Wednesday 27 March 2019

Vincent Hogan: Hell's Kitchen on way it used to be; McGrath on the way it is

THE three old boys lurched above the camera with unblinking eyes and outlaw smiles. They looked tickled to be there. In hurling, caricature is the sincerest form of flattery and TG4's Laochra Gael was shooting the breeze with the constituents of 'Hell's Kitchen', a full-back line hewn from anecdotal legend. John Doyle, Mick Maher and Kieran Carey played up to the theme like g

THE three old boys lurched above the camera with unblinking eyes and outlaw smiles. They looked tickled to be there. In hurling, caricature is the sincerest form of flattery and TG4's Laochra Gael was shooting the breeze with the constituents of 'Hell's Kitchen', a full-back line hewn from anecdotal legend. John Doyle, Mick Maher and Kieran Carey played up to the theme like grizzled thespians.

The programme focused specifically on Doyle, the remarkable Holycross man who won eight All-Ireland medals with Tipperary between 1949 and '65.

But it was his place in the reputedly unblessed trinity that stole the attention. No other line in the game's history has been immortalised and demonised quite like the Tipp full-back line that won All-Irelands in '62, '64 and '65.

Their history is coated in euphemism. Traditional hurling expressions like "lowering the blade" hark from an era when the third man tackle was as legitimate a hurling tool as the strip of ash itself. And that Tipp full-back line certainly perfected the art of closing doors. They were seen as hard, unscrupulous and, above all, unapologetic.

No doubt, there is an abundance of stooped old warriors out there who would attest to the meanness with which 'Hell's Kitchen' chose to do their business. But these were different times. For all his physicality, Doyle was never sent off in a career spanning eighteen years at inter-county level.

So it was compelling to watch the three old boys play up to camera. You could tell they welcomed the interest, even the hint of parody. This was their moment.

Hurling obsesses with its past like no other sport. Twenty five years after his death, Christy Ring is still the ultimate watermark for anyone in the game who looks gifted beyond the ordinary. His best days are evangelized, his deeds woven into folklore. Yet Ring, too, had an aura of danger about him. He was, in the vernacular of the time, "not to be messed with".

It's not that hurling was lawless back then. But it did exist in a different moral atmosphere. More pertinently, maybe, it was also free of video scrutiny.

On Sunday night, Doyle wasn't playing the John Wayne card, mind. Actually, his humility was touching. Ring, too, won eight All-Ireland medals. But Doyle surmised that while Ring carried Cork to most of those, Tipp carried Doyle.

One moment captured the cussed, hard-man impulse.

It followed a shot of Kevin Broderick's wonder point against Kilkenny in the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final. The one in which he solos maybe sixty yards, scoops the sliotar over Eamonn Kennedy's head and, without breaking stride, rifles imperiously over.

For Doyle, the image seemed mildly offensive. The compliance of the backs. The meekness. The absence of any physical discouragement.

"If he tried that against us," said Doyle "well . . . it just wouldn't happen."

Nor, indeed, would it. The third man tackle would have seen to it that Broderick's run would have ended suddenly and, most probably, painfully.

It is widely accepted that that game (maybe even that image) convinced Brian Cody of Kilkenny's need for mental and physical toughening. And, to all intents, they've found both. The Cats have not lost a Championship game since and the physicality with which they hurl is now the template.

Kevin Heffernan's old theory about "a good big 'un always being better than a good little 'un" is now vividly manifest in hurling.

Cody has moved, especially, for big half-forwards on the simple premise that they are better equipped to win high deliveries and, more specifically, long puck-outs. It's worked too and other counties are replicating it.

Hence, Seanie McGrath slips out of inter-county hurling at the age of 28. Seanie doesn't fit Cork's needs now and he knows it. He's been swimming against the signals. Some of us could see it in his body-language the night Cork beat Wexford in February. Seanie's first two shots were wides and the verbal response from the line was withering.

McGrath played on for 49 minutes, scoring a point, but you could tell he always had one eye on the dug-out. Seanie's form wasn't good enough to change the plans of management. He knew this was going nowhere.

So a lovely, intuitive touch hurler becomes obsolete. And it's quite an irony that that hurler is Seanie McGrath. Because no one player more encapsulated the boldness of Jimmy Barry-Murphy's revolution more. Remember, Barry-Murphy was rebuilding at a time when Clare had everyone believing that hurling would never again be a place for small, dapper forwards.

The year Clare won their last All-Ireland ('97) was also the year of McGrath's senior debut. He scored 0-5 from play against the Banner.

But style is cyclical and, though he starred in the '99 All-Ireland win, McGrath now finds the gospel changing again. And, most likely, the teams that ape Kilkenny won't be the ones that bring them down.

No matter, he senses he's not wanted. It can't have been easy but McGrath has stepped out of the loop with his dignity intact. And that's something.

Even the salty old warriors of 'Hell's Kitchen' would respect him for it.

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