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The Trojan Horse of Tradition

Published 6 months ago 20th February 2022 by Ronan Quirke

What do you regard as a traditional hurling county? You hear them mentioned regularly but who are the members of this exclusive club? You hear a lot of talk about traditional hurling or orthodox hurling but what does any of this mean? Let’s start with the traditional hurling counties.

Here in Tipperary we regard ourselves as being rightful members of this club but who else is included? Cork and Kilkenny? Anyone else? Is it because these three counties have amassed 94 senior hurling titles between them? Tipperary lie third on the list with 28, Limerick are fourth on only 10 titles. So is Limerick a traditional hurling county? I would say yes. Hurling competes with rugby for the affection of the Limerick faithful but they are no less passionate about their hurling than we are in Tipperary.

So can we please stop using the term ‘traditional hurling counties’ because membership of this rather exclusive club seems dependent on success rather than tradition. Take Clare as an example, with their rather paltry four senior titles, three of which have been secured in an eighteen year period and the second in 1995 coming after an 81 year gap. Their record is less than that of Dublin who have 6 titles and I don’t think anyone includes Dublin on their list of traditional hurling counties.

But would we even have a game of hurling at all were it not for a Clare native? Michael Cusack was not alone in reviving the game at the end of the nineteenth century but his fingerprints are all over it and were it not for his enthusiasm for hurling it might never have been revived at all.

In his excellent book, The Hurlers, Prof. Paul Rouse, chronicles the development of modern hurling and he makes specific reference to the game in East Galway in the late 1880’s. Galway have only won five senior All Ireland titles, they lie seventh on the role of honour but as a county they have done as much for the game as anyone and should be regarded as a traditional hurling county.

While we are at it should we just include any county that has won an All-Ireland Senior Hurling title into the club that is the traditional hurling counties. If so, come forward Kerry (1891), London (1901), Laois (1915), and Waterford (1948 and 1959). Welcome to the club. Where all opinions are welcomed as long as they conform to hurling orthodoxy. And thanks for all your efforts Antrim, thanks for keeping the game going in the Glens but without an All-Ireland win, you are not part of the club of the traditional counties. We, at the top table, will continue to talk down to you, patronise you and occasionally tell you that you don’t know the game like we do.

In Tipp we go one further and tell ourselves that we are the home of hurling. To quote Paul Rouse, ‘The idea of their own pre-eminence was a burden carried lightly by the people of Tipperary: it was seen by them as a simple matter of fact.’

Well, what was not carried so lightly by the people of Tipperary was the first half of the National Hurling League Division 1B clash between Tipperary and Kilkenny last Sunday. Both sets of supporters (surely fully fledged members of the traditional hurling counties club) voiced their discontent with the style of hurling employed by both teams. Short hand passing, short puck-outs (or restarts as the modern vernacular demands), playing through the lines, had the Tipperary and Kilkenny faithful perplexed. ‘Will you for Christ’s sake drive the ball’. Well if I heard that once, I heard it several dozen times last Sunday. So, is there a quiet revolution taking place in plain sight on the likes of Tom Semple’s Field and the pitch that bears James Nowlan’s name? Probably. Because both counties are now trying to employ a style of play that is somewhat alien to the players and absolutely alien to the supporters. The days of hit it long and win your own ball are over. And they have been for some time. Between 2009 and 2016 Tipperary and Kilkenny set the bar for hurling counties. Aggressive front foot hurling, 15 on 15, man on man, whatever terminology you like. had us all enthralled. Look back at three games in particular. The final of 2009 and 2010 and the drawn final of 2014. Maybe this was hurling at its epoch. The most brilliant manifestation of the ancient game. Played out by, not only the finest hurlers of the 21 st century, but some of the finest hurlers ever.

But that is now confined to history. The game has changed. Waterford developed a sweeper system that most counties now employ. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when we saw it first but Tipperary had a sweeper last Sunday. When Limerick developed a fast hard running game that was hugely dependent on short hand passing, the traditional hurling counties labelled it as ‘tippy- tappy hurling’. So now we have to welcome the traditional hurling counties to the tippy-tappy club.

The common consensus is that Limerick have set the bar and if you are going to topple the champions then you have to beat them at their own game. And so the Limerick model is the one that every county is trying to emulate, albeit a good few years behind the All Ireland Champions. Of course the evolution of the Limerick style of hurling owes much to an abdication by officials on enforcing the hand pass rule but if you cannot beat them….? Tipperary and Kilkenny looked laboured in their efforts to execute their new system last Sunday. The second half saw more variation but the tone was set in the first half.

Speaking on Extra Time last Monday, former Tipperary defender Paddy Stapleton acknowledged that both sides were playing with, nay experimenting with, a style that was alien to them. And he also
articulated a view that for too long Tipperary have played the ball too long. He explained how easy it is for a back to defend the long ball into a big man, a style of hurling that has no place in the modern game. So when the crowds cry ‘drive it’ they are essentially asking for possession to be forfeit. And hurling is learning from Gaelic football in that regard. More prudent use of the sliotar, more considered delivery of ball into the forward line will be key for Tipperary to stay at the top table with the emerging threats from Waterford and Galway to Limerick’s supremacy.

Did Limerick really change the narrative of hurling in the last five years? I think not. Here is an
excerpt from and interview John Fogarty of the Irish Examiner did with Michael Babs Keating a few years ago. “(Mick) Roche turns to me and says, ‘The first ball I get, you look out for me and I’ll put it in your pocket’. I can still remember him leading them and he waited and waited and he put it in there (points to his hip) and I stuck it in the net. The second one the same.” This was Babs describing the Munster Final in 1971 against Limerick. As a forward, Babs did not want long, hit and hope, balls that he would have to chase and win. He deplored the mentality of defenders who thought ‘ ‘I had to get it — can’t you go and get it as well.’ This style that Babs was describing in 1971 was crystalised by Eamon O’Shea during his tenure as coach and manager of the Tipperary teams. On the eve of the 2010 final his final words to the team was simple, ‘attack, attack, attack’. But the methods employed were far from simple.
If you remember Lar’s second goal that day, the ball was played in By Gearoid Ryan to Noel McGrath. Look back on the trajectory of that ball into Noel. It was the antithesis of hit and hope. It was measured, composed, low in flight and deadly accurate. Of course Noel had work to do in order to feed the ball to Lar, best summed up by Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh who described it as the ‘pass of a piano player’.
Last summer we executed this sort of game plan in fits and starts and seemed to abandon it completely in the final quarter against Waterford. An inability to be flexible and to add variety to our play cost us dearly. Perhaps we reverted to an orthodox style of hurling. One that is very much part of the hurling DNA in Tipperary. And I am sure that lessons have been learned. Not only by Colm Bonnar but also by Brian Cody. If Cody is willing to alter his playing style after winning 11 All Ireland titles with Kilkenny then we can be sure that the game has changed and Tipperary and Kilkenny (founder members of the traditional hurling counties club) are embarked on their own change process. And one feels the players know it too and change is driven as much by them as by management.

So perhaps the changes we have seen in hurling have come from outside of the traditional hurling counties club. Orthodox hurling has been redefined and we can no longer bask in our trojan horse of tradition.

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