Thursday 14 December 2017

Cracking the Banner's enigma code

Clare's innovative style lit up 2013 season and will be the focus of rivals' bid to outsmart Davy Fitz's men next year, writes Christy O'Connor

Davy Fitzgerald and the Clare team make their way back towards Semple Stadium for their league clash with Tipperary
Davy Fitzgerald and the Clare team make their way back towards Semple Stadium for their league clash with Tipperary
David McInerney collides with Cork’s Patrick Horgan as Clare dominated the physical battles
All-Ireland hero Shane O’Donnell admits their early season preparation was all about survival

Christy O'Connor

In the DVD, 'Behind the Banner -- the Inside Story of the 2013 All-Ireland hurling champions', some of the opening footage highlights the extent of Clare's training regime over the previous 12 months.

Dating back to this time last year, it shows the players on an army training camp in Kilworth in north Cork in early December, completing the same course that Munster's rugby players had embarked on two weeks previously.

There is graphic footage of the players running up Broadford Hill before they are seen slogging their guts out in Cratloe Woods at 7.0am the day before Christmas Eve. Tony Kelly was filmed doing a separate run at 5.0am so he could be in time for work.

The DVD carried slight echoes from a couple of decades earlier. When Clare won the 1995 All-Ireland, Jimmy Magee narrated a video on that hurling season.

Magee also conducted a series of interviews. At one stage, he was filmed with Ger Loughnane at the bottom of the infamous hill in Shannon where Clare had slogged their guts out during a brutal winter training regime. When one of the players watched the video that Christmas, he collapsed in laughter. Loughnane told Magee about a hellish running regime that Superman wouldn't have been able for. It displayed the roguish side of Loughnane's character but he was also calculatedly adding another layer to the mystique and aura which had been built up around that Clare team.

Those players trained harder than anyone else that year. Initially, it enabled them to mentally believe they were better prepared and could outlast any opponent. As the years progressed, Loughnane consistently played that card. They projected an image of training like madmen but it concealed the quality of their hurling sessions and their incremental improvement as hurlers.

The latest Clare DVD also creates more mythology around Clare hurling and how their preparations apparently echo back to the mid- 1990s. Yet, similar to that time, Clare only went so far. No other team was enduring the hardship Clare suffered last winter but the graphic DVD footage was the only real hard running sessions Clare did this season. The real value of those torturous sessions was as much mental as physical. "You try to survive," says Shane O'Donnell in the DVD. "You try to find some benefit in it but really Davy (Fitzgerald) is trying to break you."

The mythology of their training regime was further inflated with their 6.0am Wednesday gym sessions during late winter and early spring. Yet the timing had as much to do with logistics as anything else. It enabled players based outside of Clare to return home for Tuesday evening training, complete their 30-minute gym session the following morning and be back on the road again in time for college or work. It also facilitated Clare's outstanding strength and conditioning trainer, Joe O'Connor, who is based in Tralee.

This Clare team didn't train as hard or as brutally as their predecessors but there was naturally a lot more science behind their practices. They also had more going for them; they have been brought up on underage success; they are more skilful, athletic and pacy; they have some brilliant forwards.

Clare's traditional game was always built on aggression but they had to move away from that style because of the small and light players at their disposal. This team still embraced the key Kilkenny cornerstones of power and physicality but their immense strength and conditioning work under O'Connor gave them more licence and confidence to consistently look to break the tackle to open up space for their runners. Yet most of the space they create is engineered by the speed of their decision-making and their intelligent use of possession. And everything is governed by their huge skill levels and the quality of their technique.


Pace and athleticism have always been important in hurling but this season showed how critical they have now become. Before the replayed All-Ireland final, Henry Shefflin said that he was "unnerved" by the pace of the drawn final.

Some critics hammered the standard of defending in the replayed final when there were eight goals scored. It is hard to imagine Donnellan being allowed to run through the centre of the Kilkenny defence in the manner in which he sliced through Cork's central defensive corridor to engineer Shane O'Donnell's opening goal. The counter-argument though, is how would the Kilkenny defenders have been able to deal with Clare's pace? That will be one of the most interesting sub-plots next season.

Before the replay, Jackie Tyrrell also spoke about hurling being "very much a possession game now". Kilkenny have always prided themselves on their players being able to win their own possession but the lack of direction and accuracy in their stick-passing this season was in marked comparison to the standard set by Clare and Cork.

Kilkenny's were crucified by injuries and flat performances but the teams which beat them -- Dublin and Cork -- married a more precise passing game with pace and huge physical intensity.

Cork almost won the All-Ireland but the biggest difference between Cork and Clare was how far more tactically fluid and adjustable Clare were. In the replay, Clare played with three different systems, with Donnellan operating as a sweeper for most of the last quarter.

Clare had six different game plans that they worked on during the season. Davy Fitzgerald always had a very clear vision of how he wants his teams to play. That was evident with Limerick IT and Waterford but Fitzgerald was introducing a system to Clare which he felt was ideally suited to the players at his disposal. More importantly, those players had enough class, pace, athleticism and power to take that system to another level.

Initially, it took time to embed. In the early days of his management, Fitzgerald organised challenge matches against certain teams, which allowed his players to gradually develop the system and adjust to such a cultural shift. In another sense, that style was already becoming a part of Clare's culture through the young and gifted generation Fitzgerald was slowly integrating into the squad. The fact that the younger players were so used to such a non-traditional style at minor and U-21 under the joint management of Gerry O'Connor and Donal Moloney, and the coaching of Paul Kinnerk, also gave them a head-start and facilitated their transition to senior.

The younger generation inflated Clare's confidence levels but the entire squad gradually adapted and became comfortable with that style. Fitzgerald stayed true to his beliefs but as Clare progressed through the qualifiers, the system evolved in tandem with their development as a team. They became that bit more direct, especially out of defence. Their accuracy from distance -- which is a huge part of their game given how they set up -- dramatically improved as the players got more confident. The sweeper role which worked so well against Galway and Limerick became a stable and more defined part of their system.

Clare's style is something completely new but it is also in sync with how hurling has evolved over the last decade. In that time, the game has never undergone as much radical thinking and introspection.

Ultimately, Kilkenny dictated that path. They set a standard and evolved a way of playing that challenged all of their rivals to imitate their design or radically out-think them. When Tipp eventually took down Kilkenny in 2010, their efficiency in maximising possession with their laser short stick-passing was an advanced form of Cork's possession game, which nailed Kilkenny in 2004. The movement and interaction of Tipp's attack was also unlike anything hurling had ever seen before.

Hurling's randomness has always been a fundamental part of its appeal but the modern game has been all about reducing that influence and having a plan.

There still had to be a place for creativity and expression but marrying those elements with massive physicality and work rate is kernel to any system. Given that the contact zone in hurling now is often similar to the breakdown in rugby, creating turnovers is critical to creating possession.

A huge part of Clare's style is governed by winning those breaks and forcing turnovers in the middle third. In the drawn All-Ireland final, they obliterated Cork on breaking ball and ruck ball on a count of 39-21.

Clare's game is designed then to safeguard that possession for as long as they can, invariably trying to necklace the play and build at pace, before they can get into the scoring zone.

Clare are extremely comfortable with their style now but any system is only as good as the players that carry it out. In essence, players ultimately make any system what the system actually is.

Clare's new and innovative brand of hurling will reflect hurling's future. Other teams will naturally look to copy and adjust to that style. Yet like Cork with their revolutionary game in 2004, Clare already have a head start on everyone else.

Innovation, though, always follows innovation. It makes others think harder. It also forces them to look harder at themselves. "You were up at the very top all summer long," Loughnane told the players before he presented them with their All-Ireland medals in early December. "But I can tell you now this evening, there are teams all over Ireland and they are training harder, they are training smarter than ever before and their aim is to down you. Simple as that."

This summer enhanced the mythology of Clare hurling and how they go about their business. And now, similar to the 1990s, everyone wants to take them down once more.

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