Thursday 17 October 2019

Comment: All-Ireland contenders need to solve one problem position before they can challenge Galway


‘In Leinster, if Daithí Burke for Galway remains the gold standard, both Dublin’s Cian O’Callaghan and Wexford’s Liam Ryan held their own this season’. Photo: Sportsfile
‘In Leinster, if Daithí Burke for Galway remains the gold standard, both Dublin’s Cian O’Callaghan and Wexford’s Liam Ryan held their own this season’. Photo: Sportsfile

Jamesie O'Connor

If there were a transfer market in the GAA, who would be the one player you would go out and buy? Ten years ago I was asked that question. At the time, JJ Delaney, Henry Shefflin, Tommy Walsh, Ollie Canning, Ken McGrath, Eoin Kelly, to name but a few, were all in their prime. You'd take any of them in a heartbeat. Ideally, you'd take all of them.

JJ was the greatest pure defender of his and possibly any era, and Shefflin's record speaks for itself. But the question was framed in a Clare context, so looking at it from a needs perspective, my answer at the time was Eoin Larkin. Hard, unselfish and totally underrated. The type of ball-winning forward with the ability and willingness to create as well as score, that the Clare side of that era - and half a dozen other teams - lacked. Larkin went on to be the 2008 hurler of the year. Others mightn't have fully appreciated his value to the team, but I always felt Brian Cody did, which is why he remained an integral part of that Kilkenny side until his retirement a couple of years ago.

If asked the same question before the 2018 championship began six weeks ago, what answer would the managers of this year's eight or nine contenders have given? What answer would they give now? A free-scoring attacker? A ball-winning half-forward? A shut-down corner-back? All valuable assets. But when it comes down to it, I think many of them would look at taking someone to solve one key area - full-back.

Is there a more important or demanding position on the field in the modern game? I'm not sure there is, and to win the big prizes you have to have someone capable of filling it. It's a problem Galway have solved, with Daithí Burke now manning the edge of the square, but a bunch of teams have struggled in the championship to get it right. None more so than Tipp, the highest-profile casualty to date.

Even after James Barry's struggles in the league final, it was still a shock to see Seamus Kennedy parachuted into the position for the championship. All things considered, he didn't do too badly, yet he still found Waterford's Tom Devine a real handful, and eventually the decision was made to move him off John Conlan in the Clare match. All the scores Clare got to close out that game - points from Conlan, Podge Collins and Peter Duggan, plus Ian Galvin's goal - were either scored from or had their origins down the left flank of the Tipp defence.

Normally, Pádraic Maher locks that area down, but when he moved his number seven in to full-back, Michael Ryan robbed Peter to pay Paul. Would Clare have had the same joy if Maher had still been in his preferred right half-back position rather than where he was at the time, redeployed to pick up the Banner's number 14?

So if Ryan would love to have had a player like Daithí Burke at his disposal this season, what about John Meyler and Derek McGrath? For Cork, Damien Cahalane was solid in the opening two matches, but had a torrid time of it on Limerick's Seamus Flanagan, and was substituted midway through the second half. Cahalane had an excellent Munster final 12 months ago, but Conlan will present a very different proposition, assuming he starts at full-forward next Sunday.

McGrath has shown huge loyalty to Barry Coughlan over the years, but he has his limitations and enjoyed the added protection afforded by Tadhg de Búrca sweeping in front of him. When both were lost to injury, Shane Fives never looked comfortable filling in, especially when Waterford played Tipp, and don't forget that Conlan caused havoc on the edge of the square when the Déise came to Ennis. It's an area that whoever replaces McGrath will have to address if Waterford are to climb back to the top of the mountain.

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In Leinster, if Daithí Burke remains the gold standard, Dublin's Cian O'Callaghan and Wexford's Liam Ryan both held their own this season. Admittedly, both also had the comfort blanket of a sweeper in front of them, but they have grown up in the position and, importantly, understand the nuances of how to play it. Colin Fennelly took Ryan to the cleaners in last year's championship, but the Wexford man didn't give an inch this time around, and has the strength and athleticism to survive in most company.

The nature of the position may have changed radically from when he soldiered there himself, but no-one knows or better understands the demands on a modern full back than Cody. After the damage inflicted by Seamus Callanan in the 2016 All-Ireland final, Cody was always going to recast his full-back line.

Despite being a four-time All Star corner-back, Paul Murphy looked lost at number three when he auditioned there during last year's league. With a dearth of alternatives, Cody finally settled on Pádraig Walsh as the man to fill the position. Walsh ticks a lot of the boxes, but I still think he's far more comfortable playing further out the field. A key question is can he handle a physically bigger and stronger opponent? Liam Rushe caused major problems when the Cats nearly came unstuck against the Dubs in the opening round. Galway have those kind of players, so who Micheál Donoghue starts on the edge of the square when they lock horns with Kilkenny in next weekend's Leinster final will be particularly interesting.

Which leaves Clare and Limerick. If you were to build a prototype of the modern-day full-back, Clare's David McInerney wouldn't be too far off what you're looking for. Strong, athletic, aggressive when he has to be and with plenty of pace, he understands there's a time to play the man and a time to play the ball. He hasn't been flawless, but Clare have looked more solid since abandoning the experiment of playing him at number six and restoring him to full back.

If it isn't a problem for Clare, I think it's the biggest issue facing John Kiely and Limerick. How far they go from here could very well hinge on how successful they are at sorting it out. Seamus Hickey started there against Tipp, but out of position, was in big trouble and unsurprisingly hasn't appeared since. I wondered who they'd replace him with against Cork and was surprised at how well Mike Casey, another corner-back by trade, played when he stepped in to fill the number three jersey. A week later he was equally effective against Waterford. However, after watching him struggle to cope with Conlan's power last Sunday, it's back to the drawing board.

When Tom Condon and David Reidy were sent off, Kiely and the Limerick management clearly didn't trust Casey and Richie English to hold up in a two-man full-back line against Conlan and Shane O'Donnell. But the tactical decision to replace a forward, Graeme Mulcahy, with a full-back, Richie McCarthy, irrevocably altered the nature of the match. Essentially it played into Clare's hands and with Limerick flat, Clare had it easier than most of us anticipated.

The three-week break won't do them any harm, and Limerick will surely take care of business against Carlow or Westmeath in the preliminary quarter-final. The acid test will come seven days later. The priority between now and then for Kiely is to figure out a plan for either Kilkenny or Galway on July 15. That means knowing exactly who will don the number three shirt for the rest of the year.

If it's Kilkenny, Cody will go after any potential weaknesses. Do they have someone with the size and strength to manage 6ft 5in Walter Walsh or 6ft 2in TJ Reid and a possible aerial bombardment? What if it's the pace and power of Colin Fennelly or Ger Aylward? And it's a completely different challenge again if Richie Hogan regains his form and is the one Cody decides to land in on the edge of the square. These are the scenarios Kiely has to plan for.

If the upset happens and it's Galway, who's best equipped to cope with the different challenges Johnny Glynn, Joe Canning or Conor Cooney might present?

Limerick can't acquire that player on the transfer market. Daithí Burke isn't available. I'm fascinated to see can they find the answers within their own dressing room. They're going to have to, because whoever wins the All-Ireland will have a solid and stable full back line in place.

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