Hurling's safety-first policy will melt in the heat of championship
Hurling is much more of a heads-up game than ever before and the standards are higher
Last Sunday's National Hurling League final in Thurles moved Ken McGrath to deliver a short message to his followers on Twitter. 'I'm glad I played hurling when I did,' he declared in an uncomplimentary reference to much of the day's play, before extra-time offered some salvation. McGrath was often too cavalier for his own time, let alone the one we are in now, but many will feel a degree of empathy with his sentiments. Before extra-time, the aggregate score after 70 minutes was the lowest for a league final since 1999.
Nothing stays the same and this phase will pass too. For the moment Waterford, the free spirits of the last decade, swear by a system of play that might not be easy on the eye at times but has earned them a gratifying run of results, the end justifying the means. McGrath acknowledges that too. "I am from a different era to the younger lads who grew up playing that type of hurling. To me it would be totally unnatural to play that way. When I played you got rid of the ball into the forward line whereas now they are holding the ball, taking it into the tackle and drawing the man before letting it off."
This matrix is the creation of minds driven by an understandable goal: to make Waterford harder to beat. It is only five years since they conceded seven goals in a Munster final; now they might not concede that in a season. In McGrath's time as a player their Achilles heel was often the full-back line. On Sunday last Clare dropped numerous balls on their full-back, a simple strategy richly rewarded against Kilkenny, but which this time reaped little dividend. John Conlon, their first-choice in that role when he is fit, would have struggled with the heavy policing Waterford provide.
Even if the numbers offer them a distinct advantage, Waterford have highly-skilled hurlers in their own half of the field. Theirs may not be a template for others to follow, and they may well come up with a variation during the summer that they are holding from view now, but the days of conventional formations and configurations are gone, as they are in football.
If the Gaelic football a wing-forward needs the legs of a racehorse, hurling forwards are expected to observe no territorial limits. Kilkenny have been using their wing-forwards as supplementary midfielders and half-backs for years. Waterford have merely advanced it a few stages. The idea that last Sunday had two sides operating the same system, effectively leading to stalemate, is not quite true. Clare were not set up the same way and tried to follow a similar path to the semi-final but their forwards could not get the same traction.
Eoin Kelly, one of the game's best forwards, won an All-Ireland with Tipperary at the start of this decade. But that might have been a generation ago, hurling has moved on so much. Thinking as a forward he appreciates how difficult it is for an attacking player to breach that kind of system."I think frustration is the word you'd use because the flow of ball coming into the full-forward line isn't there. And the guys having to shoot from 60 or 70 yards out, that is the most frustrating thing when you play inside. The other side of it is, and you saw that with Maurice Shanahan last year, you become a battering ram inside in the full-forward line and marking two if not three defenders. You need a guy who can do that, who has the right mentality. (John) Conlon can hurl and can make the ball stick. If you leave the field with your tongue hanging out well then you have your job done for the team, that is the way it is gone."
At one stage last Sunday Conor McGrath, the day's top scorer with 0-13, ended up 30 metres from his own goal to take a pass from Patrick O'Connor to relieve pressure on the Clare defence. McGrath had number 15 on his back but none of his scores came from that position; he had the run of the field and fully exercised that right.
To survive within that system you need to be an exceptional hurler, especially if your mission is to score. McGrath has those qualities, with an unfailingly honest work-rate and lavishly skilled. Podge Collins spent considerable time nailed onto Austin Gleeson. Tony Kelly was frequently back around his team's half-back line to pick up ball and offer defensive assistance. Waterford, too, asked a lot of young players like Patrick Curran and Shane Bennett to forage when outnumbered and to hold their chins up when the going was tough and the ball wasn't running for them.
Eoin Kelly relates the experience of the 2013 league final against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park. "I was in the full-forward line and Lar (Corbett) beside me, and Noel McGrath was wearing number 10 outside me. He was made a third midfielder and Kieran Joyce sat back as a defender, so they had six defenders against five forwards, that's when they had strong and physical backs, really well organised. That day you were living off scraps. Whereas now it is five forwards against seven backs."
Ken McGrath feels Waterford have to push the boat out a bit more to win an All-Ireland and extract more from the quality of players within the squad. "I understand where the lads were coming from, trying to make the team competitive again. Last year was great, being league champions and getting to an All-Ireland semi-final, but I think if we want to win the All-Ireland we will have to expand on it a bit more and we have the players to be able to do that."
He thinks of those matches from the last decade when a clearance down the field would switch play in a second and nail the crowd's attention. For a long time last Sunday he felt the crowd was only loosely engaged. But reservations over tactics being a corruptive influence in hurling precede Waterford and Clare. The exasperation caused by Cyril Farrell's Galway in the 1980s when they went for a third midfielder, and began to make liberal use of the hand-pass, is similar to today's misgivings over crowded defences and elaborate close-quarter passing movements.
Tactics were always there in some form but the radical overhaul of traditional formations and the obsession with minding possession are developments that have brought it to a new level. If it works, any new method will have a future, or until it is found out. One of the epic moments of the last decade was Diarmuid O'Sullivan's point from 100 yards for Cork against Limerick in the Munster Championship, the very essence of old school: man wins ball, shoulders opponent out of the way and gives every ounce of his being to the clearance. Applied to today's climate: man wins ball, decks opponent (still allowed) and then hits a stick pass to one of his half-backs 20 yards away.
Cork, though, were the Waterford of their time, with the stick passing and running game that originated in Newtownshandrum rapidly gaining currency when it proved as successful as it did. The philosophy peddled by Bernie O'Connor in north Cork and Donal O'Grady in the traditional stronghold of the city was basically the same. Possession was king. Always look for a better placed option. Don't hit and hope.
Rewind a few weeks to this year's league quarter-final between Dublin and Limerick in Parnell Park. Limerick's victory was notable in being Dublin's first loss there in five years, a venue characterised and mythologised by space restriction. It wasn't a good Dublin performance and the game itself had long spells where ball was delivered aimlessly into areas manned by sweepers.
At the moment the Dublin hurlers are trying to perfect a short game, with the influence of Newtownshandrum's Patsy Morrissey, a current selector. Against Limerick some of their short puckouts backfired and they conceded turnovers and scores. Like everything, when it works, it's great. Dublin, in Anthony Daly's time, played a seventh defender when facing Kilkenny in the 2009 Leinster final. It never looked like they would win but it didn't look like they would be destroyed either, like Waterford the previous September. The principle being the same one underlying the system that Waterford now apply: safety first. When Daly used Alan Markham as a sweeper in 2004 it almost derailed Kilkenny; when they lost playing the sweeper people objected to it being too negative and reducing their impact up the field.
Back in early 2004, Bernie O'Connor, argued unapologetically for the new possession game, even if hurling that way was heresy for some in the county. "If you can name any team game in the world that the main emphasis is not on passing the ball then I'll change my style," he said. "Why should hurling be so much different than any other game? You have good midfielders not playing well simply because the ball is being flaked up over their heads the whole time. They're inside in the middle like zombies running here and there, the ball flying over them. Now my argument is: put them on the ball.
"I would say to all half-backs, if there's a midfielder loose tap it out to him; he's the link between backs and forwards, you've your job done. That's how it should be. I'm sick of saying this: it takes brain to play short ball, brawn to play long ball."
O'Connor, whether you agreed with him or regarded him as an apostate, was a brave voice in a traditional heartland like Cork. "I think it's total hurling, not hit and hope. You're hitting the ball with a purpose, you think when you get the ball. Most hurling is played off-the-cuff; get it and flake it. I don't think that is the right type of hurling. I've been told I'm not playing traditional Cork hurling."
Clare are rewriting the script too and under their own puckouts their half-backs take up wing-forward positions. Waterford, if their methods continue to evolve, will surely see greater numbers pushed forward and the time will come when they employ less defensive cover in order to allow it. You might not see it today, weeks away from another match with Clare in the championship. You might be more likely to see it on June 5.
Go through development squads in many counties now and you will find that the majority of players are able to make stick passes of 30 yards count as a matter of routine. Hurling is a more heads-up game than ever and the quality of the hurling has never been as high. Nor have the methods used to suppress it. No system is without its flaws. Ways will eventually be discovered of loosening the bolts that hold any system together. Not by chance, though, but after careful analysis and preparation, work unseen, before the teams come together under the hot lights.
Sunday Indo Sport