Thursday 27 June 2019

Cutting edge: Line art still a major draw

Since 1985 players have been allowed place the ball when taking sidelines. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Since 1985 players have been allowed place the ball when taking sidelines. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

'Since this is a placed ball, and the player is free to make the best possible use of it, he should approach it with complete confidence, abandoning all fears of mis-hitting.' - Christy Ring on taking a sideline cut

A couple of years ago Ronan Maher delivered a sideline monster stroke similar to the one which became the talk of last weekend's league semi-final win over Limerick. It happened during a mid-Tipp under 21 A final between Thurles Sarsfields and Holycross-Ballycahill at Boherlahan when he was playing centre-back, the year he became the youngest centre-back to win an All-Ireland with Tipperary since Tony Wall 60 years ago.

It had been a long year and by the time the under 21 final came along they were hurling well into November. The ground was unpromisingly heavy when Maher went to place the ball. One of the opposing side's mentors standing nearby is reputed to have shouted, 'Watch this, it will go short'; high-risk sledging as it transpired for Maher put it over from somewhere in the region of 80 metres, as he did a week ago.

That last effort against Limerick was one of two on the night but easily his most spectacular, catapulted into the night sky with no run-up and clearing the crossbar with loads to spare. But this art inhabits a peculiar planet in the great universe of hurling skills. In Kilkenny, someone like Maher might be quarantined. The tendency there is to instruct players to avoid the temptation of going for scores from line balls when it might be a better percentage bet to move the ball near the goal and keep it in play. God forbid a player would drive the ball wide. This might explain Kilkenny's lowly position of 11th in the overall championship points table from line balls.

Maher seems to have that licence to have a go and run with his instincts. In a league semi-final that had 65 scores, his was probably the most talked of, leaving followers wondering if anyone has hit one as sweetly or as long before. While it might have left witnesses gasping, his former trainer at Thurles Sarsfields, Paddy Canning, was less unprepared. "A lot were surprised. I wasn't when I saw him going for it," says Canning. "He likes to go for them, he is not afraid to go for them. Which is a big part of it. He is comfortable, you can see him moving to them straight away. He has been hitting them great for years."

Canning, an uncle of Maher, says he has seen the player constantly practising at training, before and after, partaking in little competitions with other players like Pa Burke and Denis Maher to see who can score the most. "It's something he likes doing. He always had a long-distance shot. Ronan was always at it, you would nearly have to take the ball off him."

Christy Ring could take a sideline as well as anyone in history, having been a noted perfectionist, but over championship history he only scored twice from line balls. It was not a regular feature of matches in the early years, when the ball was much heavier, but Ring also preferred to get in close to goal and be on the end of things, rather than the man to deliver a line ball into the opposition goal area.

Joe Canning is the most celebrated sideline artist hurling has produced, at least that we know of. There may be some unacclaimed wizard out there who is more proficient at this skill but in terms of profile, impact and consistency, no one has surpassed Canning. According to the expert GAA statistician Leo McGough, Canning holds the record number of championship points scored from a sideline with 15.

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The stats baldly reflect how scarce these marksmen have been. After Canning, the next most prolific championship points scorer is Mick Moroney of Clare, the left-hander and farmer from Crusheen. He managed eight. Moroney's sideline cuts were a striking feature of the Clare teams of the 1970s, when they won successive National League titles. In the first round of the Munster Championship against Tipperary in 1977, Moroney created a new record when scoring three points from sidelines in one match. It finished in a draw before Clare won the replay.

The Irish Independent the next day reported that Moroney, then 29, demonstrated some "immaculate line ball cutting" with "no fewer than three from acute angles finding the target and others causing no end of worries for the rival defenders". A song of the time went, 'Honan, the Clonlara sharpshooter, drove the Cats to their downfall/ Whilst flick-of-wrist Moroney was king of the line-ball!'

Moroney's feat in scoring three in the one championship match from line balls has been equalled only once since, by Martin Storey in the drawn 1993 Leinster final with Kilkenny. He opened the scoring with one after three minutes. Fifteen minutes later he added a second. Ten minutes into the second half he had a third. Storey later claimed he didn't practise any sidelines in the week leading up to the final. He comes from a county with a fine tradition in taking sidelines, as the championship records show.

After Moroney's eight the next highest point scorers in championship hurling from line balls are part of a group all assembled together on five. They include of the current playing population Austin Gleeson and Tipp's Noel McGrath, who landed one in the 2011 Munster final win over Waterford. The others are Diarmuid Lyng, Adrian Fenlon and Alan McCrabbe. Tipp at present have a number of excellent line ball strikers, including Jason Forde, John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer and Brendan Maher.

In Waterford, Gleeson is the greatest modern exponent of his county's tradition of producing flair players with a showman's streak, and sidelines are part of his repertoire. Gleeson indulges himself probably more than any other top player on the sideline ball. He will score some outstanding points in this way and then he will drive others wide to the anguish of those who value possession dearly.

"The older way was don't go for the point," says Paddy Canning. "If you went for it years ago, lads would give out to you. Modern managers allow the players that bit of freedom; if the chance is on go for it. I always say great players have a go. Canning in the (All-Ireland) semi-final last year against Tipp when going for that point. That is what makes the great players. Ronan has no problem taking them, he has great temperament for it too. He doesn't feel the pressure. Maybe that will change now that there is a bit of focus on him."

In March 2005, the Hurling Rules Task Force decided not to submit a motion to Congress seeking to double the reward for points from sidelines. It was used as an experiment in the league that year and did not attract much criticism, with other reforms gaining more notoriety. But it could not drum up enough support. In 2010, a motion to Congress from Tipperary club, Toomevara, and a similar one from Armagh, recommended that two points be allowed for each score from a line ball. Congress turned it down. The idea has some support but there is also a strong body of opinion that feels two points is excessive reward for a shot that is uncontested.

In 2004, Adrian Fenlon was asked his opinion on doubling its value. Fenlon was one of the best sideline men of his day. "It's not going to have a huge impact on the outcome of games - maybe one point is scored from a sideline every two games - but it'll probably lead to more emphasis on that skill in training. Up to now it's mostly been down to the individual, whereas from now on you may have two or three lads designated to practise line cuts along with frees and penalties. During the summer months I'd probably practise three nights a week, hitting up to 30 line balls each night. It's an art in itself."

That year it was Fenlon's sideline that led to the winning goal for Michael Jacob against Kilkenny in the Leinster semi-final. Many years earlier Christy Ring scored the winning point for Munster in the 1946 Railway Cup final against Connacht from a line ball. But points from sidelines in All-Ireland finals are scarce, particularly when you go back in time. From 1936 when Lory Meagher is credited with the first, there were only four in finals up to 1990. Only 13 finals have had a point scored from a sideline. Last year's final had one from Canning, when he expertly curled the ball from an angle, left to right, from inside the 45-metre line approaching half-time with the teams level. There were two in the previous year's final, and of the 13 from across time, almost half have come since 2010. Players weren't allowed score from line balls until the beginning of the 1930s.

While Kilkenny feature modestly in the records, in recent years TJ Reid has shown himself to be a highly capable line ball striker. He has developed a talent for popped passes, sometimes taking the return when catching opponents unawares. In the 2014 National League final he scored the winning point near the end of extra-time in this way, to earn Kilkenny victory over Tipp at Thurles. A version of this was executed by Henry Shefflin in the 2011 All-Ireland final, though his strike went along the ground a short distance to Eoin Larkin rather than being chipped.

Shefflin took the return pass, with Tipp caught off guard, found Richie Hogan with a stick pass in a more central position and he laid it to Michael Fennelly, coming with customary haste, who scored a memorable goal in the final minute of the first half. It doubled Kilkenny's advantage to six points. Players can sometimes switch off when defending sidelines, expecting them long, as happened in this instance when Shefflin spotted his opportunity.

Justin McCarthy, along with other hurlers from the past, was known to take some frees from the ground. He was one of the best sideline cut men of his time. A story is told from the period when he was on the way back from a serious leg injury following his motorbike accident. During a junior club match for Passage against rivals Rochestown, he came forward to take a line ball. At that time the linesman would place the ball, not the player. The lines were manned by someone from each club and on McCarthy's side he had a Rochestown man who did him no favours by putting it in a hole. The ref was called and he spoke to the linesman who returned it to the hole. McCarthy picked up the ball, asked the linesman to put it into another hole nearby, a deeper one, which he did with pleasure. McCarthy then sent the ball over the bar despite the impediment and a huge piece of earth went flying with it.

One witness recalls McCarthy driving a couple of frees from around 60 metres over the bar from the ground against Glen Rovers at a pitch opening decades ago. Now, Mark Coleman carries on that Cork tradition of stylish sideline hitters, which John Fenton also belonged to. Coleman, unlike Ronan Maher, takes a few steps into the ball and tends to put a bend on the delivery. It's said he uses a very light hurl. Maher actually makes his own hurls at the back of the family home outside Thurles.

Even with all modern coaching and preparation advances, mastery of the sideline is still seen as the preserve of a few, though a widely appreciated skill. A piece in the Cork Examiner in 1980 mentioned Fenton's "Rodin-like sideline cuts". In the 2004 All-Ireland minor final replay, Joe Canning gave an early signal of his ability from line balls when scoring twice. "A notable feature of the first half was the amazing quality of 15-year-old Joe Canning's sideline cuts, two of which sailed between the posts," read a report of the match. Another feature of the first half was a Kilkenny goal from Eoin Guinan, skilfully flicked to the net, the ball sent in beautifully by Richie Hogan, from a sideline. If there is a sideline scored directly in today's league final, the odds are that it will come from a Tipp player.

Since 1985 players have been allowed place the ball when taking sidelines. What they do after that is not always up to them, although in some cases it still is. What they are actually able to do after that, when using a mix of technique, timing, speed, balance and power, is always up to them. A cleanly-struck sideline remains a sight to cherish and behold.

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