Thursday 18 January 2018

The great debate: Will hurling's sweeper craze lead to a major drop in goal-scoring?

As Tipperary sweeper, Padraic Maher saw plenty of ball during their victory in which they comfortably shut out Waterford’s goal-scoring threat
As Tipperary sweeper, Padraic Maher saw plenty of ball during their victory in which they comfortably shut out Waterford’s goal-scoring threat

Jackie Cahill and Martin Breheny

Yes says Jackie Cahill and No says Martin Breheny


We'll refer you to John Mullane's reflections on last Saturday evening's All-Ireland qualifier between Clare and Cork in Thurles.

Mullane is convinced that if the Rebels had deployed a sweeper system in the 2013 All-Ireland final replay against Clare, they would have won the game.

That September rematch was crying out for a Cork tweak at the back. Huge holes were exposed in the drawn match and even bigger ones at the second time of asking.

An extra body at the back would have shorn up the Cork defence considerably and significantly reduced the chances of the filleting that the Leesiders were subjected to.

It was the year that Davy Fitzgerald introduced his sweeper system to the wider public and it worked a treat.

Patrick Donnellan played the role to perfection and this tactic played a huge part in the Banner County's All-Ireland success.

With further tweaking and honing, the sweeper system will ensure that goals, and goal chances, are at a premium.

We've already seen clear evidence of it, most notably last weekend when four big games yielded just two goals - both in the same game and both avoidable concessions.

When Cork and Clare contested that All-Ireland final replay two years ago, they hit eight goals between them. Last Saturday's qualifier produced none.

Clare did look threatening but Cork had their homework done. Mark Ellis dropped deep and Clare were denied the space they thrive on.

Ahead of Sunday's Munster final, a tight tactical battle was anticipated.

Waterford had banged three goals past Cork in their Munster semi-final and Tipp hit Limerick for four.

And yet two teams on hot scoring streaks failed to register a green flag between them as the respective sweepers. Pádraic Maher and Tadhg de Búrca, claimed 22 possessions between them.

Conceding those goals to Waterford was the reason that Cork went for a sweeper system, unveiled against Wexford in their opening qualifier.

They conceded no goal and romped to victory in what was expected to be a difficult game. The sweeper system made an appearance again last weekend and Cork enjoyed another shut-out.

The simple fact of the matter is that if you want to limit the number of goals you are letting in, or reduce the number of concessions to virtually zero, the sweeper system is the way to go.

Play without one and you run the risk of having your defenders constantly dragged out of position and being hit with straight lines of running.

Play with one and you're in with a chance.


In 1999, the All-Ireland final, semi-finals and Munster final produced four goals between them.

Two of them - the Cork v Kilkenny final and the Cork v Offaly semi-final - were goalless affairs.

It led to grim forecasts about the demise of goalscoring for reasons that nobody could quite figure out. A year later, the equivalent four games yielded 11 goals, a figure repeated in 2001.

So what had changed. Nothing. It turned out that 1999 produced one of those seasonal quirks that arise from time to time.

Much has been made of last weekend's goal shortage, where two qualifiers and the Munster final returned only two goals between them.

It has been put down to the packing of defences with sweepers, designed to ensure, among other things, that the goal concession rate was kept to a minimum.

Cork, Clare, Tipperary and Waterford all failed to score a goal, but that proves nothing. In the Munster semi-finals, Tipperary scored four against Limerick while Waterford hit Cork for three.

Clare and Limerick scored three goals between them in the first round while, in Leinster, the goal rate was pretty high.

Galway and Kilkenny scored five each against Dublin and Wexford respectively. Galway scored one in the drawn quarter-final with Dublin, yet posted five in the replay.

It wasn't that Galway brought anything especially new to the table, yet they found it much easier to break down the Dublin defence.

Dropping extra players into defence may lead to fewer goals in some cases, but not to a degree that threatens the three-pointer's existence.

Clare, under Davy Fitzgerald, usually reinforce their defence with extra help, yet in the drawn and replayed 2013 All-Ireland finals, they conceded a total of six goals to Cork.

If, over an extended period of time, the goal rate decreased dramatically in line with ever-increased defensive security, then questions would arise, but that's a long way from being the case right now.

There will always be occasions when, for whatever reason, the goal rate appears to drop but it rarely lasts.

Granted, Cork's goal-scoring has been generally lower than what would normally associate with the county, but surely that's down to the standard of forward as opposed to the glory years when they were winning All-Ireland titles.

Ultimately, that's the deciding factor. A team can line up as defensively as it likes, block every channel and approach route, but it won't work if the quality of the opposition attack is good enough. And it most certainly won't make the art of goalscoring extinct.

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