TIPPING POINT: It’s only natural kids want to emulate their hurling heroes. It’s not easy when you can’t tell even the hurler of the year behind his helmet, writes BRIAN O'CONNOR
I KEPT an eye on the recent Munster Hurling final with the sound on mute, partly because I was working, and partly because watching GAA on telly is a bit like porn: you don’t need to hear ’em. Anyway, Tipp duly tore Waterford apart and whatever ghoulish attention I had been paying slipped, that is until a face appeared getting an award. The caption on-screen said “Man Of The Match – Lar Corbett,” a useful piece of information since without it I wouldn’t have known Larry Corbett from Larry Adler.
This is hardly something that will keep Lar awake tonight. For what it’s worth, he seemed a perfectly presentable chap, especially considering a succession of Waterford’s finest had just spent the previous hour and a bit rasping timber off him. What stumped me, however, was that without the caption, Lar could have given Des Cahill a lap-dance and his anonymity in at least one corner of Ireland would have remained absolutely assured.
Lar is “Hurler Of The Year” for Chrissakes. He is possessed of a priceless gift in that every time he gets the ball thousands of backsides lift off seats in the reasonable presumption of a goal being in the offing. That’s box-office, baby. In pro sport, he could name his price. How the hell could he be unrecognisable?
Now it is true that having “sports journalist” as a job-title is as relevant to the real world as “alpinist” is to The Netherlands. There are also plenty out there who would consult the Trade Descriptions Act were that title used anywhere near yours truly. But technically it is the case. So how could a sports hack, however questionably informed, not recognise the most famous hurler in the country right now?
It’s not as if hurling is some alien pursuit. Contrary to what a few paper and digital communiqués have suggested recently, you are not enduring the rants of some GAA-hating South Dublin type whose only experience of whipping on the ball was with a wet towel in the showers just after rugger practise. The general consensus in Cork may have been that I wasn’t even a second cousin of a hurler but there were years of evidence in the late 1970s and much of the 1980s on which that conclusion was based. So how come prior to a couple of weeks ago, Lar Corbett was just a name?
There’s only one reasonable conclusion. It’s the helmet. Lar is hidden by a piece of wire-mesh and plastic that makes him anonymous. That may well suit Lar perfectly.
Presumably camera phones, accompanied by mouthy gobshites unable to use them properly, have penetrated the great interior to Thurles too. There may even be a lot of money to be made in helmets that guarantee privacy. Hugh Grant would presumably love it. It might even be Brian O’Driscoll’s saviour, stop him looking scaldy whenever a camera other than a sponsor’s is pointed at him.
Think of it: how many current hurlers enjoy widespread popular recognition? Henry Shefflin, maybe, but that’s only because he’s flogging Lucozade. Joe Canning? Don’t kid yourself. In fact the one immediately recognisable hurler currently wielding a camán in even semi-anger is Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, who can’t even get a game. And the reason he’s known is because he didn’t wear a helmet when he didn’t have to. That, and the fact he possesses a carcass capable of getting a girls’ school dormitory panting for a week.
No doubt there are any number of justifications for why helmets became compulsory for senior players last year. Pining for the “good ole days” isn’t half as enjoyable when chewing on your own teeth, for instance. Both health and safety and insurance interests can’t be summarily dismissed either, especially when it comes to underage players.
Take it to its logical conclusion though and what else should be covered? The memory of a sliotar to the Coolmores on a cold, wet evening many moons ago still has the capacity to make this corner wince.
But that was at a time when helmets were mostly for cosmetic purposes, and usually flung to the line the moment temperatures reached 10 degrees.
It was also a time when a young fella in Cork knew absolutely that Jimmy Barry Murphy was God and that he was “six foot-two, eyes of blue, Jimmy Barry we love you”.
Some players might have struggled with such adulation. JBM carried it off with the same grace with which he moved.
Mind you, that was also a time when the idea of a not fully comatose Cork team losing to Galway was ludicrous. It still brings a warm glow to remember 1986 when the Mayor of Galway woke JBM and Co up with the memorable line that he hoped Cork would be able to give then a good game. Bad move. But, different times.
What doesn’t change, though, is the identification kids have with their sporting idols. It might jar with some of us to face a sporting reality where Dublin has a decent hurling team and Cork doesn’t. But how big an impediment to the much-heralded renaissance of Dublin hurling will be the fact there’s a good chance kids in the capital picking up hurleys for the first time probably aren’t able to recognise Liam Rushe?
They should be able to, just as they recognise Bernard Brogan.
That might be a rather vague concept compared to the reality of a head injury. However, there isn’t one of us who can’t remember watching sport as a kid and feeling that overwhelming impulse to tear outside and try and emulate the elite. There’s a lot mixed up in that, a love of playing and competing in the first place, not to mention the challenge of finding out how good you might be. But don’t underestimate the power of idolatry.
For hurling’s sake, it might be no bad idea to come up with a way for senior players – for it is senior stuff that sells the game – to discard their helmets if they want to.
Let them sign forms if they have to, or pay slighter bigger premiums. If the insurance bods kick up, change bods. Remind them that injuries usually happen when players don’t known what they’re doing. Marquee players are by definition the elite. The chances of them being scalped are minimal.
The benefits mightn’t come for a while but there’s something not right about Lar being just another of the men behind the wire.