Tuesday 21 November 2017

Pointing the way

The scoring machines of Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary have helped propel hurling onto a totally new level

With 55 minutes gone in last month's Munster quarter-final, Cork hit their 20th point of the match. It may have seemed insignificant at the time, but it was an important moment in the storied history of Cork's scoring records.

Cork had previously hit 20 points or more on just 27 occasions in their entire history. Yet they had now reached that 20-point tally with over a quarter of an hour to go, something which only a tiny handful of Cork teams had managed in the past.

When they tacked on their 21st point just a minute later, it appeared as if Cork may be about to hit one of their highest points (white flags) tallies since the 1982 Munster final massacre of Waterford.

In the end, the Rebels hit 23 points, but they dropped five balls short into Tipperary goalkeeper Brendan Cummins' hand in the second half, while also shooting a couple of aimless wides. Of their 10 wides, at least three should have been scored. So, with a little bit more composure, Cork could have ended with 28 or 29 points.

In the context of Cork's history, and the perceived talent within the current team compared to the teams of the past, shooting that tally would have been nothing short of sensational. Yet the figure wasn't really a surprise in the context of where hurling has gone in the last decade.

Tipp also managed to score 22 points in that match and like so many hurling games since the latter part of the last decade, the game was defined by space management, immense physical endurance, lightning pace and intelligent forward movement. And all underlined by a sustained scoring blitz.

In the history of modern hurling, the 2009 All-Ireland decider was definitely a high-water mark. In the history of All-Ireland finals, two teams had never hit more than 21 scores each. Moreover, Kilkenny's total of 24 scores had only been surpassed in a 70-minute final on just two occasions and both of those were annihilations. The game produced 47 scores, which equalled the highest number ever recorded in an All-Ireland final -- set the previous year in Kilkenny's destruction of Waterford.

On their march to four-in-a-row immortality, Kilkenny laid waste to all scoring records. They had 11 scorers in that 2009 All-Ireland final, which was the greatest spread of scorers on an All-Ireland winning team. It was only the second time in history that a team had gone into double figures of players scoring. Yet of the 10 scorers Galway had in the 1988 final, eight were from play. All of Kilkenny's 11 scorers were from play, which was also the greatest scoring spread from play in championship history. Mind-blowing.

Goals were often Kilkenny's key currency during their four-in-a-row, and quest for five-in-a-row. But in that time span, Kilkenny took point-scoring to a totally new level. In 2006, they became the first team in history to hit 20 points or more in four consecutive championship games and they equalled that feat in 2007 and 2008. In the process of hitting 20 points or more in 16 of their last 22 championship games, Kilkenny have radically altered hurling's new scoring standard.

There was a time not so long ago when 20 points was the magic total. Whether that was 3-11 or 2-14, teams felt that they would win most matches with that 20-point total. But that's certainly not enough anymore.

Point-scoring has reached a completely new level in the last six years. In 251 games between 1994 and 2004, there were 64 occasions when a team hit 20 points or more. However, in 197 games from 2005-2010, a team has managed to hit 20 points or more on 92 occasions.

In this year's championship to date, Tipp, Cork, Dublin, Offaly, Antrim and Kilkenny have all surpassed that 20-point (white flags) tally.

The Cats, who finished with 26 points (white flags), reached the 20-point mark by the 48th minute on Saturday evening against Wexford.

Even in last weekend's Christy Ring and Nicky Rackard Cup finals, the winners -- Kerry and London respectively -- both surpassed that 20-point haul.

The trend change has increased scoring spreads and redefined the primary scoring zone. For example, in the last two leagues and championships, Cork's wing-back John Gardiner has notched 15 points from play through his often long-range shoot-on-sight policy.

Given that the nature of defending has also changed, with more free space often being available out the field, it allows for more long-range point-scoring. The point rate is increasing all the time. Between 1994 and 2004, there were only 12 occasions when a team hit 25 points (white flags) or more. But in the last six seasons, a team has surpassed the 25-point tally 20 times.

That overall increase in long-range striking and scoring has come about through a combination of advanced weight training, better hurleys, lighter sliotars. And more confident players. Former Waterford forward Paul Flynn had this to say in an interview last year: "Shooting for points has never been better. The shooting from angles is incredible. It's nearly a shock now if a fella misses."

Another theory is that the ball has become so light now that it enables players to fire the sliotar over the bar from 100 yards. Kilkenny's DJ Carey has consistently argued over the years that the ball should be made heavier because it's taking at least one line of the field out of the equation.

And yet in the modern game, with Tipp and Dublin being the brand leaders in where hurling is going, long striking out the field is not the only game in town. Both Tipp and Dublin are comfortable with their defenders giving short stick passes or handpasses to their midfielders and half-forwards and then working the ball into the scoring zone. It demands an incredibly high success rate with short-stick passes, but the execution is made easier when their inside forwards are vacating space before the ball is delivered in there.

The reality, too, is that far more scores are coming from dead-ball striking. Point-scoring tallies from sideline cuts have never been higher and free-taking has never been better. You rarely see players like Henry Shefflin, Tipperary's Eoin Kelly and Dublin's Paul Ryan miss a free now. In fact, Kelly never missed a single free in his three All-Ireland senior final appearances.

There may be more games now and more chances to rack up big points tallies in qualifier matches. Yet defending has never been better and defenders have never been faster or more mobile. There may be less general skill on view now than there was in the past, but that's a product of the modern game. Players have to execute the skills now at lightning pace and, overall, hurlers have never been more skilful.

Another reason why the 2009 All-Ireland final crystallised how far hurling has travelled was that it was the first time that two players -- Henry Shefflin and Eoin Kelly -- hit double figures in an All-Ireland senior final. Kelly has already scored more than any other player in the history of Munster hurling, while Shefflin became the leading scorer in champion-ship history last season.

Modern scoring machines for the modern game.

Irish Independent

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