Wednesday 7 December 2016

Henry Shefflin: The obsession with imitation is staggering

Henry Shefflin

Published 16/07/2016 | 17:00

Waterford’s Austin Gleeson brushes off Tipperary’s Michael Breen during last Sunday’s Munster final. For Waterford to thrive they need to fix a position for Austin Gleeson and allow him to settle there. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Waterford’s Austin Gleeson brushes off Tipperary’s Michael Breen during last Sunday’s Munster final. For Waterford to thrive they need to fix a position for Austin Gleeson and allow him to settle there. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

On Sunday morning last I felt compelled to send a text to Liam Dunne to acknowledge Wexford's achievement against Cork the previous evening in Thurles.

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Our paths crossed for a few years towards the end of his career and the beginning of mine and I had an enjoyable few beers with him when the inter-provincial series went to Rome one weekend back in 2003.

He's good company, witty and we'd exchange texts from time to time since then. So this was one I couldn't let pass.

'Well done Liam, great victory, you played with heart.'

He's been under pressure. I've been critical of them myself and they've been caught up in trying to chase the tactically-layered game that seems to be the choice of so many teams now.

What I saw from Wexford this time was different though. I found his response very apt, emphasising how they had reverted to type, playing a direct game much more familiar with Wexford traditions.

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Lee Chin in action for Wexford

'The lads did great,' he signed off. They did too, opening up and having a go, playing the style they were used to. The expression in players like Lee Chin and Conor McDonald was a joy to see. You didn't know what was coming next, unlike the game that followed. They weren't being guided by discs on a whiteboard, they were being guided by instinct.

That's what they did as kids, that's what we all did as kids. That's what their management empowered them to do. It's a recurring theme for me but one that feels right to revisit now that the provincial championships have been wrapped up and the climb steepens with just six teams left.

Wexford are among five other counties we all probably would have anticipated getting this far. That's the reward for their approach.

They'd be coming from much the same base as Waterford and there'd be a bit of rivalry down in the south-east between them. The thought put into the Waterford playing system since they met in the 2014 championship may have put pressure on them to follow suit.

It's rife in Gaelic football and it's cutting a path through hurling too.

Clare and Waterford contested two league finals and a Munster semi-final and that brought a sharper focus on how they played the game. Because of its relative success then others have felt the need to copy.

Even the weekend before last I played a club challenge match, lined out at centre-forward and found myself faced with a sweeper. 'Here goes'. I thought to myself and headed out towards the middle of the of the field where I knew I could get on some ball. Honestly, it would turn me off if I had to hurl like that the whole time now.

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The obsession with imitation is staggering. Managers and teams look at Clare and Waterford and say, 'We need to be doing some of that'. Is it driven by the need to look smart? Is it that the more complex your game is the more in-tune you look? Is it that simplicity leaves you with some intellectual deficit in a hurling context, that you're not keeping with the most up-to-date trend?

The levels of professionalism that teams and players are now taking to preparation may have something to do with it. The advances in strength and conditioning and nutrition have, to my mind, gained most ground. Consequently the scale of backroom teams has risen and there are a lot of opinions in there. It's as if the tactical advances must be completely in step.

Maybe there's a need for justification for the pedestal that some coaches have been placed on. If they're not seen to be coming up with intricate puzzles, their worth and status may be questioned.

Brian Cody is the smartest manager around but he always keeps things very simple. Because he has always understood, better than anyone else, that hurling is best when it's kept simple and restricted to reaction and instinct. He has never sought to reinvent the wheel.

The overload for some teams going out on to a hurling field is far too great. Some coaches are overthinking the game. They're trying to be too smart.

The game is primarily about enjoyment. I appreciate that much of that enjoyment derives from winning but, for me, how you play the game has always been of paramount importance too and I wonder if players are really enjoying some of the tasks being set for them in match situations.

I've watched the discussion about Gaelic football with interest, knowing that some of it is now applicable to hurling too.

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Teams like the Kilkenny hurlers and Dublin footballers track back deep but they do it with a much greater sense of purpose. It's the pursuit of possession, not the protection of a zone, that brings them back. One cameo Brian Cody would repeatedly remind us of for years after it happened was a block 'Taggy' Fogarty made on our own 13-metre line in the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final. 'Taggy' was only on the team and had come from corner-forward but Brian would repeatedly hold it up as an example of work-rate.

He said it to us so often we'd get a laugh out of it but it burned an image in our minds at the same time. I know I've said it before but it's worth revisiting the fundamentals of hurling - win your own ball first and foremost and express yourself.

Waterford and Clare have led the charge in trying to come up with something different and I know my feelings will appear like an indirect criticism of them.

I don't feel however that the concession of five goals in a Munster final by Waterford is a watershed moment for their preferred style but to many it will bring some realism and counties will take stock. These tactics will get you so far but they won't win you the big prizes. I'm more certain of that now than ever before.

To win, you must have a good defensive structure. But your principles must be based on scoring more than your opponents, not conceding less. In hurling you can't rob Peter to pay Paul. Eventually the imbalance will catch you out.

And it continues to short-change the game in general. We need more moments like Seamus Callanan's back flick into his hand, swivel and strike just after half-time on Sunday.

Read more: Steady on there - the race for the All-Ireland title is not just a Kilkenny-Tipp two-way affair

I'd agree with Derek McGrath's contention that they were off last Sunday, weren't sharp and made unforced errors. But I wouldn't agree that it should reinforce the need to keep the game plan they have implemented. It''s got them so far but I saw no goal threat from Waterford again on Sunday.

There are a few passages of play worth examining. When TJ Reid scored the goal in last year's semi-final, he was able to take out his marker and the sweeper from a high ball in the build-up. Similarly John McGrath was able to rise above a cluster and make space to score a goal and set up another.

You have to wonder if the numbers are actually reducing the intensity with which defenders are attacking the ball.

I'd also take issue with the idea that players in these systems need to be so interchangeable. It's a cop-out, allowing players to ask, 'Who's playing where, who's man is that'.

It's one thing switching a player from one wing to the other in either defence or attack if they're not going well but constant movement is counter-productive.

We moved around a bit in Kilkenny but never to the degree that some players are being asked to uproot now.

For Waterford to thrive they need to fix a position for Austin Gleeson, preferably centre-forward, and allow him to settle there.

Waterford will still have a say in this championship but unless they expand I don't see them as contenders.

Tipperary are. Brendan Maher's comments at the outset of the season have stood up, that Tipperary would implement their own style and not be concerned by what others do. You'll find the same attitude in Kilkenny. It's no surprise that both have retained their respective provincial finals. They have the best players but they also have the least complicated systems.

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