Eamonn Sweeney: 'Hurling must face up to its damp squibs and cynicism'
It is easy to get carried away by hurling. When the classics are coming one after another as they did last summer it seems like the greatest game in the world, unimprovable in any way. Yet this weekend showed a couple of chinks in hurling's armour which have the potential to drag it down. We have, for example, now had four boring Munster Championship games in a row.
Its 12-point average winning margin makes the Munster hurling series the most one-sided provincial competition in either code. With all the talk about the football Championship containing so many uncompetitive games that it needs to be split into tiers, hurling's elite have produced an even more unbalanced competition. The jewel in the crown of 2018 has turned into the damp squib of 2019.
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The worrying thing about the apparent decline of Clare and Waterford is that if it continues, the new Championship format that seemed so perfect last year will look pointless. Why bother playing 10 games when the three qualifiers are already obvious?
Clare's loss of resilience is particularly unexpected and alarming. Last week's defeat by Tipperary was their worst in Munster since 2004. This week's reverse was the heaviest since the infamous final when Nicky English chortled apocryphally at them.
That was in 1993 when the Banner's favourite adopted son hadn't even started work on the Trump Tower and his lovely wife was a teenager who had yet to visit New York, let alone Doonbeg.
Meanwhile, in Leinster a wonderful game was marred in its closing stages by the decision of Galway to stifle Kilkenny's comeback with systematic cynical fouling.
The worst examples came in the 63rd minute when Billy Ryan was pulled down by Pádraig Mannion as he tried to set up Pádraig Walsh for a goal, and at the beginning of injury-time when TJ Reid was hauled down in a fashion which would have provoked much sermonising about unforgivable gamesmanship had it happened in an Ulster football game.
There was also a surpassingly sneaky trip by Aidan Harte which led to a reaction by Ger Aylward which got the Kilkenny forward sent off for a second yellow card. Ref Colm Lyons then added insult to injury by using up a large chunk of injury-time booking two Galway players and arguing with Reid about the placement of the free.
No time was added for all this carry-on and Kilkenny, one point down and in possession when the final whistle blew, were entitled to feel aggrieved. It was perhaps the worst use of injury-time I've seen by any ref in any sport in a long time.
Kilkenny can't bask in moral outrage over Galway's fouls. The visitors' behaviour at the end was mirrored by the home team's at the start, with Paul Murphy pulling down Jason Flynn in the fifth minute when the full-forward looked through on goal.
This type of foul shows why hurling badly needs a black card rule. But the very contemplation of such a rule meets with the utter disdain of Hurling Man, who insists his sport is entirely unsullied by the unsporting attitudes which bedevil its ugly sister. He swears a black card rule would inflict terrible damage on hurling.
This is balls, of course. It's hard to see how hurling is in any way improved because a defender beaten in a dangerous position has the option to rugby tackle his opponent. How would the game have been worsened had Flynn been allowed to go for goal or Ryan been protected by a defender's hesitation to find himself banished?
The deterrent effect of probable expulsion was obvious when Conor Whelan turned Murphy five minutes after the foul on Flynn. Already on a yellow, Murphy hesitated to drag Whelan down so the Galwayman had the chance to beat Donal Brennan.
It's suggested that a black card might dilute the level of 'Manliness' (that most sacred of all substances) in hurling. But where's the 'manliness' in a defender cheating? Preserving the physical element in hurling and letting the game flow is important, but the professional foul is another thing altogether. It's nothing more than a mean-spirited admission of inferiority.
There's been some head scratching of late about the paucity of goals in hurling and suggestions that awarding five points for them might encourage forwards to be bolder. But the biggest deterrent to the green flag is the felling of forwards in a position to raise one.
A black card would redress the balance in favour of the attacker. A forward going up against a goalkeeper is a much more exciting sight than a free-taker tapping over from close range.
Don't hold your breath waiting for change. The fierce resistance to any alterations to hurling's rules stems from a refusal to admit that there can be anything at all wrong with the world's fastest field game. A black card would be a blasphemous object to those who believe in the hurler as not just the most skilful of sportsmen, but also in some way a purer and more heroic spirit.
It would be an admission of equality which, in the mind of Hurling Man, would be as bad as inferiority.
But there's nothing so perfect in this world that it can't benefit from change. Not even hurling. Honest.