Henry Shefflin: There's something wrong when it's harder to have the ball than not
Clare and Waterford have their systems down to a fine art but entertainment is suffering
Published 07/05/2016 | 02:30
Last Sunday's drawn League final left me with a cluttered mind as I spun home that evening from Donnybrook after television commitments.
Good game? Bad game? Certainly a strange game.
I don't have the stat on it but I'll wager that the sideline count was through the roof as both teams squeezed the life out of each other to such a degree in that congested middle third, forcing so much play out to the wings.
That was always the most probable outcome when two like-minded teams set up virtually as a mirror-image of each other.
They didn't hide it in the build-up either, voices from both sides prefacing that it would be tactical, even warning that it wouldn't be pretty. They weren't wrong on that front.
You have to wonder about a game when it is almost harder to have the ball than to be without it.
But that was so often the way it was as players hurried to get shots off to avoid the swarm.
I'm sure the supporters from both teams were engrossed but for the neutral you would have to have misgivings. It was tight but the entertainment value, the sense of drama that people expect from a game of hurling, was low.
An example. Kevin Moran caught a fantastic ball out near the sideline at one stage and the crowd rose to it. In an instant, though, he was smothered by three pursuers and the ball was ushered out over the sideline.
The crowd's engagement with the moment was lost and a lull ensued, when a follow-on strike from Moran would have really generated excitement. In that sense, the game suffers.
An attachment to that congestion is the use of sweepers at both ends. This development in hurling, particularly from Clare and Waterford, has really set me thinking.
So much so that I took to researching more about it in the days after Sunday to try and get a better understanding of the thought process that underpins it.
I'm coming from a position where I never hurled on a team that deployed a sweeper system.
I was drawn to a tutorial online delivered by Paul Kinnerk to the Munster Hurling Coaches Academy last February.
Paul has recently returned to Clare as part of the backroom team after taking more than a year out. He was an integral part of their 2013 success and their trio of All-Ireland U-21 titles.
Part of the resource, based on developing better decision-making, focused on the use of the sweeper and ways to circumvent it.
Watching that video it's clear why Davy Fitz was so keen to persuade him back and why the players might have had such a rapport with him. He brings impressive clarity to what he speaks about, emphasising as much the why as the how.
It struck me the level of detail that goes into it and the time, I'm sure, that they invest in getting it right.
But it also struck me that some of the stuff he spoke of should come naturally to a player and shouldn't require too much illustration. Spot a player in space then hit the ball into that space.
There wasn't anything that made me say 'right I'm going to take this straight down to the club and put it into practice'.
He spoke of positions on the field that deliveries should come from to potentially take out the sweeper.
So when Cian Dillon or Pat O'Connor take a short puck-out their instinct is not to look for distance straight away but to take the ball out to their own 65 metre line and deliver then.
It made sense but you have to wonder, should a sweeper not be able to read that easily and re-adjust?
You have to say it is working for both teams, especially Waterford I feel. They've both reached a League final and forced it to a replay.
And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that underage teams are picking up on it. I hear, for instance, that the Tipperary U-21s have been using a sweeper.
But a trend? I don't think so.
Clare and Waterford are unquestionably the two teams that have best mastered this style of play. Limerick tried a variation of it in their semi-final but without being accustomed to the repetition it clearly requires, they eventually cracked.
Does it take from natural instinct? I feel it does.
To me, decision making in hurling should always come naturally. When I was growing up, someone didn't tell me to run into space, it was something I identified in my own mind and I just went with it.
A player should be able to measure the depth of a run using his own game intelligence, not one that has been programmed for him. But overall the adherence to systems by both teams is impressive.
That said, I don't think either team were at their best in the final. They certainly didn't reach the high standards of their semi-final performances. Their touch and sharpness seemed so good that day.
Maybe they got too caught up in the prospect of facing a system so similar to their own and overloaded on the strategy because they were in each other's company.
I said last year that I didn't think that a team playing a one-man full-forward line could win an All-Ireland hurling title and I stand by that.
Waterford's system got them so far last year. But only so far. This season, no doubt, they have developed their game with Patrick Curran and Shane Bennett a year older and a year wiser.
We didn't see much from Bennett, or Conor McGrath for that matter, but when they both took up deeper positions after the break, they prospered, and seemed to me to be the players hurling most instinctively in that second period.
Bennett's last score down the New Stand side married touch, speed, power and accuracy to generate that excitement that I felt was missing for so long.
For Clare to thrive with the system they use, John Conlon is pivotal. There are very few hurlers out there with the raw, natural power to win a dropping ball in around the square like he can.
Like an old fashioned soccer centre-forward he's strong enough to break it, hold up the play, sometimes engage two defenders and await support.
Too often in his absence last Sunday when it was breaking, the extra defenders were getting back to mop up and it all looked so easy.
Conlon used that power to create goals against Kilkenny in the semi-final. Aaron Cunningham profited with two yet on Sunday, if he got the ball three times, that was about the height of it by my reckoning. That's the nature of this system.
Aaron probably clocked the same distance as the Kilkenny game but couldn't get into it. It can be hard to play and for a player, frustrating too.
My sense is that it's less suitable to Clare's players than it is to Waterford's. If both set up in an orthodox formation I feel Clare would win it. They have more natural scoring power through the likes of McGrath, Kelly, Shane O'Donnell, forwards that can really cut a team open.
Kelly will benefit from 90 minutes of hurling. He came good at times last Sunday but, not unexpectedly, the consistency wasn't there after the absence he has had.
Free-taking was a big issue for Waterford on Sunday. The nature of their game is that they're going to win frees, more often than not, from the straight-line runs that the likes of Jamie Barron and Colin Dunford make at bigger men with their arms spread wide.
They had three different free-takers before Maurice Shanahan arrived and the composure he showed for that equaliser should inform team selection this time.
I thought Waterford would win last Sunday and my instinct still says they will. Clare will benefit from the added game-time Kelly and Colm Galvin got last week. O'Donnell may also have a bigger influence if Clare want a different point of attack.
I've been impressed too by Cian Dillon and Pat O'Connor's understanding in defence.
I didn't see any great correlation between the outcome last Sunday and their Munster Championship semi-final in four weeks' time. In fact I saw a greater opportunity for atonement for the losers on June 5.
But now the stakes are raised and I'm not so sure.
If you don't manage to beat a team with two attempts can you really be that confident third time out?
So opportunity knocks even more this time, the prospect of firing a shot across the bows of your Championship opponents too good now to turn down.
We can expect more of the same but not for as long. This game will loosen quicker and may even produce a couple of goals.
But Waterford's defence has been very mean and compact in how they've gone about their business all season. That, and more consistency from frees, can give them an edge.
On another note, the Championship started last weekend in Leinster and wins for Kerry and Westmeath underlined how strong the game is in the pockets of those counties where it is so popular.
In a week where Leicester City has everyone in sport talking, it allows Kerry and Westmeath to dream for years to come.