Saturday 21 April 2018

Goals drying up in hurling as defences tighten grip

Joe Canning was voted Hurler of the Year in 2017 despite not scoring a goal. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Joe Canning was voted Hurler of the Year in 2017 despite not scoring a goal. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

With 20 minutes remaining in their Leinster quarter-final against Dublin last June, Conor Cooney struck for a second Galway goal that put the result beyond doubt.

There was nothing unusual about Cooney's goal but what happened in the 300 minutes or so that followed was quite remarkable.

Galway didn't score another goal but, courtesy of 119 points, they were crowned All-Ireland hurling champions for the first time in 29 years.

Also consider the fact that Joe Canning, who had scored at least one goal (25 in all) in every one of his previous nine seasons, some among the most spectacularly crafted of the modern era, didn't raise a single green flag and still ended up as Hurler of the Year.

Only five previous All-Ireland hurling champions had won the title without scoring a goal in the final. Cork drew blanks in their 1999 All-Ireland semi-final against Offaly and the final against Kilkenny but had scored one in their Munster final against Clare.

For champions to go their last four full matches without hitting the net was unprecedented and unlikely to happen again. Or is it?

Hurling's goals have been drying up for some time while the accumulation of points has been rising sharply.

The number of championship goals climbed back up to 84 from 28 matches in 2017 but only after dipping to 66 from the same number the year before.

Nowhere is this decrease more evident that in Division 1A of the Allianz hurling league which, theoretically, should house the best teams, even if the last three league champions have come from 1B and the current All-Ireland champions Galway will reside there for a third successive year in 2019.

Since the league was formatted for 2012 so that Division 1A and 1B exists as we know it, like-for-like comparisons are better made.

The average number of goals in each 15-match campaign has been just over 35, ranging from a high of 45 in 2014 to just 27 in the most recent campaign.

That's a staggering 40pc drop in just four years, reflective of how defence is receiving far greater priority, and how risk is being taken from the game.

Greater striking power developed in more athletic hurlers has made a long-range point option much more appealing.

Better

In this year's 15 matches four of the six teams - Kilkenny, Wexford, Waterford and Cork - came under the goal-a-game ratio. With five goals Clare matched it while Tipperary were the only county to better it with seven.

Tipp were the only team to score three goals in a game too, on the night they met Wexford.

More than half of the teams involved, 16 from 30 appearances, scored just one goal in a game, nine didn't score at all, while four scored two.

Contrast that with the 10-goal Nowlan Park thriller that Kilkenny and Tipperary played out just four years ago.

From 42 in 2012, 36 in 2013, 45 in 2014, 38 in 2015, 29 in 2016 and 30 in 2017, it's clear to see that the decline has steeped in the last three years especially, culminating with the lowest total yet this year.

Division 1B has been a lot more inconsistent but this year delivered its lowest return in the seven years since the restructure with 31, having reached its high point in 2017 with 54.

Hurling has gone through various goal-drought crises before. In that 1999 championship that Cork won there were just three goals in the last three games. But by the following year there were 11 goals across the same three games.

On one weekend in 2015 the Munster final and two qualifiers played in Thurles the night before produced just two goals.

When Hurling's 2020 Committee deliberated on potential rule changes, consideration was given to reward a goal with four points but only 6pc of respondents to their survey were in agreement with that suggestion. That despite 44 fewer goals being scored in the 2013 championship than there were in 2012 and 58 fewer in 2013 than there were in 2011.

The committee noted a spike again in 2014 but felt it was something worth watching in the future.

"The reasons for this decline may be due to a number of factors," they reasoned in their report.

"It could also be a statistical anomaly but it is one worth keeping an eye on in an era of ever-increasing statistical analysis focused on nullifying the strengths of the opponent."

The evidence of the most recent league campaigns provides more evidence of a downward trend.

Irish Independent

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