An Ancient Game

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The Kilkenny Cats were up against Tipperary, last year’s champions, in the All Ireland hurling final on Sunday last.

Hurling is a game to be marvelled at. It’s as old as the hills, dating back to ancient Celtic times just after the last Ice Age. I wonder if there’s anything else like it anywhere in the world. Two teams of fifteen men, each wielding a wooden hurley, propel a leather ball, called a ‘sliothar’ around a full-size football pitch.

The rules are uncomplicated. A ball on the ground may only be picked up on the hurley; running with ball in hand is limited to four paces. When it comes to physical contact, body-checking is allowed and it seems the rules are a little fluid. Unlike Aussie Rules, where the ‘fair catch’ rule applies, a player in possession of the ball is provided no special protection and must battle to hold on to it.

You’ve got to love a game with so few rules, but where the referee has three cards at his disposal: yellow, red – and black.

The skills and athleticism on display are astounding, and comparable to anything that Aussie Rules football can boast. The one-handed catching skills are marvellous, and the way these players can score points from 40, 50, even 60 yards is awesome.

This is like ice hockey without the ice, on a much larger scale, and without the protective clothing. Even shin-guards, which I would have thought a basic necessity, are shunned by these players. The only concession to personal safety is a plastic helmet and faceguard. If Sunday’s game is anything to go by, head protection for the officials may soon be a standard feature, as the referee suffered a nasty cut to his nose while attempting to mediate during a heated discussion between the players. The injury was entirely accidental, but was a graphic demonstration of the hazards of arming a bunch of young men with sticks in a testosterone-adrenaline fuelled environment.

Croke Park, with an all-seating capacity of 82,000 was jam-packed. This is a sport enjoyed and followed with passion by whole families in every county in Ireland. Kilkenny scored the first five points before Tipp replied, and that set the seal on the outcome. The final score Kilkenny 2-17 Tipperary 1-16, a comfortable 4 point win for the cats.

Gotta love that game.

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