Wednesday 20 November 2019

Christy O'Connor: Déise league success owes much to game's recent evolution

Waterford forwards Pauric Mahony and Stephen Bennett put pressure on Cork defender Shane O’Neill during last Sunday’s NHL final in Thurles
Waterford forwards Pauric Mahony and Stephen Bennett put pressure on Cork defender Shane O’Neill during last Sunday’s NHL final in Thurles
Clare boss Davy Fitzgerald
Waterford manager Derek McGrath

Christy O'Connor

When Brian Cody let fly the day after last year's All-Ireland final replay about comments made, and opinions formed, of Kilkenny after the 2013 championship, Cody's words carried similar tones from the aftermath of previous Kilkenny All-Ireland successes.

In his post-match press conference after the 2011 All-Ireland final, Cody made reference to a newspaper headline after that year's league final defeat to Dublin which caused him offence. It had clear echoes from his post-match comments after the 2006 All-Ireland final when he claimed that Kilkenny had been widely "written off" all year.

Last September, Cody sneered at the general consensus after the 2013 championship that a new era might be dawning for hurling. "I've seen four or five new types of hurling since I've come into this job in people's minds," said Cody.


"But the fundamentals of the game can't change. It's impossible to change the fundamentals of a team sport like hurling. If you think you can, then you might start winning All-Irelands."

Publicly, Kilkenny rarely drop their guard but trainer Michael Dempsey hinted last May at Kilkenny's attitude towards talk of a New World Order.

"I'm not so sure the style of hurling has changed hugely," said Dempsey. "Maybe Clare do play more of a running game but the fundamentals are still about winning ball and using it very well. Maybe if you compared Kilkenny from previous All-Irelands, I don't think there might be as big a difference as people are portraying."

It was a valid point because Kilkenny played a very precise passing game at stages of the 2011 All-Ireland final to negate Tipperary protecting the D. Kilkenny have always prided themselves on being able to individually win their own ball but their possession management was poor at times in 2013 and they accepted they had to tweak their style last year.

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Their use of possession was far better. There was also a noticeable alteration to their tactical shape. Kilkenny were always the masters at protecting their defence but, apart from the drawn All-Ireland final, they offered even more of a shield to the centre of their defence.

Despite those tweaks, Cody is still correct about hurling's fundamentals not changing. Game plans and styles have become an important part of hurling's lexicon but Kilkenny's most distinguishable colours on the tactical canvas are still the black and white of savage hunger and desire. In the All-Ireland final replay, they made more hooks, blocks and successful tackles in a big game since their previous benchmark set in 2006.

Kilkenny have always been more reactive than innovative but they have still repeatedly moved as the game has radically evolved over the last decade.

The 2002 All-Ireland semi-final between Kilkenny and Tipperary was regarded as one of the greatest games of modern times but the quality, tactics and tactical set-up in that match were light years away from last year's drawn final.

That match blended all of those elements which have enhanced the game over the last decade: breakneck pace, short stick passing, rotating forward lines, intricate puck-out strategies, ferocious intensity, manic tackling, turnovers, laser accuracy and massive score-fests.

Honesty and work rate is still the key to Kilkenny's template but it would also be wrong to assume that it is their only focus. Before last year's All-Ireland final, the squad went to Carton House for a training weekend.

In their discussions about Tipp's space-creation up front, the Kilkenny players were broken up into groups of six and asked to come up with plans to curtail Tipp's attacking threat. When the ideas were pooled together, designated roles for restricting space were broken down into zones and illustrated on a flip-chart. Despite what they say, Kilkenny do tactics.

In the modern game, innovation always follows innovation. It forces others to look harder at themselves. Last season, Waterford conceded 17 goals in six league games. When management dropped a host of older players last autumn, they were doing so with a new system in mind, and the pace, youth and athleticism required to carry it out. This season, they conceded three goals from play in eight league games.


Is Waterford's system now that radical, that totally new to hurling? Absolutely not. Strains of it late on in the league quarter-final against Galway, when they were trying to lock the game down, were ultra-defensive but Waterford's counter-attacking style is broadly similar to the one which almost carried Galway to an All-Ireland title in 2012.

Clare's style in 2013 was regarded as New Order again but Joe Canning said last May that there were "a lot of comparisons" with how Galway played in 2012 and how Clare set up in 2013. Still, Clare's tactical flexibility and fluidity set a new target for everyone else to match.

Hurling is such an instinctive game that nobody can be tied to a set system but the game has still become so physical and tactically broad that detailed structural planning is the most logical way to marry expression with results.

Waterford have simply just boarded that train. They have more pace in their defence. Their work rate - which defines any system - has increased but they are still far more defensively sound and tactically adaptable. On occasions, they have lined up with a triangle formation in attack, with one forward directly behind the opposition centre-back and two corner-forwards playing deep, which negates the opposition's capacity to set up with a sweeper. Waterford have become very structured but executing the game plan requires huge discipline and fitness levels. Protecting possession is also a shared responsibility. With extra bodies back, and often only one or two forwards up top, receivers must always move and be available. In that transition to attack, the players playing the pass must give the best ball possible. That is something Waterford still need to work on.

It will often break down but in the modern game, expression can't really prosper without structure, especially for young teams. Waterford have been wrongly compared to Donegal but there have been similarities between Derek McGrath's thinking and the mindset Jim McGuinness adopted in 2011.

The key comparative word is traction. The first rule is make your team harder to beat. More defensively sound. Then when confidence and momentum builds, as it has for Waterford, the players' trust in the system is reinforced. As the team evolves, it can become more expressive. Waterford were more attack-minded last Sunday as a tally of 1-24 confirms.

At the moment, Waterford look very similar to Clare in early 2013. Back then, Clare also didn't look set up to score many goals but when Clare finally became more comfortable with their system, they took off. Waterford currently don't have a goalscorer like Shane O'Donnell or Conor McGrath but greater confidence fosters more potential to tweak a system.

Young teams also learn on the hoof. The most important match Clare played in 2013 was against Laois. They won by 20 points but the performance reinforced the value in the system for the players. Then Clare kicked on.

Desire and work rate will always outstrip tactics and game plans but statistical analysis has gone to a whole new level and most teams now have some kind of plan for different days, for different teams. That is a key challenge for Waterford as the summer unfolds.

Although Clare gunned down Cork in the 2013 All-Ireland final replay, they threw something completely different at Cork last June. They played Tony Kelly and Podge Collins just off Conor McGrath, almost like a third line between McGrath and their half-forward line.

Clare assumed that Cork would leave the same space in that sector as they had against Waterford earlier and that McGrath, Kelly and Collins would torch Cork with their firepower so close to goal. They didn't. Cork learned. Teams learn.

The starting point for Cork now against Waterford on June 7 will be an increase in work rate and intensity. But just as important will be how much they have learned from Waterford's system. Cork play a conventional game but how can they get around Waterford with that mindset? Can they throw a tactical curveball of their own to unhinge it?

It will be one of the many fascinating sub-plots of the hurling summer.

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