When it comes to evaluating campaigns, only one authority is really worth consulting.
No-one is comparing Páirc Uí Chaoimh to Borodino or the Gaelic Grounds to Smolensk — not yet, anyway — but Napoleon’s lengthy round-robin tour of Russia a couple of centuries ago remains the benchmark for the long-term mission which encounters plenty of challenges along the way.
The principles remain constant and recognisable to the hurling managers waking up this morning to look at the championships at a rough halfway point: when Bonaparte said a leader has to be a dealer in hope, this is the juncture he meant.
Derek McGrath is a case in point. His side made a nonsense of bookies’ opinions in Limerick yesterday but ended the game with a draw, despite leading by 11 points in the second half against a Tipp team reduced to 14 before the break.
To compound the taste of ashes this morning, Waterford looked to be penalised by a terrible, terrible call in the second half, with a long Jason Forde free adjudged to have crossed the goal-line.
McGrath, already missing first-choice full and centre-backs, must now rise his side for the form team of Munster championship, Limerick.
Whether it’s revolutionary France or liberal Ireland, that’s a tall order.
First off, the competitions have so far endorsed our glimpses of a new order last year — at senior level, at U21. Those teams have now moved to become the accepted hierarchy. Limerick’s underage promise has become a senior reality, and Cork’s quality last year has carried through this season. Kilkenny’s rebuilding has accelerated but is not complete, while Dublin remain a key piece or two — translation: a forward — away from contention. Tipperary are spirited but sluggish, somehow. Waterford are depleted, and Clare inconsistent.
Behind them all the All-Ireland champions, a looming presence in all senses. We’ll come back to them.
The most significant development has been the most obvious development: the toll taken on teams playing games week to week. This seems extraordinary at first glance, that players with six months’ carefully calibrated physical preparation should wilt in their third week of action, though the reason may have more to do with tradition than actuality.
Players have been conditioned for generations to treat every championship game as some epochal watershed, as the ultimate test of manhood and a an all-encompassing struggle on a par with anything in the Marvel Universe. This view had some standing when there were three- or four-week gaps between games, sufficient time to accommodate both the operatic high of a match to be reached and the necessary recuperation afterwards.
When Nabokov referred to artists who need to die for a night in order to create art that lives for centuries, he might have been thinking of wing-backs and midfielders who need to rest until the Wednesday after a game in order to feel human again.
Now there’s a significant difference. Players are clearly struggling to see every Sunday or Saturday as an epochal watershed, etc., because that outlook clearly makes no sense.
It’s interesting that one of the unbeaten sides, Cork, have a manager who has been drumming home the example of professional soccer, where a thrumming sense of determination must be refocused 10 minutes after the last game rather than be allowed to dissipate in lengthy myth-making during the leisurely weeks that followed games up to this year.
Napoleon was here long before us, of course, saying that strategy has always been about the use of time and space. What’s interesting is his addendum: that time was the more important of the two, as lost space can be recovered, but not wasted time. Hence the two teams in Limerick yesterday warming down assiduously: the time lost yesterday wouldn’t be made up by next weekend.
Push that idea further. Last Saturday night Limerick dug out that dramatic draw in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, the kind of backs-to-the-wall rally which creates belief and spirit enough to last for years.
But there was a time when the experience earned in a game like that lay dormant for weeks, if not months, before it could be applied in another match.
This version of Limerick gets to apply everything they learned next weekend again, however. And the weekend after that.
You needn’t look that far ahead either: yesterday Waterford had clearly absorbed some lessons from Cork’s draw with Tipperary the previous weekend, ensuring the blue and gold didn’t build momentum after half-time the way they did in Semple Stadium.
(The fact that Tipp hit their stride later in the half doesn’t nullify that point, by the way).
While the pyrotechnics on Leeside last Saturday and yesterday’s nail-biter in the Gaelic Grounds may have caught the eye, events a couple of hours’ drive to the east on Saturday were at least as significant.
When Galway played Wexford in the league the overriding impression of the All-Ireland champions was of a large predator waiting for the heat of summer to warm up to its full efficiency.
Last Saturday the temperature suited the Galway blood better, and their dismissal of last year’s Leinster finalists was brisk to the point of being impersonal: it’s just business.
Galway’s physical power is all the more obvious the more games that showcase it. It’s difficult for opponents to change the terms of engagement when Galway apply their strength because they can’t opt out of the confrontation, or go around it, and when battle is joined the men in maroon —or white, as they were in last Saturday — are hard to master. If it were only physical strength, of course, they wouldn’t be All-Ireland champions, but Galway’s hurling on Saturday evening was crisp and purposeful. Joe Canning’s masterclass in striking was the icing on the cake.
Still, Davy Fitzgerald of Wexford made a salient point after the game, when speculating on how his side would do if they faced Galway again. On that point perhaps Micheál Donoghue should recall the Corisican when he advised not fighting too often with one enemy. If you do, you teach him all your art of war.
How significant will this prove to be, the absorption and application of lessons not only in a calendar year, but within a single summer?
Cast your minds back 12 months, when Waterford put the squeeze on Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final. How important was it to the Déise to have faced Cork and familiarised themselves with all those new faces?
The dawning of the age of analysis means the day is long gone when a promising kid can fetch up in Croke Park from a small country place, unheralded and unknown, to upset an opponent who has never clapped eyes on him before. But a clip popping up on someone’s smartphone is no substitute for a flesh and blood encounter when it comes to familiarising yourself with an opponent’s tendencies.
Because of that the games so far have taught us that the tactical stakes are higher, if anything. Yesterday Waterford duplicated their league alignment from springtime and Tipp struggled to cope; by contrast, how much did Cork pick up from Limerick on Saturday given the two sides didn’t play each other in the league? How much did Limerick pick up from Cork?
Let the little corporal have the last word, as he always did. There are only two forces in the world, he said once — the sword and the spirit, and in the long run the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.
Substitute hurley. You get the idea.
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Waterford selector Dan Shanahan has apologised for confronting referee Alan Kelly and his umpires at full-time over the decision to award Tipperary’s second goal eight minutes from the end.
‘We’ve very disappointed. I probably overreacted and I apologise for that. When you’re so involved, so motivated and you put so much time of your life into the last eight months and into the last five years, to be absolutely robbed by a decision like that, it hurts.’
Déise stopper Stephen O’Keeffe was convinced that Austin Gleeson didn’t carry the ball over the whitewash from Jason Forde’s free.
‘You always know by the response of your keeper and Socky is adamant that the ball didn’t go over the line. It looked like one umpire gave it and the other umpire didn’t and then the referee decided to give it.’
Shanahan accepts Waterford’s season could ultimately hinge on that controversial call.
‘It could hang on that moment, that’s the bottom line. We should have two points on the board here and Tipp could be gone out of the championship.’ Picture: James Crombie