Possession isn’t nine-tenths of hurling’s law anymore. It’s ten tenths now

In what ways has hurling changed since the death of Christy Ring 40 years this weekend? We take a look at some of the main developments...

The scoring rate

Cork and Limerick hit 42 points between them last Sunday, shared equally. Clare and Wexford hit 44 points between them last Sunday, shared equally. The lowest scoring fixture in Division 1A, Tipperary versus Kilkenny, still featured 35 scores. The only scoreline that aroused any comment was the latter one, for an obvious and simple reason: its modesty.

For similarly obvious and simple reasons — improvements in fitness levels, equipment, and pitches — hurling is a higher-scoring game than it was when Christy Ring passed 40 years ago. It is a higher-scoring game than it was 20 years ago. Just for pig iron, here are the results from Divisions 1A and 1B of the National League this weekend in February 1999: Limerick 1-19 Antrim 0-6, Offaly 0-7 Galway 2-11, Clare 5-15 Kerry 1-6, Cork 0-14 Kilkenny 1-9, Laois 2-10 Wexford 1-9, Waterford 5-14 Down 0-4.

Quite a number of teams were thrown in at the deep end of the pool there, you’ll have noticed, yet none of their opponents reached or breached the 20-point barrier. And no, it wasn’t a weekend of tropical typhoons or biblical downpours. The notion of a goalkeeper bustling up the field and pointing two late frees to help his side win the match, one of them from inside his own 65’? Unimaginable.

Not that the leap to the clicking-turnstile contemporary rate of scoring has turned every forward into a Jimmy Doyle. Granted, the drawn All-Ireland final in 2014 saw Kilkenny and Tipperary drive 10 wides between them on an afternoon of 54 scores; it’s usually only Irish Water who come across such leakage. Last August, on the other hand, Limerick and Galway drove an aggregate of 36 wides. Although the controllables are being controlled like never before, human fallibility will always be with us. For this, we should be grateful. Of all the sports in the world, hurling is the least susceptible to geekery.

The increase in contenders

Or the apparent increase in contenders, if you prefer. Eight counties boast legitimate aspirations of reaching this year’s All-Ireland semi-finals, or nine, should you be an optimistic Dublin fan (or Mattie Kenny). The tectonic shift that occurred in the 15 years following the passing of Christy Ring continues to have ramifications.

The 20 championships immediately prior to his death saw six counties lift the MacCarthy Cup. The 20 championships that followed saw seven counties do so. Not, on the face of it, an evolutionary leap. But here’s the relevant granular bit: whereas 80% of those titles won in the period 1959-78 were carried off by the predictable troika of Cork, Kilkenny, and Tipperary, only 50% of the next 20 titles went the same way.

The 1980s and ’90s were an age of flux and colour unimaginable in the staid ’60s and ’70s. They were succeeded by another period of stasis: the Cody epoch. Now hurling has returned to where it was in the early 1980s and mid-1990s.

Who’ll win this year’s All-Ireland? “Haven’t a clue.” Exactly.

Tactical fluidity

The biggie. Sweepers, yes —but much more besides.

Corner-backs who are obliged to run farther and faster than the corner-backs of the 1970s ever were and who can even be weaponised as attacking props, as Tom Condon was for Limerick at Nowlan Park a fortnight ago.

Half-backs who see less of the ball than the half-backs of the 1970s ever did. The latter were the chaps who did all the hurling in defence whereas the members of the full-back line stayed put and threw shapes and niggled their markers. That dynamic has been entirely upended.

Centre-backs whose first decision frequently concerns whether to follow his direct opponent or let him roam, with the accompanying apocalyptic implications for the freedom of a false 11 to land points unmarked: witness the animated conversation Ken McGrath and Eddie Brennan had on Allianz League Sunday regarding Tim O’Mahony’s order of priorities against Tony Kelly in the Cork/Clare match. To stay or to go? If only The Clash had thought of writing a song about it.

The hurling of 40 years ago, even of 25 years ago, took place on a grid — hard-baked and unyielding. The hurling of today takes place on a roundabout that doesn’t stop spinning and where the seating arrangements alter with every rotation.

New coaches have brought new ideas. Say what you like about Davy Fitz and Derek McGrath — and at this stage just about everyone short of a tweeting Donald Trump has got their spake in — but nobody has ever accused them of lacking intellectual curiosity. (Of overthinking things, yes. Another day’s work). The latest deep thinker is Paul Kinnerk, whose fingerprints were all over Limerick’s performance at Nowlan Park on an afternoon when the MacCarthy Cup holders hurled in two different registers.

In the first half, aided by the wind, they played a broadly conventional attacking game. In the second half, facing the wind, they played a sophisticated counter-attacking game.

Shortly after the resumption, a throw-in took place 55 metres out from the Limerick posts. Among the posse on the scene were the visitors’ 10, 11, 12 and 15, with the 11 — Shane Dowling — on his own side of proceedings. Scarcely a surprise in an age where wing-forwards attack when their team is attacking and defend when their team is defending.

A few minutes later, the number 14, Graeme Mulcahy, got in on the act, popping up to help out on his own 65-metre line. The sole outlet in attack was Aaron Gillane; at one stage Limerick strung together six handpasses in defence before hitting him with the long diagonal to the sideline. Out to win possession ahead of his marker, Gillane turned and slung the ball across to where the cavalry had galloped up the field and into the striking zone.

Will this work every day? Not indefinitely. Is six handpasses overdoing it? Yes, not least because it affords greater scope for the move to break down. But as an exercise in broadening their palette, it was a satisfactory day’s work for Limerick. First, they let the ball do the work. Then they did the antithesis of Letting the Ball Do the Work.

A score from Cork’s glory days of the noughties that was doing the rounds during the week foreshadowed Limerick’s approach. It occurred in the 43rd minute of the 2006 Munster final in Thurles.

Cork lead Tipperary by 2-8 to 1-10 and a stray ball comes into Donal Óg Cusack’s patch at the Killinan End. Cusack being Cusack and that Cork team being that Cork team, he pops it out to Ronan Curran on his right on the 20-metre line. Curran swishes the ball down the tramline to Tom Kenny, 60 metres out.

Now something strange happens. Kenny goes long. In the process, he overshoots Brian Corcoran, the obvious attacking outlet, with the result that the sliotar is mopped up by Eamon Corcoran. The latter clears it to Paul Ormonde, who is instantly challenged by Ben O’Connor. O’Connor wins the ball, takes on Corcoran, is held up and turns back. He sees Brian Corcoran unmarked on the 20-metre line, pings the pass and over she goes.

It is a point scored not because Cork let the ball do the work, but rather because they didn’t. Because they had the patience, the presence of mind and the acquired practice to recycle the sliotar until the window opened. The one time in the move they went for the traditional option — Kenny’s lengthy delivery — was the one time they ceded possession.

If possession used to be nine-tenths of the law, it represents 10-tenths now. One cannot have too much possession. In hurling, there is no such thing as sterile domination.

“You cannot just belt the ball, because it will be easily dealt with by additional defenders,” Eamon O’Shea points out. “Improvements in strength and conditioning mean that today’s hurlers are more mobile and agile and therefore well able to play the running game. As for the extent to which hurling has changed, have a look at some of the key games over the decades and simply count catches, length of strikes and total possessions. A nice little exercise. It should confirm what we are seeing with our own eyes.”

And so a game of long balls, straight lines and occasional diagonals has become a game of short balls, stick passes, whirls and whorls and curlicues. In the 40 years before 1979, the one new item of note was Wexford’s high fielding, an innovation incidentally detested by Ring. In the past 15 years, the sport has undergone headlong change. The Offaly team of the 1980s and ’90s were the last notable ground-hurling team and will remain frozen in time as such.

Hurling has evolved. It would be astonishing if it hadn’t. Whether it’s now too calculated, too bloodless, too high-scoring, too exhaustively coached — well, that is the reader’s call.

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