Hurling spontaneity swept away by a rising fear of defeat
Ubiquitous sweeper systems are strangling excitement and skill.
Two weeks ago, during his pre-match TV analysis for the Tipperary and Limerick under 21 Munster semi-final, John Allen brought us back to our school days with mention of an Irish word we hadn't heard in years.
Allen was wondering whether either team would opt for defensive structures, as is now the fashion, when the word scubadoir, the Irish for 'sweeper', suddenly cropped up.
Thoughts of scubadoir joining hurling's modern-day glossary doesn't exactly fan our anticipation levels for the game, but we'd better get used to it. Of the four teams in action at Thurles today, for example, three will most likely play with an out-and-out sweeper, while the other will use a more inclusive defensive structure.
Galway haven't gone for the extra man to date, despite talk that they will today, but they will still pull their forwards back, congest the midfield and cram their own back line.
Waterford swear by the scubadoir, Dublin seem to rotate one even though there is no defined role there, and even Cork, traditionally the most open, attacking team around, have followed suit. Perhaps they had to after the number of goals they conceded in the league. With Mark Landers since re-designing their defence they have tightened up considerably. Last time out in their excellent win over Clare, Mark Ellis dropped back. Afterwards, Jimmy Barry-Murphy said they had little choice but to change the way they think.
"We conceded too much in the league, shipped far too many goals and we knew that if we were to have any say in this year's championship, that had to improve. And fair play to Mark Landers, he has worked very hard on that area and we have tightened up a good bit."
Barry-Murphy is not massively into tactics and feels that spontaneity remains a huge part of the game, but with so little room out there nowadays, that glorious, off-the-cuff feel to the game is slowly ebbing away.
Intercounty hurlers cover an average of 10.2km per game and they average 10 possessions. But they are in control of the ball for just 27 seconds of each game. It's hard enough to be spontaneous without the added complication of also trying to beat an over-crammed defence. But that's the way it is now.
People are convinced that if Cork had operated a sweeper system in the 2013 All-Ireland final replay against Clare, they would have won, as large gaps were exposed in the drawn match and more glaring holes in the rematch. In contrast, Davy Fitzgerald used his own sweeper system through the championship, with Pat Donnellan taking the position and bossing it. Other teams looked on, saw how to win, and they have adapted the template. Waterford have enhanced it even further. With almost everyone trying the method out, there have been consequences.
The role hasn't exactly left the supporters dancing in the aisles. The sweeper system just means teams are harder to break down and there are fewer goals on view; the fans are nowhere near the edge of their seats and you often have two sides playing tennis with each other, clearing ball up to a loose man and seeing it come back just as quick.
It's a nightmare for any forward to get space and you saw how the likes of Seamus Callanan, Tipp's marquee striker, was upset against Waterford in the Munster final because he was either double-tagged or devoid of room whenever the ball came near him. Perhaps it's why Kilkenny continue to use Richie Hogan in the pocket and give TJ Reid a free role, allowing both of them to drift across the field without any leash to pull them back.
When Cork and Clare contested that All-Ireland final replay in 2013, they hit eight goals between them. This year's entire Munster series only produced 12, and four of those were scored by Tipp against Limerick.
There have been a few big hurling weekends thus far, but the season has not caught fire. Two weeks ago we had another big weekend, but four big games yielded just two goals
"Winning primary possession becomes even more important than ever when faced with a defensive/sweeper set-up," says Offaly's Brian Carroll, who was schooled in hurling at St Kieran's, the most traditional of college strongholds. There, Carroll learned about skill, speed, toughness and craft. In his latter days as an Offaly hurler - one of the few who has maintained some form - he has had to wave goodbye to the orthodox corner-forward role that he grew up embracing.
"Those assigned to 'mark' tend to try and play the man first and foremost, ensuring the loose or breaking ball is left to the sweeper," he points out. "That means space is at a premium for opposing backs to try and pick out the forward. It can become very frustrating for forwards, particularly the inside line, when faced with this approach.
"For those few balls you do receive, if you don't win possession first time, there doesn't tend to be a second chance with the sweeper doubling up."
Carroll, not surprisingly, says it's not exactly the best crack in the world, having to face the extra man.
"It's not very pretty and it certainly isn't too much fun to be playing against," he admitted. "Managers and teams who use this approach tell us that it's a 'results-driven business' and they have to do whatever it takes to win.
"But from a purist point of view I detest it and feel it's not far from 'puke hurling'. It's adopting Gaelic football tactics and we all know how the general public feel about the way that game is going. I hate to think we are following suit. We're lucky the top two teams in the country, Kilkenny and Tipperary, haven't succumbed to such out-and-out defensive tactics, although Tipp are flirting with it in their positioning of Paudie Maher."
Origins in Gaelic football
Many would argue that while Kilkenny are not employing a definitive sweeper, they are nonetheless bringing several bodies back and managing to reduce space all the way from their own full-forward line back.
People once likened the Kilkenny defensive system to the blanket that the Tyrone footballers operated at the height of their powers. Both sides won all around them and always managed to rack up healthy scores at the other end too.
For other hurling teams, it's all about pragmatism. They can only win games if they first shut up shop and work from there. Last year Waterford shipped more leaks than the Titanic. This season they plugged them during the league, ran at teams and forced fouls, with Pauric Mahony's frees propelling them to the Division 1 title. In the Munster final they came up just short because they still haven't got the balance right between that closeted defence and maximising their attacking options too.
They could learn from the Donegal football template.
"Well, Donegal brought their take on the defensive system a number of years ago, it was successful for them and they won the All-Ireland; as a result teams started and continue to copy it," says Damien Young, performance analyst and lecturer at Setanta College.
"They wanted to make themselves hard to beat, which they did in year one, but found it hard to score. They adapted the system in year two and won the All-Ireland. Some teams that have copied the concept have failed to adapt to the attacking part of the game."
That will be the new challenge for Derek McGrath. He will meet it head on too.
Line of evolution
For the moment, McGrath's model is the hottest act in town. But we've been down this road before. The game constantly evolves and this is just one era.
Remember how physical fitness helped propel Clare to the 1995 All-Ireland, and then their use of the third midfielder against Tipp in the 1997 decider?
"In 2001 Tipp brought the speed, agility and quickness (SAQ) template," Young adds. "In 2003 Cork brought the possession running game and in 2005 Kilkenny set up from a puck-out system that originated in Waterford IT under Tadhg O'Sullivan in 1999. Tipp came to the fore in 2009 with their fast movement of the ball, but by 2012 all the emphasis was on strength and conditioning.
"In 2013 we had the introduction of the defensive sweeper and now in 2015 we have a complete defensive retrieval for some teams.
"Teams have often played a sweeper when playing against the wind, now teams are setting up with one from the start," Young continues.
There is every chance that today we might see late adapters to the sweeper system being caught out, but they have no choice but to adapt to what everyone else is doing.
Can skill still prevail?
Compacting the game is a challenge for everyone because hurling still requires the players to be technically proficient.
"Managers must remember that teams are made up of individuals, all with different strengths, and if coaches try to apply a system that doesn't suit their team, will they have the same opportunity to be successful?" asks Young.
Our best recollection of the set-up was in the 2004 All-Ireland quarter-final when Clare used a seven-man defence against Kilkenny, shipping Alan Markham back from the forwards. It worked a treat in the drawn game and put Clare on the verge of pulling off a wholly unlikely win. But in the replay Kilkenny had cottoned on to it and Clare hit a world of loose ball into areas where they had no player situated, leaving Kilkenny to hoist it back down the field - again like tennis.
No one expected this year's Munster final to open up but a fascinating, intense and key tactical battle was anticipated with top-drawer skills on view. We didn't really get that. Players often only get on the ball seven times but the respective sweepers, Pádraic Maher and Tadhg de Búrca, had 22 possessions between them.
The seven-man defence is no longer frowned upon. It is accepted. But when you get to nine and 10-man rearguards, that's where the trouble begins. Skill levels are slowly strangled.
The game is speeding up all the time but the real question is where is it going? Fans are bored, leaving games, and this year's championship has been as dull as dishwater.
No room for the maverick
Defensive game-plans have a role and a place and also a short shelf life. Teams play around them eventually. Right now they are depending on hand-passing, plenty of it illegal by the way. Stick-passing with one hand on the hurl is another increasingly used tool.
Anything to keep the ball. The fundamentals are still the same and should not change, but with such systematic defensive plans in place the mercurial forward is being shoved out of the game.
After exhilarating 2013 and 2014 All-Ireland championships, this year's fare has been average.
Maybe it will come good today but with crowded midfields, isolated forwards, and players running from deep, soloing and drawing frees, we are not entirely sure what's left for Dotsy O'Callaghan, Pat Horgan, Cathal Mannion, Brian O'Halloran and company.
Tactics have their place but let's hope for spontaneity too. That's what the game is all about.
Sunday Indo Sport