Wednesday 21 February 2018

Billy Keane: Babe Joe's pitch and putt recipe the only way to beat the sweeper

Tipp's Brendan Maher Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Tipp's Brendan Maher Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

There's a small parallelogram up near the left corner-back position on this laptop and it's there you will find the font, and not a drop of holy water in it.

The font is the type of print used in the page. The font is the facade. It is the words that really count.

Hurling is all about substance. Show is for keepy-uppies and circus ponies but now it seems there's a great debate raging. Is hurling changing into a garrison sport with too many defenders? And is it changing for the worse?

On this the Munster final weekend, the most traditional of them all, many hurling people are scared that it is not the just the font that is on the move, but the story of the ancient game itself.

There are thousands who would love to slap a preservation order on the oldest game or attach house arrest ankle bands to players with terrible sanctions if they leave home. In a world that is moving quicker now than at any time since I was born, we look for constants like the first feed of new potatoes in the summer, or the first swim in Ballybunion, or the smell of the grass when the field has dried out enough to be cut for football.

Hurling it seems is becoming defensive. I was a late convert and now that I've seen the light it is my opinion that there is no finer game. But here are some observations from an outsider who only ever used the bas of the hurley for taking the froth off a pint.

There was a restaurant near us and the proprietor was one Babe Joe Wilmot. Babe Joe took up pitch and putt at the age of 70. I loved playing with Babe Joe. She was always full of encouragement and every time one of her playing companions hit a good shot she would shout out, "Lovely hurling, John Joe". We were all John Joes.

Babe Joe played camogie for the county in her youth and she loved hurling. Her favourite player was Eddie Keher and she gave out when Eddie was downed back in the days when helmets were only worn by soldiers and corner-backs were dropped if they didn't draw blood.

Eddie was pumping but he played a blinder. "You couldn't beat Eddie," said Babe Joe, "because they have no step ladders. He can hit the sliotar over their heads."

Makes sense to me. It's the only way to beat sweepers and the four-and-a-halves. If Jose Mourinho can cut players in two well then so can we. Jose said he might play Wayne Rooney as a nine-and-a-half. The sweepers in hurling are usually parked in front of the full-forward line hence four-and-a-half.

And the stepladder theory might save hurling from the excesses of the domineering managers who bridle their players with those harnesses like you'd see strapped on to kids to stop them from running. I can't think of a worse way of minding children.

Freedom to think and play needs trust. When managers spancel their players they are effectively saying, 'You're not good enough'.

Until relatively recently hurlers defended by attacking the ball.

Tomorrow Waterford and Tipp might play a sweeper. Last year in Thurles both sides started with an extra man in defence. The hurling people were appalled. I could only laugh.

Defeatist football managers pack defences. It's as if a whole team piled into the snug for a pint and you have to drink from a straw as there's no room to lift the elbow.

Hurling isn't near as bad but the men with small minds will change the game if they're let.

Babe Joe's swing was no more than the flick of a smoker taking off the top ash but she still got the ball to rise up vertically like a helicopter.

Up over the summer branches she sailed. Her gallery of small boys watched and waited. Then when the ball would plop on the green all us young lads would shout out, "Lovely hurling, Babe Joe".

She didn't have any kids of her own and I suppose we were all her kids.

Her theory works. The only way to beat the sweepers is to puck the ball over their heads.

Babe Joe had only ever the one dish on at any one time in her aten' house on Church Street. The customer was from a city where the menus are longer than the wish-lists of independent TDs.

The diner asked to see the menu.

"It's take it or leave it," replied Babe Joe. Which reply, now that I come to think of it, might just be the correct response to some of the independent TDs.

And it's take it or leave it too for you when it comes to my hurling appraisals.

So we propose that there should be an extra point for scores pucked over from outside the 65-metre line. The new rule would suck defenders further out the field to mark the longbow men.

The Munster hurling championship is a prize all on its own. There's no better day out. Glory awaits at the gates of the city of Limerick where the lore of sporting history is known by rote and every citizen stores old stories.

I love the Gaelic Grounds. The fans can smell the sweat, and breathe as one with their players' plaintive gasps. The hurling folk can be sure their every cheer will be heard on the field that's near enough to touch.

I can see Babe Joe now in the ghostlands of fondest recollection. She's with her palomino terrier Tommy and the two of them are watching the hurling.

Here's hoping we will witness the game played at its finest, and we might even get to hear the famous roar - "Lovely hurling, John Joe".

Irish Independent

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