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Murph's Sideline Cut: Hurling must change to truly be our national sport

Donal Óg Cusack is right; GAA chiefs have to move the game on, writes Ciarán Murphy.

The Galway team huddle before the start of the game.
The Galway team huddle before the start of the game.
Image: INPHO/Donall Farmer

I HAVE NEVER played a game of hurling in my life.  Never participated in a coaching session, or a training drill, or a poc fada.

Never taught it in primary school, never played it in secondary school.  Any hurling I did, and it was plenty in the end, was in my own back-yard with my brothers, and I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that we might have been the only four lads in my hometown that had hurleys growing up.

A neighbour of my family, Johnny Connolly, tried to start a Milltown hurling team in the 1960s, and he had as one of his most devout converts a young Jim Carney, but the idea withered on the vine, never to be revisited.  I’m from a county that has won an All-Ireland senior title in the last quarter-century, from a GAA-mad background, and yet I’ve never played a minute of competitive hurling… rather more pertinently, I’ve ever even had the chance.

Hurling adorns modern Irish life, and perhaps the best thing I can say about it is that the cloying pomposity and preciousness with which its acolytes sometimes speak of it is actually in most cases fully-merited.  But if I can go through my entire GAA life without being given an opportunity to play our national sport, something is clearly very wrong indeed.

Northern exposure

This week, Donal Óg Cusack made plenty of headlines with his suggestion for a Team Ulster to participate in the championship, and more tellingly, Laois came within 10 minutes of creating a major shock by nearly beating Galway in the Leinster senior semi-final.

The first issue is a clear no-brainer for me — we have been saddled with the county system, and it’s obviously counter-productive to the spreading of the game.  So let’s try and change it.  A ‘Team Ulster’ meets all the criteria for a successful amalgamation… in that they will be sufficiently good enough for everyone involved to think themselves fine fellows, without the niggling suspicion that they might actually start winning anything any time soon.  My experience of amalgamated teams in the GAA is that they’re always a brilliant idea… until they start beating the teams of the people who suggested the idea in the first place.

While Donal Óg was making that suggestion on last weekend’s Sunday Game, Cyril Farrell made the point that everything in the GAA moves very slowly, so he couldn’t see it happening for 10 or 20 years.  Cyril is right on a great many things, but I’m not too sure about this.  If there was a will there, it could happen very quickly indeed.

People tend to forget just how many clubs have been forced to amalgamate in the last few years due to emigration.  Team Ulster might not be the culture shock that people are making it out to be.  If you’ve already decided to merge with the gang from down the road who spent the last 100 years knocking your teeth out and marrying your sisters, this doesn’t seem like such a leap of faith, I’d imagine.

Fresh ideas: Donal Óg Cusack. Pic: RTE

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The second thing that happened this week was Laois’ stirring performance in Portlaoise yesterday against last year’s beaten All-Ireland finalists.  I was in that same ground when Cork put 10 goals past them in 2011, and it was a depressing, joyless day.  It has been an extraordinary turn-around, and if it is sustained, it’s a huge boost to hurling.  Because a sport played by only half the country has no business calling itself the national sport.

It has to profess to be better than that.  It has to provide Laois (and Westmeath, and Carlow, and Kerry, and Antrim) a pathway to success.  I drove from Portrush to Belfast recently, and to see where Dunloy and Loughgiel are situated, to drive through the neighbouring towns where a very different culture is celebrated, is to marvel at their perseverance in keeping the game alive.  At club level, they can mix it with the best.  But hoping for Antrim to challenge at inter-county level now is to hope for the impossible.  Support for them means the ability to draft in reinforcements from their own province, which is good for Dunloy, and it’s even better for the hurlers who would otherwise never get the chance to play against Joe Canning and company.

What does support mean for Laois though?  And those other Leinster and Munster teams named above?  Money, and plenty of it.  We’ve all seen the strides Dublin has made in the last 10 years, and what made the difference for them was financial backing and, just as importantly, the nous at club level to spend that money wisely.

Limerick, Clare, Offaly and Wexford have been watching too.  When they can really challenge again, when counties like Laois can hold their own in Division 1B, and when players from all across Ulster can play in the big show, we can start calling hurling our true national sport.

  • This week Murph was – shocked once again to see the power of the Sunday Game.  If Eamonn O’Hara’s outburst about Kevin Walsh and the state of Sligo football was one example, Donal Óg’s Team Ulster suggestion was another.  Love it, or loathe it, or bemoan it as a missed opportunity, it’s a behemoth.

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