Tuesday 10 December 2019

Tipperary's dilemma on how to stop the unstoppable Hogan

Nullifying Kilkenny talisman's many attributes will be decisive in deciding the destination of Liam MacCarthy, writes Damian Lawlor

What would Tipperary do if Richie Hogan moved to the edge of the square?
What would Tipperary do if Richie Hogan moved to the edge of the square?

THERE'S a graphic on Ray Boyne's Twitter page that attempts the impossible in trying to describe Richie Hogan in four bullet points.

Boyne, one of the leading statisticians and analysts on the Gaelic games circuit, did well to compact such an accurate depiction of a hurler on top of his game. The description highlighted Hogan's relentless thirst for work, his radar-like accuracy, the high-tempo beat that he hurls to and a willingness to tackle.

To this, Boyne could have added that he's a puck-out winner, has a gift for linking up people and he regularly clocks up nine or 10km per game.

Then there's the astuteness to sit close to Brian Hogan and attempt to block the middle channels. Versatility would be another trait - after being cancelled out by Shane McGrath in the first half of the drawn All-Ireland final he sat into the centre-forward pocket and hit five points from play. Hogan is quite simply a hurler in his pomp, the leading candidate for Player of the Year.

For a man of his size to win five puck-outs and score as many from play at a crucial stage of the final is an incredible feat, considering he was yielding several inches to his opponents. He is almost impossible to dispossess too, his low centre of gravity making it difficult to destabilise him. En route to scoring a classic solo goal against Limerick, he took a hit that would shake the average man, but he cleverly used the impact to propel himself clear into space before taking on the shot. Tipperary would have been more than happy at how his prowess was kept under wraps for half of the drawn final. Then, in a flash, he erupted into the game. He has grown into the role of team leader, whether at midfield or in the half-forwards and unfortunately for Tipp, Hogan seems to reserve some of his best moments for them.

So how do they shut him down on Saturday night? It's not as easy as saying they must plan for him at centre-forward with Mick Fennelly expected in midfield. Both players are interchangeable. Hogan probably has no intention whatsoever to sit in one pocket and be man-marked by someone like Mickey Cahill for 70 minutes. No matter where he is selected, he will dart up and down, left and right, and in and out of the midfield diamond.

Eamon O'Shea has made a career out of getting his players to visualise space and make runs, but a key cog of his battle plan for the replay will be the closing down of such space for the likes of Hogan. That could require cluster marking, where two or three of the nearest defenders swarm him, but Hogan is cute enough to adapt. In this year's league final, Hogan lined out at centre-forward and with Tipp looking to swarm him, he still picked off six points.

Perhaps the first move is to ask the Tipp forwards to dig even deeper and stop Kilkenny's backs from finding him in the first place. There's little you can do to stop puck-outs coming in his direction, but if the other Tipp attackers (Bonner Maher excepted) raised their harassing game, it could have a major impact on the supply to Hogan.

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It may be that the deployment of Mickey Cahill in the out-and-out man-marking role is the best option available to O'Shea. But while it could do a job for the team, it would be a huge gamble to take Cahill's sublime skills away from his own team's needs. One option that could be examined further would be asking Gearóid Ryan to track him. Ryan is a selfless player anyway, always willing to work hard. He would be tenacious enough to follow Hogan and even stop him from linking the play with his deft flicks and hand-passes.

The revitalisation of Tipperary's midfielders Shane McGrath and James Woodlock is most encouraging from the manager's point of view but they have a lot going on closing out the other Kilkenny forwards and trying to break free themselves without having to watch out for Hogan.

And delegating Ryan to the job has the added benefit of opening up more space for Tipperary's forwards, who revel in the open areas of Croke Park and have hit the ground running in both the semi-final and final.

If that tactic worked, Hogan - who can be as elusive on a hurling as a shadow - is likely to change course and wander into full-forward.

There is every chance Henry Shefflin could start there on James Barry in the replay as Richie Power can operate anywhere in attack and would have no problem moving. But what would Tipp do if Hogan moved into the edge of the square? Would Barry go toe to toe with him, or given Hogan's aerial ability, would they drop another defender back to help out?

It will be intriguing as the placement of Hogan will have an undoubted impact on Kilkenny's own template. Remember that, for the past 10 years, Kilkenny have always flooded their defence to prevent goal chances. This involved withdrawing midfielders back quickly and cutting down space in front of the opposing full-forward line. Hogan and Eoin Larkin have been crucial in that regard, so the Danesfort terror's absence would be felt if he was at centre-forward.

Hogan is a hurling genius and with TJ Reid, they are the men to stop. If Tipp can limit Hogan's role in any shape or form they will be well down the road to adding another title to their roll of honour.

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