Tipp setting the new goal standard
When the Tipperary squad travelled to Carton House for a training camp the weekend before last year's All-Ireland final, Tipp coach Eamonn O'Shea met six different groups of players at different times throughout the Friday to go through their game plan.
They concentrated on playing a screen defence, making sure they didn't give away goal chances around the 'D' and tackling the Kilkenny runners coming through early from out the field.
Most of those concepts had been imported from football and perfected by Kilkenny, but the main thrust of Tipp's game plan focused on consistently trying to destabilise the Kilkenny defence. The last three words O'Shea said to the players in the huddle before the final were, "Attack, attack, attack."
Tipperary were going for Kilkenny's throat and they saw Noel Hickey as the Adam's apple. They had spoken about getting inside Hickey's head and making him constantly uneasy about who he was supposed to be picking up. At one stage of the first half, Hickey found himself on three different players in the space of five minutes.
For Brendan Maher's first point on 17 minutes, Hickey was out near the sideline in front of the Cusack Stand after Lar Corbett had taken him for a spin before Brendan Cummins took a puck-out. Hickey had no choice but to follow Corbett because of the huge space that Tipp were creating. By that stage, Kilkenny's defensive shape was in tatters.
Prior to last year's All-Ireland final, the one constant about Kilkenny's defence was how they'd consistently held their shape. Teams have tried to run them and drag them around the field but you rarely saw a Kilkenny defender isolated or without support in acres of space.
Tipp's forward play is all about movement and interchanging, and they had the confidence and pace to discomfit Kilkenny by creating an environment that was almost alien to them.
When Corbett got isolated with Hickey for his first goal, the nearest three Kilkenny defenders were out on the 45-metre line after Shane McGrath struck the ball in. When Gearoid Ryan drove the ball into Noel McGrath for Corbett's second goal, there were only two Kilkenny defenders inside their own 45-metre line. Eoin Kelly was just inside his own 65-metre line, with Jackie Tyrrell close by, and Corbett sped into that vacated space.
Kilkenny are normally able to compress the space to make Croke Park appear like a soccer field, but Tipp were on a different level to any other team Kilkenny had met in terms of movement up front. In that context, Kilkenny's defenders couldn't play a zonal system when they were chasing the game so early.
Hurling has consistently changed before our eyes, but Tipp have moved it on to another level with the fluidity of their movement up front, which was evident in the Munster final. Waterford went man-to-man with their attack once more and Tipp just ripped them apart.
Much of the credit for Tipp's style is down to O'Shea. When he first got involved with Tipp in 2008, one of his chief motivations was how defensive hurling had become. So many teams had tried to copy the Kilkenny defensive template, which immediately handed the psychological advantage to Kilkenny. Now, the swagger and panache of Tipperary's hurling, which was reflected through the imaginative personality and philosophy of O'Shea, has been further refined by the excellent coaching of Tommy Dunne.
Tipp's attitude and style has been refreshing for hurling, but they have forced opposing teams into a critical assessment of how to contain them. For a start, there is a fundamental issue with trying to man-mark their forwards because their constant movement will always create acres of space for their speedsters to exploit.
Waterford thought they had cracked a new defensive game plan last year by flooding their half-back line and midfield sector with disciplined zonal marking. Shane O'Sullivan effectively played as an auxiliary centre-back with Michael 'Brick' Walsh sitting further back to protect the full-back line. With Stephen Molumphy also playing as an extra midfielder and consistently providing Walsh with a short-passing outlet, Waterford's system allowed their defenders to repeatedly hold their positions.
The system secured Waterford a Munster title, but it came apart in the All-Ireland semi-final when Noel McGrath played deep and took Walsh for five points. That system failure asked serious questions of the Waterford wing-forwards and midfielders, but it also showed how hurling continues to evolve; a centre-back can no longer afford to continually stand off his man and sweep.
However, it also highlighted that one of the fundamental aspects of Tipp's movement hinges on the style of their precise game. That style demands an incredibly high success rate with short stick passes, but the execution is made easier when their inside forwards are vacating space before the ball is delivered in there. Yet if that space is covered, Tipp can pick teams apart by getting the ball into the hands of drifting strikers all over the forward line.
In the Munster final, their primary tactic, especially in the first half, was to just get the ball into the full-forward line as quickly as possible from out the field. When they did, the pace of their attack created havoc in the space.
Tipp have also shown that any successful system takes time to bed down. It also requires immense athleticism and pace and the right players to execute it. Yet a close analysis of their system shows that they are always looking to get at least two players running on to breaking ball around the 'D'.
In that regard, teams must have a holding player in that area, while allowing every other defender to man-mark. That would at least give defences a consistent presence in the area where Tipp look to inflict their most lethal damage.
Tipp have just taken the Kilkenny mentality of gutting a team with goals to the next level. Goals -- and plenty of them -- don't just win matches; they also psychologically destroy teams.
Tipp have clearly changed the attitude towards goal-scoring. Three years ago, DJ Carey -- the greatest modern goal-scorer, with 34 goals in 57 championship matches, had this to say: "In the past, a forward wanted to get a goal or two or three points every day. I won't say guys are looking for the soft option now, but they're looking for the best option. You don't really see too many risk-takers now, but managers don't want players who are very individual, they want players who are going to be team players."
What Tipp -- and Corbett in particular -- reflect is that difference in mindset. In last year's All-Ireland final, Corbett made just six plays and destroyed Kilkenny with three of them.
If you examine statistics, goal-scoring trends from the mid-1980s have decreased by 3.1 goals per championship match. However, Tipp are in the process of hiking those stats back up again now with 24 in their last six championship matches.
Although Kilkenny have radically altered hurling's new point-scoring standard, goals have become king again. There have already been more goals scored in this year's championship (88) than there were in last season's campaign (79) -- see panel.
Dublin have made huge progress, but the biggest concern they've had all season is their lack of goals against top opposition. During the league, they only managed five goals in their clashes with Kilkenny (twice), Galway, Waterford, Tipp and Cork. In the championship, they didn't create any goal-scoring chances against Galway, while their goal against Kilkenny came from a free.
Dublin's play all year had been characterised by the 'heads-up hurling' style of Tipperary, which reaped huge dividends. Against Kilkenny though, they didn't deliver the ball quickly enough into the full-forward line and Kilkenny's pressing of the man in possession was relentless. As a result, Dublin turned over way too much possession.
Kilkenny's physicality also highlighted how hurling has changed. Dublin, Tipperary, Waterford and Kilkenny have introduced a physicality and level of conditioning never seen before in hurling.
In a recent interview, Dublin's Conal Keaney said that the biggest change he noticed in hurling since he returned to the game after five years with the footballers was the "amount of hits".
Galway were physically bullied by Dublin, who in turn were bossed by Kilkenny. Yet Dublin have an opportunity to show now that they have learned their lesson and they can adapt. Similarly, Waterford also have the chance tomorrow to absorb the lessons from the Munster final and put them to good use.
In fairness, Galway have shown they have adapted because they are using possession far more intelligently than they were early in the summer. Their movement up front is far slicker, while they're stitching more long stick passes together.
Ultimately though, this year's All-Ireland will be decided by how teams react and learn, especially from Tipp. Because unless teams change in the modern game, they'll just be eaten alive.