What made the hurling of the 1990s so memorable?
Many hurling followers, still to this date, remember the great hurling in the 1990s. Wexford made the long awaited breakthrough. Clare and Offaly shared out four All-Irelands between them. Limerick, heartbreakingly for them, lost out in two they arguably should have won. Galway were at the cutting edge, losing to the eventual champions in 1994/95.
Tipp were in pretty much everyone’s slip stream in Munster. Cork started the decade with a win then floundered for the next eight years. And of course I better mention Kilkenny. Again, they were winning a couple of titles in those early years but for the rest of the decade, they were the pupils to Offaly’s mastery. 1994 and 1995 saw them humbled on both occasions to Offaly. Wexford did for them in 1996 and in 1997.
Then vs Now
So what made this decade so memorable? What type of game was played? Has hurling improved or has the incredible demands now placed on top class inter-county players taken the real fun out of it all? Are referees better? Are matches better? Are the same rivalries there? Are crowds as immersed in the big games?
Will we ever see such a start to a game as we witnessed at the throw-in for the replayed 1998 Munster final?! Hurls flaying left, right and centre. No helmets. Timber getting smashed as it hit friend, foe and anything but the ball!
Nowadays it’s systems, sweepers, withdrawn half forwards, overlapping midfielders, possession is key, two men inside, one man inside, four forwards, pass sideways, backwards if you have to.
Thank god for Kilkenny and Tipperary these last few years. And let’s not forget Galway. These three but mostly Kilkenny and Tipp have, in my view, saved the game.
Up to last year they’ve played epic All-Irelands, the way hurling is best played. Hurling has been infiltrated with cynicism in relation to fouling. The type of fouling that has entered the game over the last 10 years. How to grab a player’s arm for a split second, slowing him down is a major problem. Different refs interpret it differently. I know my former colleague Michael Duignan was critical of Barry Kelly in the Galway V Dublin game last weekend but I thought he was excellent and applied the rules the way they should be.
In hurling you are allowed to block, hook, shoulder or stand up a player using your body. Nothing else is allowed. That’s why we have so many rucks now. It looks terrible and it is. In the 80/90’s players held their positions, you had a man to mark and people loved to see great duels. The ball flew about the place at speed, it was in play way more, balls were moved at lightning speed on the deck and crowd participation was incredible. The faster the movement of the ball the more the crowd ebbed with the play. I loved it.
Too many games today are played at a slower pace. Although arguably the players are way fitter. Look at Cork v Tipp last week , no sweepers, back to more traditional hurling, long striking and we had a classic.
So who’s to blame that we now have some hurling managers treating the game like a game of chess? Kilkenny’s of course! I say this more in admiration of Kilkenny and a criticism of many other teams. While Kilkenny were so dominant over the years, big strong men like Jackie, JJ, Michael Fennelly, Lyng et al and cutting a path through all comers. The hurling world became obsessed with making players bigger, bulkier, more physical to compete.
Allied to this was a view that the only way to stop them was to use a sweeper and, as Waterford did in the All-Ireland semi two years ago, even use two. It made for a desperate semi-final with a foregone conclusion from a long way out.
My only conclusion was that it made for a major stepping stone for Waterford that year. A young team getting so far and be “competitive“ against Kilkenny. When you make a semi-final you lay it all on the line, you take the risk, you take your chance. Waterford, in my view, have the players to do that and I believe Derek knows he has to take more risks.
You’ll never win an Ireland if your first priority is to shore things up, be bold. Clare need to be bold, they were frozen in Thurles against both Cork and Galway over the last two years. It was sad to see brilliant hurlers play in a methodical, structured and rigid way. They also have a brilliant bunch of players.
The modern game is often about who wins the middle third or which packed defence can transfer the best ball out and who can use the overlap best? Practically all teams became infatuated with Kilkenny over the last ten years and this new type of game grew.
It suited Clare’s expressive players in Croke Park against an accommodating Cork team that seemed to didn’t relish the physical contact with Clare. In that 2013 All-Ireland, Clare were young and vibrant and they were coltish and then in my view it was straightjacketed out of them over the following three years. Has their time passed? I don’t think it has.
And so back to my introduction and those bank of questions. Which was a better time for hurling – the ‘90s or now? I think back on Clare v Limerick 1995 and 1996 – Munster finals. The Clare V Tipp Munster Final in 1997. Offaly v Kilkenny, any one of numerous classics in the 1990s. Wexford for two or three years have been stupendous. Fast open games, man on man directly, overhead striking, ground hurling, Hanamy v Morrissey, Whelehan v DJ, Lohan v anyone that chanced coming in! John Power v Liam Dunne. Mike Houlihan v the world. And the list goes on. No sweepers. No packed defence. No rucks
Thanks to all the teams who made the ‘90s so memorable. Thanks to Kilkenny and to Tipp over the last 10 years for staying true to the principles of the game and keeping the soul. Is it better now or then? I say then. You?
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