the atmosphere and singing on the wires. In our time of cynicism and austerity, the country might be just about ready to fall in love with hurling again.

This is the first of Dónal Óg Cusack's exclusive 'On The Line' hurling columns in 2013, which will feature on GAA.ie throughout the summer. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and are not necessarily those of the Association.




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