Much of the language of sport is grounded in mythology. A David vs Goliath FA Cup tie, a prodigal son returning to a former club, or a team’s European odyssey. Few sports are actually immortalised in myth. One that is, however, is hurling.
In Irish mythology, Cuchulain slayed a vicious dog in self-defence by pucking a sliotar (the ball used in hurling) down the beast’s throat. Much as England has the legend of Saint George slaying a dragon with his sword, Ireland has Cuchulain slaying a dog with…some sports equipment.
Regardless of its roots in somewhat underwhelming myth, there is little as intrinsic and vital to Irish culture as the Gaelic Athletic Association (the GAA) and the sports it governs, gaelic football and hurling. These are the two most popular sports in Ireland, played and watched by men, women and children across the land, North and South.
While gaelic football’s popularity is more widespread, there is something about hurling which has imbued it with a particularly all-encompassing sense of what it is to be Irish, from the foundation of the GAA in 1884 until modern day.
The All-Ireland Hurling final of 2017 will take place on September 3rd when Galway play Waterford in Dublin’s Croke Park.
The rules of the game are too complex and tedious to explain here, but by way of a brief overview: hurling is a mix between field hockey, cricket and lacrosse, but with rugby’s physicality. Teams line up with 15 players; a goalkeeper, six defenders, six forwards and two midfielders.
Players are sent out wearing less protection than a test batsman to play a sport where this happens:
It is a ferocious blend of skill, athleticism and strength, and at its best is an absolutely intoxicating spectacle. You don’t have to take my word for it – even Jason Statham is a fan.
What’s more, hurling, and the GAA as a whole, is entirely amateur. This means that at the highest level of the game, teams will play in front of 82,000 people in Croke Park in an All-Ireland final before returning to the daily grind of the office or a classroom on Monday.
At the time of writing, hurling is at one of the most intriguing junctures in its history. The 2017 All-Ireland Hurling Championship has been dominated by a debate which, nominally, centres around tactics, but has at times felt like a battle for something of far greater significance.
If Jonathan Wilson had written Inverting the Pyramid about hurling, the book would have been an awful lot shorter. Essentially, ever since Cuchulain put his hurl under that sliotar, hurling has remained the same game, with passing trends coming and going.
Traditionally, the game has always been played with six defenders marking six attackers; six one-on-one battles and may the best men win. But recent seasons have seen several counties make a tactical tweak in this system; teams such as Waterford and Wexford drop back one of their forward players, placing him in between the two lines of defenders to act as a sweeper, mopping up any loose balls which come his way.
In turn, with their own team now a man down in attack, those playing a sweeper cannot now drill the ball downfield and leave their forwards to win their own battles. Teams have begun picking their way up the pitch, playing short, often sideways passes, until a teammate becomes free further up the field.
This style of play has slowed down what is often referred to as the fastest field game in the world, and hurling traditionalists are not happy. Much in the same way as football evolved from the five-player attack of the early 1900s to the ‘false nine’ formation pioneered by Barcelona and Spain, hurling is evolving.
For many, this will not do. Ex-players, who are usually excellent, open-minded pundits, hold no truck with the sweeper system. The greatest insult in hurling this summer has been to say a team must throw off the shackles of the sweeper – to accuse a team of playing shackles on is to accuse them of cowardice.
These pundits have been quick to criticise the managers who employ the system. One manager in particular, Davy Fitzgerald of Wexford, was quick to fire back in his own inimitable style. Given that Fitzgerald received an eight-week ban for running onto the pitch to clash with a player earlier this year, you can imagine what his style might look like.
Hurling is being held to a far higher standard than its sister code gaelic football. Following 15 years of tactical evolution, modern gaelic football is essentially a counter-attacking game where teams pull all but three or four players back and break when they turn the ball over. Meanwhile, hurling is at war with itself over teams playing a single extra defender.
Like all tactical innovations, the sweeper is exposing inefficiencies within the game. When everyone is zigging, it pays to zag. Teams employing a sweeper are commanding more control over a game that at times can take on a manic energy.
And like all tactical innovations, the sweeper did not appear overnight. Pundits have said that a team playing a sweeper can’t win an All-Ireland. But the most successful teams have been deploying one or two of their forwards as auxiliary defenders when needed for more than ten years. The most successful hurling team of all time, Kilkenny, designed the blueprint for the current innovations through their aerial dominance of opponents in their half-back line throughout the 2000s.
This year’s final is being pitched as a clash of styles and a proving ground for the sweeper system. Galway, the National League and provincial Leinster Championship winners, play with a largely orthodox six forwards, while their opponents Waterford are among the most prominent proponents of the sweeper system.
It is the first time these teams have met in an All-Ireland final and both are looking to end a long wait for the most precious prize in hurling. Galway haven’t lifted the Liam McCarthy trophy since 1988 and have earned the tag as perennial nearly men, while Waterford are looking to bridge a 58-year gap.
For much of this 58-year wait, Waterford have been a free-spirited team, regarded as playing a ‘nice’ brand of hurling without ever having the bottle to finish the job. Current manager Derek McGrath has installed the more conservative sweeper system, while also retaining room for expression which allows his players do things like this.
— The GAA (@officialgaa) August 14, 2017
The man in the video, Austin Gleeson, is the reigning Hurler of the Year. Thankfully for Waterford, he has been cleared to play in the final after the referee failed to spot him pulling off an opponent’s helmet during the semi-final. There was precedent in one of his teammate’s receiving a one-match ban for the same transgression in the quarter-final, but the referee’s report ruled out any retrospective action on this occasion.
Regardless of who should triumph on September 3rd, the debate around the sweeper will not go away. In boxing, contrasting styles can turn fights into hotly-anticipated events. In hurling, there still appears to be only one approved style.
Depending on your point of view, this is something that either harms the game and its development, or helps retain the purity of tradition. But if hurling is allowed to grow and evolve, who’s to say what the sport’s limits are?