'There were a couple of games I turned off and I've never turned a hurling game off in my life'

Waterford great Ken McGrath on the current state of hurling, Austin Gleeson, and how Christian Eriksen’s on-field collapse showed ‘how fragile life is’.

bord-gais-energy-2021-legends-virtual-tour-series Ken McGrath pictured at home with some stand out medals and awards from his career. Ken was helping to launch the Bord Gáis Energy GAA Legends Tour Series for 2021. Source: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE

HURLING HAS BEEN under the spotlight over the past few weeks.

Criticism and debate has become a regular feature, with questions like, ‘Has hurling become a glorified free-taking competition?’ being thrown around.

High scoring tallies have been a constant, with concerns shared that scores are coming too easy in the game.

With several prominent hurling figures sharing their opinions, it’s interesting to hear that of Waterford great Ken McGrath.

“I don’t know if I know the game anymore,” he admits, comparing his 15 years with the Déise, from 1996 to 2011, to the modern day. Watching it, he says, it’s hard to get excited because there is so much loose play and it is a much more deliberate game that has evolved so much. “The game is changing and it is hard one to call,” the three-time All-Star nods.

What about the scoring debate in particular? That’s where it really gets interesting.

“I would be the first up to say that the skill level of the lads is incredible, their skill levels are incredible, there is no doubting that,” McGrath begins, “but I miss maybe some of the wildness of it and even the mistakes of the 90s and noughties that got people excited.

“It is all so structured now, you catch the ball wing-back, you tap it your centre-back, he taps it to the other wing-back who puts it to midfield, it is hard to really get excited watching that. When you are moving the ball at pace and it is going forward it is a joy to watch. I love the physical side of it, I know starting off in the league the refs were under wicked pressure and people were giving out about the number of frees.

It was boring, it was actually boring. There were a couple of games I turned off and I’ve never turned a hurling game off in my life. It is hard to get excited watching some of the hurling, but it will change again because the skill level is so big.

“And I think it needs crowds. We’ve seen that in the Euros. So many games over the past week or two in the soccer were absolutely brilliant, you’re enthralled watching them.

“You wouldn’t get that watching the Premiership this year, you’d be half-bored watching the games. It’s all the same players with the same skill and the same technique but I think we need the crowds back. I think you’ll even see a different game in the Leinster semi-finals this weekend. I know it’s only 8,000 up in Croke Park, but it will help the teams who are maybe coming back and need a bit of momentum. A crowd will lift you on a small bit more.”

“Look, skill level massive, fitness levels through the roof,” the 43-year-old continues, “but is it any more entertaining? I don’t think so.

“Now, you have unbelievable teams like Limerick, Galway who are very strong again, and you have some of the top players who ever played on them two teams. Waterford the same, Tipp are excellent, you’ve Kilkenny building nicely. So the game could change and the way the players are so focused and so driven, the championship will turn one weekend as well.

I wouldn’t be writing anything off, but I’d love to see it go back a bit more to the wildness if you can describe it like that.”

Looking at his native county, McGrath backs the 2020 All-Ireland finalists to bounce back from their opening Munster championship loss to Clare — “sometimes a defeat like that is what you need,” he said, “I still think there is going to be a fair kick in them” — and expects Austin Gleeson to lead from the front.

tony-kelly-and-austin-gleeson Gleeson and Tony Kelly after the Waterford-Clare game. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

His Mount Sion clubmate, the 2016 Hurler and Young Hurler of the Year, is back to his best, McGrath feels.

“Last year he probably started off under a bit of pressure and struggled in one or two games. He was getting two or three points but he probably wasn’t in the game as much as he would have liked. I think he’d a brilliant second half against Kilkenny in the semi-final.

“I think in full-forward he was a bit isolated but then he came back into the game. I know the work he put in over the last two years to get himself up to a certain level of fitness that he he needed to be at. He probably felt himself that he wasn’t doing himself any justice by not having his fitness levels up where he should have as an elite county player.

“I thought he was our best player in the All-Ireland final last year when we lost. I think he banished some of the 2017 memories of having a poor All-Ireland final. He was Player of the Year in 2016, got the All-Ireland Final in 2017 but didn’t perform, which can happen.

I think that affected him for a year or two. Every game Austin plays he’s being watched and everything is being highlighted. He’s in the Joe Canning, TJ Reid, Seamie Callanan, Cian Lynch bracket, that top bracket.”

“I think last year’s All-Ireland final would have personally done him the world of good. I think he’s built onto that this year,” he adds.

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“I think you saw last Sunday he didn’t look fazed. He was the one fella who kept on going. I met him the Saturday night at the club and he was excited. He was relaxed, he was looking forward to it. When Austin has the work done and is in the right frame of mind, he’ll always produce. He’s been brilliant for the club over the last two or three years as well.

“So, I think he’s back where he wants to be. He’s in the middle of the pitch which suits him because he stays involved in the play. When he’s waiting for ball he gets a bit frustrated, probably something I would have been as well whenever I played full-forward. When I was waiting for the ball I’d get a bit tetchy. But in the middle of the field you’re always involved and I think he’s in a good place.”

It’s interesting, too, to hear McGrath’s thoughts on a big topic over the past few weeks: the importance of defibrillators, off the back of Christian Eriksen’s on-field collapse at Euro 2020.

McGrath underwent open heart surgery in April 2014; tests after a brain haemorrhage revealing an abnormal valve and infection in his heart.

Recalling the health scare, he told The42 he felt like “one of the lucky ones” a few years back — and that recent Eriksen incident reminded him of how fickle life is, and the importance of defibrillators.

I think we all saw Christian Eriksen and the shock because the scenes happened live on telly and because there were millions of people watching it showed the importance of having one.

“Our club has one – the majority of clubs do – and you need to train lads how to use it as well. The fast response from Denmark, their captain, and their medical team was unreal… it shows how fragile life is when you go out to play a game, and nerves before a big championship game, and obviously he did not know there was anything wrong and then 60 minutes later he is lying on the ground.

“Only for the quick response and the defibrillator, he was gone so it just shows the importance of having it and it shows how it does work. Sometimes with different things, you think ‘it doesn’t work’ but that saved his life and had probably saved countless lives.

“It is so important in the club to get trained up for it, 100% in all the sports, football, rugby, soccer, the whole lot.”

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Emma Duffy

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