Decoding the DNA of a 21st-century hurler

Readers of a certain age will remember Tony Doran. 

Not a scorer of great goals but unequivocally a great goal-scorer. Managed a staggering 41 goals in 57 championship appearances. Many of them came as the result of a high ball to the edge of the square. Doran would put up his mighty paw to claim it, horse his way past a horde of straining defenders, and fist it past a helpless goalkeeper. 

The rigging danced and the purple and gold waved.

There are no high balls dropping on the edge of the square any more. There are no defenders who get disoriented if required to venture beyond 30m past their own goal. There are no — even if the original of the species was unique and irreplaceable — Tony Dorans. This is 2019.

Readers of not quite so certain an age will remember Liam Sheedy the player. A doughty, uncomplicated defender of a type that had existed since time immemorial. He wasn’t fast but it didn’t matter and he lined out for Tipperary in the 1997 All-Ireland final. 

He wouldn’t have lined out for Tipperary in the 2009 All-Ireland final (“although I might have been the first name on the team sheet in the 1970s”) because he wasn’t fast and by then it did matter. “Pace. That’s what it became all about.” 

Sheedy made that admission in 2011. How much faster has the sport become in those eight years?

Had some hurling-loving Dr Frankenstein wannabe attempted to create the ideal hurler in 1979 he’d have included some of the defensive attributes of a Sheedy and some of the attacking attributes of a Doran. 

Had the same Dr Frankenstein wannabe attempted to create the ideal hurler in 1999 he’d have included the first-time striking ability of Adrian Fenlon or Johnny Pilkington. This particular heading does not exist anymore.

Dead. Deceased. Redundant. Not applicable.

So what qualities would the ultimate laboratory-designed hurler of 2019 possess? And which current players would our mad but calculating scientist friend look to for contributions? The degree to which so many of this generation’s top hurlers fit into so many of the categories is notable.

 Joe Canning and Seamus Callanan and TJ Reid and Patrick Horgan, to name four obvious candidates, would all figure prominently for wristwork, temperament, pointscoring, and freetaking.

Most of the great hurlers of yesteryear were specialists. That was the kind of game it was. Many of the best hurlers of today are multi-taskers. That’s the kind of game it is.

SPEED

Conor Lehane (Cork).

Not the most important weapon in a hurler’s armoury, clearly, yet better to have it than not have it, as Liam Sheedy would confirm. 

Lehane’s trick is simple but effective. 

He wins the ball, burns off the defender, heads for green space and taps over his point.

SOLO RUNNING

Jamie Barron (Waterford).

A skill it ain’t. 

Anyone can get the sliotar into their hands and drive forward with it. 

Barron, who’s not big but is built like a tank and has a neat sidestep, makes incisions from midfield and thereby provides Waterford with necessary thrust from deep.

FIELDING

Austin Gleeson (Waterford).

Big boy, big hand, great eye.

MOBILITY

Tony Kelly (Clare).

In the opening exchanges of the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final Kelly, nominally his team’s centre-forward, was the last man back as David Breen bore down on goal. 

He robbed the Limerick attacker and cleared the ball from inside the 20m line. Minutes later Kelly was rifling a point from 60m at the other end of the field. 

A decade ago Jerry O’Connor and Tom Kenny set the template for the modern midfielder, an entity that’s an athlete and a stickman in pretty much equal measure. 

Kelly has demonstrated that a supposed centre-forward can roam where he wants and Limerick have given the trend a further dimension by having Graeme Mulcahy, their number 15, operating as a part-time groundhog in front of his own half-back line.

POINTSCORING

Joe Canning (Galway).

Look, it had to be someone. 

It could have been TJ Reid or Patrick Horgan or Seamus “0-9 from play in an All-Ireland final” Callanan. 

But Canning, with 27-423, is next after Henry Shefflin on the all-time championship scoring list.

GOALSCORING

Seamus Callanan (Tipperary).

The development of the game, and specifically the ease with which a point can be landed from out the field, has led not to the extinction of great goalscorers — Callanan continues to thrive — but rather to the extinction of certain types of goalscorer.

The likes of Seanie O’Leary and John Fitzgibbon, who did their stuff in and around the house, wouldn’t make the Cork team today because they wouldn’t contribute enough when not in possession.

Even DJ Carey, who specialised in zooming through from deep, would find it harder to dig out possession amid the mad welter of bodies in the middle third. 

John McGrath is a throat cutter too, but Callanan’s ability to create his own goalscoring opportunities gets him the nod.

WRISTWORK

Noel McGrath (Tipperary).

As with pointscoring, where does one even begin? 

Nearly all of the top forwards have honey in their wrists. Most are equally comfortable off both sides. 

As a purely personal choice we’re opting for McGrath, who’s been lasering smooth, unfussy points off right and left from 50m for a decade now and shows no signs of stopping.

TEMPERAMENT

Richie Hogan (Kilkenny).

Another category with a host of viable candidates. 

Hogan, who does have an edge to him, has done his stuff too often and too well on red-letter days to be anything other than a consummate big-occasion man.

LINK-UP PLAY

Cian Lynch (Limerick).

It was blindingly clear during his first couple of years in the intercounty arena that Lynch would be a really good player in a better team. 

Thus it came to pass. 

He’s now operating with a bunch of contemporaries who are on his wavelength and conducting the band. 

Lynch floats between the lines, picking up threads, sewing them together and even getting sufficiently far forward to shoot for goal. 

It’s a pleasure to watch his wandwork.

Stylishness

David Burke (Galway).

Our final category, the most esoteric one and the least important. 

After all, a beautifully flighted point isn’t worth any more than a functionally struck point. 

Yet some sportspeople thrill the eye, and therefore the soul, far more than others. 

What even vaguely sentient individual would not prefer the sight of an Evonne Goolagong to that of a Monica Seles, an Allyson Felix to a Paula Radcliffe, a Ruby Walsh to — yes — an AP McCoy, irrespective of the latter’s myriad other virtues?

Aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder. David Burke, a man who frequently seems to have an extra half-a-second on his hands, sallied forward from midfield to land four points from play, all of them fluently struck with proper follow-through, in the 2017 All-Ireland final. 

Plenty stylish.

Finally, finally, the modern player who ticks more of our boxes than any other? 

Austin Gleeson, of course. Who else could it be?

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