Davy Fitzgerald described his side’s performance as “absolutely pathetic”, despite eventually overcoming old rivals Kilkenny in a hard-fought Walsh Cup final on Saturday afternoon in Nowlan Park.
What was more pathetic, to most people lucky enough to witness the first ever free taking shootout from the 65-yard line, was the horrendous efforts some takers mustered after a drawn 90 minutes of action.
Fair enough, a 65 is a difficult skill to master at the best of times. It was wet and mucky, and the ball likely heavy as a result. It’s certainly not a drill the majority of hurlers would take the time to perfect, safe in the knowledge that there’s at least one hurler at the club capable of nailing a 65. Still though, out of 15 hurlers (14, in Kilkenny’s case), you’d expect five are more than capable of if not nailing, but at least finding the net behind the posts.
The other night, Longford and Meath ended in a draw and went to the first ever free-kick shootout as darkness swallowed Pairc Tailteann in Navan. There was a particular absence of quality in the shooting, which Joe Brolly alluded to as a severe lack of basic skill levels amongst the players. After ten frees, the score was 2-1. In the players’ defence however, it was getting dark and – in front of the post or not – it’s not easy to kick a heavy gaelic football from 45 yards after running the legs for 90 minutes.
On Saturday, it was the hurlers turn to exhibit the new rules of separation. Immediately, there were signs of confusion as both panels massed at the half way line, uncomfortably close to the free taker. The crowd muttered throughout, wondering what on earth they were witnessing. Hilariously, the commentary team on the match livestream hadn’t a clue what was going on but duly added to the intrigue.
Paul Morris stood up first for Wexford and the initial outrage of seeing him post it wide was forgiven for the fact that he managed to get it that far at all. Eoin Murphy, the Kilkenny goalkeeper and accomplished long range striker, notched the first score. 1-0!
Up next came Lee Chin, who recently proclaimed himself as one of a new breed of professional hurlers. Unemployed, allowing him plenty of time to train and recover, but apparently not enough time to practice his 65 routine. His fell well short of the posts. Conor Martin followed up for Kilkenny and made it 2-0 and it looked like Kilkenny’s famed hurling technique would see them over the line when it mattered most.
Conor McDonald showed his quality next, nailing Wexford’s first 65 to bring it back to 2-1. Lester Ryan followed up another miserable attempt – bouncing inside the 21-yard line and dribbling left of the umpire, who didn’t even bother signalling for a wide.
Jack Guiney was next for the Yellowbellies and scored, equaling the shootout at two apiece. He had been brought on late in the game to take the free, a tactic you’re likely to see more of should this occur again. Alan Murphy stepped up next for Kilkenny and hit a decent strike, but put it wide.
Next stepped up Mark Fanning, the Wexford goalkeeper, who delivered probably the best and most assured technique with a sweet rise and strike, following through all the way, ensuring he split the posts and put Wexford ahead for the first time. He made a fairly reasonable task look extremely easy.
It was up to John Walsh to get Kilkenny back into it, but he fouled his lift and Wexford won. A drab end to a very enthralling moment of hurling.
To give the players their due, having to be the first ever to take part in the shootout was an unenviable task. Similar to the change in penalty laws a couple of seasons back, it took a few failed martyrs to show the rest how best to go about it. You’d expect players will be more prepared next time, and will be out practicing their lifts and strikes this week for fear of being thrown into such a situation in the future.
But evidently, it’s a welcome addition to the game of hurling. There’s absolutely no need for replays in January, and there’s probably no need for them at all until you get to an All-Ireland final. It’s a specific hurling technique that requires skill, bottle and plenty of composure, not least hours of preparation.
If Saturday is anything to go by, the 65 shootout will be far from the straightforward process many would have expected. As the season and years go on, hopefully the process will be separated less by technique and more by composure and bottle – the way it should be.