Saturday 15 December 2018

Comment: Maybe it's time for GAA to draw lots or the two captains have a best-of-three warm wrestle

Colin Ryan scores the winning point for Limerick during sudden death in the free-taking competition after yesterday’s league quarter-final against Clare. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Colin Ryan scores the winning point for Limerick during sudden death in the free-taking competition after yesterday’s league quarter-final against Clare. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

Back in January in Nowlan Park Kilkenny and Wexford found that even a Walsh Cup final could get the blood pumping. These counties have brought a renewed spark to their rivalry in the last 12 months and on a cold Saturday on a wet pitch they did not disappoint. Those who braved the conditions to pay through the turnstiles couldn't have asked for much more.

A coltish Kilkenny and under-strength Wexford immersed themselves fully and produced a match of unnatural bite and intensity for the time of year. Sensing a Kilkenny side well up for it, and dominating in the early stages, Davy Fitzgerald brought on a number of his old guard, including Lee Chin, before the game's end.

And the game's end was a talking point. Extra-time failed to separate the teams after they finished level and by then you could see that neither looked willing to surrender it too easily. Kilkenny were looking to send a message back to Wexford that they hadn't gone away, having suffered league and championships losses to them in 2017, and the visitors were hoping to knock another hole in their confidence. Those ingredients made for a captivating contest. 

Then up they stepped for the game's decisive moment. The players assembled in the middle of the field and to an empty goal they began, one by one, until five from each had struck a free towards a goal manned only by the match umpires 65m away. After a heartwarming game filled with adrenaline it felt cold, anti-climatic, surreal.

On Sunday last this piece of weird theatre re-emerged when Limerick were marginally better than Clare at scoring 65s after the teams had hurled themselves to a standstill over 100 minutes play. Maybe when the idea was being mooted it seemed to have the potential to enhance as well as decide matches but it is clear that in the former task it falls well short of the required standard. As a spectacle it is not much more exciting than watching the teams draw lots. Or the two captains have a best-of-three warm wrestle. 

Ger Loughnane mentioned in his newspaper column the possibility of the decision not to go for penalties as a means of deciding a winner as being potentially based on fears that it might be too similar to soccer. That is a plausible explanation knowing elements within the GAA. But if so it is ironic that hurling penalties were reformed following the Nash cannonballs which in many ways increased the excitement of this particular feature of the game and made it unavoidably more like soccer in construct. So why diminish it?

And if we wanted something more authentically Gaelic to decide a match then find something more exciting - set-dancing maybe.

The trouble with 65s is while their execution demands a level of  skill and nerve, one exceptionally observed in the Limerick-Clare game, they lack the essential ingredient of being a captivating spectacle. 

And the main reason for this is that spectators can't see the ball in flight most of the time, due to the angle they may be viewing from (unless directly behind or in front) whether the ball has gone inside or outside the post. Eve then they may struggle to see it. For many of the paying customers, and those watching on television, they are effectively rendered surplus to events until the umpire makes the signal. 

Instead, you see the player shaping up, you might try to gauge from his posture and lifting action if he has made a clean enough strike, but there is no sense of real engagement. The penalty is a more intimate experience. Watching the 65 is like being too far away at a concert from the stage. You are there but you cannot really see it or feel it for yourself. 

In Kilkenny in January the striking wasn't in the same league as it was in Limerick. Players who were knocking them over for fun in the match itself suddenly lost their knack. Of course it was a new experience, and they had nothing to prepare for it, but after a really enjoyable match it was like the ending had been totally messed up and all the effort dishonoured, Not intentionally of course. Just an idea someone had that has in practice proven utterly lacking in the fundamentals of any exciting match-deciding set-piece. 

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