Tuesday 20 March 2018

Henry Shefflin: Negative tactics put GAA on back foot in battle for hearts and minds with soccer and rugby

Waterford manager Derek McGrath jumps for joy at the final whistle of their Munster SHC clash against Clare. Photo: Sportsfile
Waterford manager Derek McGrath jumps for joy at the final whistle of their Munster SHC clash against Clare. Photo: Sportsfile

Henry Shefflin

In this, the great summer of sport, the GAA has so far failed to make its mark. As Irish rugby teams delivered landmark wins at U-20 and senior level over New Zealand and South Africa and the soccer team got off to a relatively positive start at Euro 2016, the football and hurling championships limped on through another nondescript weekend.

One shock in the football championship, none in the hurling championship proper, except for how far off some of the beaten teams have been. I'm confident the pace will quicken into July but frankly, it concerns me.

I've had to take a back seat in recent weeks but the games that I've seen just haven't been good. I know it's been a recurring theme, focused largely on whether the enjoyment has been drained from the game.

The usual rhetoric has been trotted out to support the argument: that the players can't drink, that they can't eat liberally, that they're monitored to within an inch of their lives. The 'we enjoyed a few pints in our day' lobby' has been vocal.

My belief is that the vast majority of players enjoy how they prepare for inter-county games. Most know, deep down, that their efforts won't lead to tangible success but they enjoy the challenge of making themselves better and getting the most out of themselves.

So many triathletes, cyclists and long distance runners know they won't make a podium but that doesn't take from their enjoyment of giving so much of themselves. Why should players in a team environment be any different?

When I started, we drank after matches and we ate what we liked. When I finished, drinking was minimal and diet was controlled. For me it was more enjoyable that way. And the fun didn't recede.

I don't get the 'sacrifice' bit. These are different times. Even now, more than a year after I stepped away from inter-county, I know that a good week, training-wise and diet-wise, feels so much better than a week of bad food and no training.

We all want to look after ourselves right. I loved those weekends that we went to Carton House where we trained regularly and ate right.

Where I think the enjoyment of the game is being lost is within the white lines, the way teams are being set up to play and how players must adhere to the manual.

Hurling has always been an instinctive, reactive game where the next 10 seconds are difficult to plan, never mind a whole game. The ball moves fast, your mind has to move fast with it.

My concern is based on the dilution of a connection with supporters. Those who follow hurling know the type of game that appeals to them most. They've not been getting them.

Some counties are implementing strategies that go against the grain of their culture. I'd associate the Cork supporters as being some of the most appreciative of their team, ardent and passionate. But in Thurles on the day they lost to Tipperary, the connection wasn't there.

Now, the weather was a factor and the performance was poor but they didn't help themselves in the eyes of their own by how they set up. They played the sweeper; the players didn't enjoy it and it fed into their following.

Clare are surely having that debate among themselves now. It strikes me that they are too reactive to what opponents are doing. They might be better concentrating on their own game because they have the players to bring expression to what they do.

The one team that are comfortable with the system they have implemented is Waterford. In fairness to Derek McGrath they are progressing with it and have adapted to it best. They are now serious All-Ireland contenders.

How Limerick set up this weekend really interests me. They deployed the sweeper in reaction to Waterford for the League semi-final and were filleted in the second half. Limerick are one of those traditional teams that are at their best when their approach is more random.

Think back to that 2014 All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny in the rain. They were physical, fast, got great scores and played with passion. There was connection with their supporters. Give them that in Thurles on Sunday and that connection will return, irrespective of the result.

My suspicion is that Limerick will take a more orthodox approach to Tipperary. They're underdogs and that suits them, because underdogs always need to bring more aggression.

Seamus Callanan's movement against Cork suggests to me that Tipp are working out the presence of a sweeper much better.

They were ruthless the last day, and by placing Padraic Maher at wing-back they are playing to their strengths. At centre-back his younger brother Ronan is really adapting well and, overall, I like the shape of their team. They've stuck to their principles but the bigger tests of their leaders has yet to come. This one they will pass.

It didn't surprise me that Offaly recovered from their opening defeat to Kerry. I felt they'd make a Leinster semi-final and, with an U-21 semi-final win over Carlow in their grasp, the season can really turn for them.

Galway have struggled with the likes of Offaly and Westmeath in recent years but made short work of Westmeath in Mullingar. They have a ruthless streak when they want and will produce it here.

Kilkenny eased their way into the Championship with a brilliant second half and I felt power was the chief difference with Dublin. When you welcome Paul Murphy, Michael Fennelly and Conor Fogarty back, that's what you are going to get.

Dublin had the pace but not the power to win their own ball in attack off the likes of Murphy and Cillian Buckley. The key demand of any Brian Cody team is to win your own ball, and that has never changed.

Brian's ability to see something in players and harness it has manifested itself yet again in JonJo Farrell. He played underage but only came on to the senior squad three seasons ago and had to bide his time. Now he mas made his debut at 27.

JonJo is the classic product of a vibrant Kilkenny club scene, just as Shane Prendergast was last year when he made his debut at 28. That system will always produce the best players.

After his years at U-21 level JonJo played away at club level, winning an All-Ireland junior title with Thomastown, and Brian would never have lost track of him. Just because he didn't make it in his early 20s doesn't mean his opportunity is gone.

Playing those hard, competitive club games brings any player on, much more so than development squad models that are the preference for so many counties now and even other sports.

I spoke to an Irish rugby international recently about how the focus had switched so much towards development squads. But where did Paul O'Connell, Ronan O'Gara, Alan Quinlan learn their trade? Young Munster, Cork Con, Shannon.

Training, strength and conditioning programmes are very important but competitive games teach an amateur more than any blackboards can. Mentally, they get your ready.

For a small man JonJo can root out his own ball. How many managers would be reluctant to give a 27-year-old a Championship debut? That's why Brian is the best there is out there.

Henry Jnr on the mend

Readers may be aware that my son was involved in a lawnmower accident at our home some weeks ago. I am pleased to be able to say that Henry is doing extremely well and continues to make progress.

Deirdre, myself and our children will never be able to fully thank the countless number of people who have sent us so much support and prayers in recent weeks. Their kindness is so much appreciated.

We would also like to thank all the various teams at Crumlin Children's Hospital who do so much amazing work with so many children. Also, a huge thank you to the volunteers and parents of Ronald McDonald House, which has offered us such a caring and supportive environment.

We have been deeply moved by the goodness of so many. It is in such challenging times that the love and compassion of other people give strength and hope.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport