Ciarán Murphy: human fallibility the essence of club games
Freedom of expression so evident in two classic Cuala v Na Piarsaigh clashes
Cuala v Na Piarsaigh in the All-Ireland final: Club games like we saw last Saturday night can prove an an antidote to the increasingly overly-structured inter-county game. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
I have a friend who is blissfully unaware of pretty much all GAA activity from one end of the year to the other. He asks me questions about hurling in much the same way as you’d approach a person who by some quirk of the brain can count the exact number of letters in any given spoken sentence.
So it came as quite a surprise when, halfway through the second half of the All-Ireland club hurling final replay last Saturday, he texted me expressing his amazement at the entertainment emanating from Portlaoise.
His interest in this particular game had been piqued by a lunch in south Dublin earlier that day. By the end he was telling me “there won’t be a neighbour sued in Dalkey for the week” (he obviously took in that particular sentence structure by osmosis – you can avoid the games all you like, but resistance to the charms of Marty Morrissey is futile).
And it is in conversations with people such as my friend that one can often come to a new understanding of what it is that makes games like last Saturday so enjoyable – “So, these guys are club players? These aren’t even the pick of the best of their own county?”
We were, of course, watching two really exceptional club teams playing at the limits of their abilities. Over half of the 30 players who started in O’Moore Park could end up with their county panels later this summer, which even for an All-Ireland final is an extraordinary number.
Yet there’s no denying that one of the key elements to the entertainment was the element of human fallibility that is present in club games, even one of this magnitude. One of the key things that separate the truly top-class from the rest is composure, calmness, an element of self-control.
There were plenty of players who demonstrated that throughout both the drawn game and the replay. But there were still players for whom this was the highest-profile match they could hope to play in, and they approached it as such – racing and hurtling from one scrum to the next, throwing their bodies around with reckless abandon.
County players try just as hard, of course – it just doesn’t always appear that way. Another player throwing himself into an eight-man tussle for possession might seem like the brave thing to do . . . but Pauric Mahony hit three points from play off Gearóid McInerney in last year’s All-Ireland final by knowing when to step away from the physical exchanges and wait for someone to pass him the ball when he’s in 10 yards of space.
And yet it’s this honesty of effort that makes the best club games so enjoyable to watch. The idea that this isn’t the top level of endeavour, that this isn’t the best of the best up against each other, need not necessarily disqualify it as being less deserving of our attention than the intercounty stuff we’re going to be fascinated by all summer.
In the US, they are currently in the middle of March Madness, where 64 college basketball teams play each other in a frenzied three-week orgy of straight knock-out action. No more than six per cent of the players currently in the national spotlight will make it to the NBA, but the US sports fan goes nuts for March Madness for the same reason we love a good club game – because of that element of human fallibility.
These kids aren’t Lebron James, they’re mortals. They will make mistakes, not because of hubris or arrogance or complacency, but because they’ve been put in positions where their basic skills are being tested right up to and beyond their limits. College American football is exactly the same. It’s a deluge of touchdowns, and forget about defence.
The gap between the respective abilities between the pro and college games is made irrelevant by the difference in approach. They’re both equally enjoyable to watch, in different ways. Unfortunately, we care a little too much about our club games to ever adopt a “you score 20 points, we’ll score 21” philosophy.
Club Gaelic football here at home is more often than not about presenting less scientific, more extreme versions of ultra-defensive tactics borrowed from the inter-county game. Club hurling is going that way too. Teams now more often than not set up to try and eliminate the element of human fallibility that makes it so enjoyable in the first place.
If club games, something like what we saw on Saturday evening, were truly about that freedom of expression, an antidote to an overly structured inter-county game, then I’d be more comfortable with calls for us to hand over our the better part of our GAA summer to it. That’s not the case yet.