Cork legend says hurling on the rocky road to ruin
Damian Lawlor hears Tomás Mulcahy list some major concerns for the game he loves
Tomás Mulcahy is not a happy man. Hurling is his lifelong passion, but with his playing days long over and a lengthy stint in club management just finished, he has become an increasingly frustrated observer of the game he loves.
The former Cork and Glen Rovers stalwart, who is taking up the hurl once more on February 6 along with the likes of Jimmy Barry Murphy and Ger Cunningham when the Cork legends take on the Blackrock Legends in a 'Hurlathon', feels that hurling is destined to serve as the poor relation of the GAA unless urgent changes are made -- and he's definitely not talking about lip service.
From his vantage point, he believes the GAA are now just paying lip service to the game, and he has issued a stern challenge to the Association to, as he sees it, make meaningful attempts to restore hurling to full health.
"I've been looking on as a former player over the years and seen things happening that I didn't agree with," Mulcahy says. "And then as a club manager and county U21 selector I saw more issues crop up. Working with the Sunday Game and RTE gives you a chance to air your grievances, but the series of rule changes over the winter was the final straw as far as I'm concerned. I see hurling going down a route I don't like and I just had to speak up.
"I firmly believe that Christy Ring would turn in his grave if he could see what's happening. Mackey too. Other greats like DJ Carey and John Fenton, who did so much for the game in their time, must also be scratching their heads. It's easy to shoot your mouth off but I have strong feelings on the future of hurling and I want to back them up."
"First off, hurling needs a championship feeling to all of its games and much more pre- and post-match hype and promotion is needed to create a buzz. If this means the back door is eliminated, so be it -- a lot of players are thinking that way now anyway. Maybe it's time for an open draw with just one second back door chance for the losers' group. At least you'd be guaranteed an edge for every game.
"And speaking of a buzz, did hurling see any of it during the 125-year celebrations in comparison to the floodlit games, fireworks and razzmatazz that football received? Nope, hurling was the poor relation again. Can anyone name one outstanding promotion or feature we had for our game throughout the season? All the hype was football-related. Why did we not have fireworks for a hurling game? Surely fixtures don't come any better than Munster hurling final day. Yet there was no particular emphasis on this game or the Leinster final.
"They were just played off as normal. Hurling deserves more than that. Thank God for the All-Ireland final because that occasion had its own fireworks and they were badly needed. The bottom line is that our game is left lurking in the shadow of Gaelic football."
The series of rule changes that will be in play for the forthcoming national leagues have exercised managers of both codes over the winter months, and Mulcahy admits he is not surprised. In fact, he feels the GAA has lost the plot with the introduction of compulsory helmets.
"In 125 years of our Association you could count on one hand the number of serious head injuries suffered by hurlers," he says. "So what message are we sending out to parents of young kids? Everyone has to wear a helmet now so automatically parents will deem ours a very dangerous game and little Johnny will be sent off to play some other sport. Our loss.
"Years ago, Mickey 'The Rattler' Byrne from Tipp described helmets as bird cages and he's right. Players should have the right to decide themselves, particularly at senior level, whether to wear them or not. It's their decision and their risk."
He also reckons that with the helmets, players will have less fear because their faces are protected and so hurling will become more physical in the process.
"I think lads will pull away because you simply can't hurt a player. Just look at American Football where there is no fear because the head is protected when players are jumping into tackles and that. What will the GAA bring in next, shoulder pads and shinguards? Watch this space; it's only a matter of time before we see the first cul baire to don a helmet with a sun visor attached."
The advent of compulsory helmets, he thinks, will leave referees with a lot more on their plate. And he wonders if match officials will be under instruction to deal with any interference to opponents' headgear, like pulling of straps and faceguards or tipping the helmet from behind.
"That stuff will go on even more now," he warned. "But referees should be instructed to issue a straight red card for any such offences. Look what happens when you are caught using your fingers illegally in rugby. You get a lengthy suspension for gouging and this offence in hurling should be in the same category. I'm telling you the side affects will be unsightly."
There's another fear the former Cork star harbours -- that one of the great skills of the game, free-taking, will suffer due to a new rule which prevents forward movement whilst negotiating placed balls.
"There was actually nothing wrong with the rules of hurling as they were," he said. "But what we have not done is learn from mistakes of the last few seasons and rather than dwell on the rules, why not look at areas where hurling can be improved?
"There are too many mistakes made by umpires waving a '65 wide or linesmen giving a sideline ball in the wrong direction. These have proven very costly in most important games. There's also not enough dialogue between the referee and his team of officials over key decisions. I would like to see referees taking an extra 30 seconds to consult before they decide what action to take.
"Why are we interfering with the art and skill of free-taking? That skill takes a lot of time to perfect. Any video or TV footage I saw of Christy Ring was mostly of him taking penalties and frees where he would lift cleanly and by the time the ash connected with leather again he was three foot closer to goal. How great it was to watch, to see the power and accuracy and speed of the shot. And on most occasions the rattle of the net.
"Let's remind ourselves of the free-taking skill of Eddie Keher, John Fenton, Declan Ryan, Davy Fitzgerald, DJ, Eoin Kelly and Henry Shefflin -- all with forward movement of the sliotar. If it is not broken why are we trying to fix it? On the other side there is nothing in the rule book to say that you cannot balance the ball on your hurley but this is the rule we should look to change, not the forward momentum one."
The much-maligned handpass will turn up the heat on referees who must deem whether a pass is legal or not. If they get the call wrong they can expect a backlash.
"To protect the ref, players should receive a straight red card for abusing him," Mulcahy says. "That should be in place already anyway and if it's implemented at senior level, it will filter down to underage where it is a growing problem from players and mentors."
Had he a blank canvas Mulcahy would seek the awarding of two points for a sideline ball to reward natural skill. He reckons implanting that proposal would be an incentive to keep the ball in play rather than clear it anywhere over the sideline and giving opponents a free puck.
He would make all club games 35 minutes and would have lobbied Croke Park to try and improve the structures of club championships where teams are lying idle for up to 11 weeks between their first and second games.
Perhaps the biggest bugbear in his critique of the game is the structuring of the U21 championship, yet another example of hurling being the poor relation of the GAA, he claims. Indeed he states that his blood boils any time he conducts a comparison of how the U21 hurling series is staged against its football equivalent.
"Another joke," he sighs. "The U21 football championship will be done and dusted by late April/early May with no interference from the senior inter-county scene. By then, successful dual players have already made up their mind what game to choose for the summer and it's not hurling.
"But the U21 hurling championship is played in the middle of senior inter-county activity and amidst senior club championships. As manager you only see your star players on the Monday night before a Wednesday game. I've been there and seen that as an U21 selector too and you're usually preparing without your big names.
"For instance, I'm not taking from Waterford's performance at U21 level this year but were Tipp really focused on winning when they were going for a senior title too? Why can this championship not be run off in the same way as football -- let it be completed within a few weeks early in the year.
"You could have the college competitions run off just before the U21 started. At the moment, Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cup teams have about six months to prepare and hold training sessions at 7.0am, lunch hour and again that evening. They have 90 to 100 training sessions before March before the really competitive action. Burn-out anyone? Don't get me wrong, they are serious, worthwhile competitions but need to be confined to a shorter time frame.
"Imagine a senior manager watching a guy impressing at college and then U21 level. He could call him up to the senior panel to develop him for the year. That's what Conor Counihan did last year with a number of Cork footballers."
Mulcahy also refers to the last of a dying breed -- the dual player. He applauds his countyman, Eoin Cadogan's, determination to pursue a career in both codes.
"I support him 100 per cent because he's a young lad who looks after himself very well and knows full well that if he doesn't give it a go he'll regret it all his life. There will be only a few years in it before he gets older and has to make a choice but if you are good enough and have the talent, why not?
"There are players all over the country with special talent and commitment to play both codes or at least give it a try. But hurling seems to lose out. For example, as a selfish Corkman I would ask three of our most talented minor hurlers over the last few years to give hurling a go again. They know who they are, the likes of Ciaran Sheehan, Aidan Walsh and Colm O'Neill. These lads are seriously good with the big ball but equally as good with the small one.
"I just don't want to see hurling losing out anymore and I feel it's all one-way traffic at the moment. Our game is a key part of Irish culture and society but it can't prevail the way it's being treated."
On a more aesthetic level he would remove the 'Bainisteoir' label managers' tops but would like to see players' names inscribed on the back of jerseys, feeling that helmets will only reduce player recognition among the public.