Let’s talk about the Big Pink Elephant in the Zoom. Sorry, room. After I mention these words, you won’t hear me reference them again in my columns this year because we have all had more than enough for one lifetime. Covid-19, social distancing, two metres, pandemic, new normal, Level Four, Level Five, wash your hands, card only, case numbers, Nphet, HSE and so on and on and on.
You didn’t come here for more of that stuff. Think of this column as a safe space, free of all Covid talk unless it’s hurling related. So where are we right now? The GPA tell us we are at a place where 76 per cent of our intercounty players want to go ahead with a championship this year. That’s a good starting point. The experts are recommending that the senior intercounty championships go ahead. Again, good to know.
There’s a balance to be struck. Player safety on one side, the lift a championship might give the country on the other. I trust intercounty squads and set-up to be as safe as possible and I trust the GAA when they offer to make rapid testing available to any team that wants it or needs it. So that’s a good place to be in as well.
Let’s be straight about it - we do not need for this championship to go ahead. Nobody sane is arguing that it’s compulsory for us to survive. But it does have a huge upside to the GAA community in every village in the country. And, beyond that, to people in general in Ireland who are all going through challenging times.
Risk is something it’s reasonable to talk about and to ask questions about in the current climate. Are these players putting themselves at risk by representing and playing for the county? Yes, of course they are. The only way they wouldn’t be is if they were sitting at home and declining the opportunity to play.
So if we accept that there is a risk involved, then we have to talk honestly about what that level of risk is. As soon as you or I walk out our door in the morning, we are taking a risk. That is a fact of life in a pandemic. All the science that has emerged so far, all the analysis of field sports the world over in the past six months, all of it is pointing towards there being minimal risk in the actual playing of the games.
We have seen the mixed views and different sides over the past week or two from GAA players. The likes of John Heslin and Niall Morgan, Bevan Duffy and Stefan Campbell. All totally acceptable and of equal relevance. If you are an intercounty player and you don't think enough is being done in your set-up to ease your mind, you are 100 per cent entitled to demand more and to walk away if you have to. I wouldn't blame any individual for doing it in this of all years.
Winter hurling is different
What I don’t understand is a collective attitude of, ‘Let’s write off this year.’ In case anybody hasn’t noticed, 2021 starts in 10 weeks. What do we do then? The world won’t be any different, the virus won’t be any nicer to us. We have to find a way to live our lives. If we write off this championship, what do the circumstances have to be for us not to write off next year’s as well? And the year after?
Anyway, rant over. Down to real business. I won’t call it a shotgun championship, because that’s not quite on the money. It is more of a machine-gun championship. Seven weeks is all it will take. If all goes to plan - a big if, fair enough - but if it does there’ll only be 50 days between Palatine referee Paud O’Dwyer throwing in the ball at six o’clock on Saturday and the 2020 All-Ireland winners being crowned.
That’s a serious time frame. If the winners of Clare and Limerick are to climb the steps of the Hogan Stand, that’s five games in seven weeks. If the losers are going to go all the way, it’s six games in seven. The margin for error is tiny. It’s going to be intense, totally full on. And all of it playing winter hurling. it’s going to be real survival of the fittest stuff.
Winter hurling is different. Think of all the little things that you have to factor in. A wet ball is a slippy ball so you have to be more careful with your touch or when you go to catch it. A wet ball is a heavy ball so you have to make sure of your connection with every strike. The more care you take, the slower you do things.
Clare v Limerick this weekend should be a game where skin and hair is flying. A local derby with tight margins in every collision. Taking place on last Sunday in October will obviously make it different to when they were supposed to meet back in May. The forecast is for a dull, grey day. There won’t be the same zip on the ball, it won’t travel as far.
A wet slippy heavy sliotar, a wet grip on your hurl, wet and messy turf underfoot
There’s to be rain in Dublin on Saturday but it will most likely have cleared up by the time Dublin play Laois. Regardless, whoever makes it to the All-Ireland will surely find themselves playing in a downpour a few times along the way. In a high-pressured environment, persistent rain tests your hurling ability like nothing else.
If your first touch is deficient, there’s no hiding it on a wet day. No wall-ball or alley cracker can prepare you for this. A wet slippy heavy sliotar, a wet grip on your hurl, wet and messy turf underfoot. Not to mention cold hands, water droplets constantly dropping down your face guard and breaking your concentration. If you don’t have Cian Lynch’s or TJ Reid’s first touch, it’s going to show up on a wet day.
A winter wind has to be factored in too. This isn’t the warm breeze of a summer’s day. In winter, it’s often a swirling wind, changing constantly, a wind with poker eyes that you can’t read. That affects shooting, obviously enough. But it also affects general play because it means the ball going to ground a lot more.
The upshot is that you’re going to have lots more of those massed big-bodied rucks, simply as a result of someone’s first touch being five per cent off. And if you have more of those rucks - especially on slippy ground - it will mean more big dirty knees into the sides of thighs, which means more dead legs, which means longer recovery times, which means more players sitting out training and so on and so forth.
It just makes everything that little bit messier. There's nothing to be done about it, you just have to get up and get on with it. But I do think we will find that it is going to suit a certain type of player through this championship. I'd be looking for rangy players that are big and strong and industrious while having a good skill set. Limerick have the likes of Gearoid Hegarty and Diarmaid Byrnes. Clare have David Fitzgerald. Athletic, abrasive, strong players who can mix it whatever way you like.
Winter hurling becomes predominantly a backs’ game. The ball into forwards is a lot more laboured due to slower build up play. This in turn gives the defender a chance to close down the space, first and foremost. There’s less chance of a forward creating a couple of yards for himself when he has to wait longer for the ball to come in.
Then, when the ball does arrive, it tends to be lower quality than it would be in the summer. The ground will be wet so it can skid low and zip away or it can slow up in the mud. Either way, the chance of the forward securing possession first time is reduced.
And finally, if he does get it into his hand, the strike at goals is more complicated. Apart from the wet ball and the wet grip and the swirling wind, the slower build-up probably means he’s further from goal than he’d like to be and the defender is all over him. Games are lower scoring so the pressure on each shot rises. None of that favours a forward.
My instinct, given all that, is to look to the teams with big strong panels as the ones who are most likely to be there at the end of the machine-gun championship. It’s going to suit the likes of Limerick, Tipperary and Kilkenny, counties with experience of the big day, big games, winning ugly.
Those three teams have physically imposing players who are ready to carry the load that comes with trying to win ugly games. Guys who will be involved in the key tussles in games that are going to end up 1-13 to 0-14.
Winning ball at half-forward is going to be crucial. The likes of Walter Walsh, Gearoid Hegarty, TJ Reid, Kyle Hayes and Dan McCormack will be so important. They are all excellent in the air and at winning dirty ball. Couple that with a serious goal threat and the fact that they have some of the best free takers in the game in Reid, Aaron Gillane and Jason Forde/Seamie Callanan and all the signs favour these three to fight it out coming up to Christmas.