The ‘Green Monster’s’ appetite has yet to be sated

Pet Peeve Corner: the GAA and statistics.

It’s an oxymoron. The GAA — as in Official GAAdom, as in Croke Park GAAdom — don’t do statistics. Never have. Understandable back in the day, when the newspapers did the work for them, or more recently when the likes of Leo McGough spent long unpaid hours in the reading room of the National Library going through old match reports and filling in the crevices. Not understandable in this day and not acceptable.

These are the GAA’s games. These are their statistics. It is long past time they took ownership of them. It is also long past time for them to embrace today’s kind of statistics today. Come the revolution a large room in Croke Park, suitably airless and windowless, will be turned into a stats farm, where platoons of earnest young men will spend 12-hour shifts constructing heatmaps for every player in every championship match before emerging blinking into the half-light of Dublin 3.

The old headings of Goals, Points, Frees and Wides belong to the 20th century. The new headings include exotic items such as Assist for the Assist.

Which brings us nicely to Brian McDonnell, originator of the Assist for the Assist category, and his magnum opus on Limerick’s 2018 championship campaign on his SixTwoFourTwo website. Entitled ‘Green Monster’ it is itself a monster, an epic of Iliadesque length and proportions, except with rather more facts, figures and illustrations.

It puts Rubenesque quantities of flesh on the bare bones of last summer, with his Assist for the Assist (or Pass Before the Pass, if you prefer) findings furnishing the perfect illustration of the new champions’ cold composure when constructing their signature buildup.

A defender winning possession; handing off the sliotar to a colleague in the middle third instead of blazing it down the field at his earliest convenience; and the latter becoming the quarter-back and going long, short or in between to the forwards as the occasion demanded.

Two-move hurling, clear and coherent and — patently — painstakingly rehearsed.

As these are Mr McDonnell’s hand-crafted statistics it feels vaguely immoral to cite them even with due attribution. But here’s one to mull over. The evidence of our eyes told us that Limerick worked hard when they had the ball and worked even harder when they didn’t. The evidence of ‘Green Monster’ demonstrates to how devouring a degree they did so.

Of the hooks, blocks, and tackles John Kiely’s charges put in last summer, 63% of them were by forwards and midfielders.

It takes the concept of defending from the front to a new frontier.

If the hosts defend with the same vigour tomorrow they’ll win. If Cork defend with the same vigour they did last Sunday — ie hardly any — they’ll lose.

We take it as read that, regardless of whatever disparity may exist in terms of skill levels, nearly all the teams competing for the MacCarthy Cup boast broadly similar-sized deposits of determination, desire and tactical sophistication. The opening quarter at Páirc Uí Chaoimh six days ago demonstrated that such beliefs ain’t necessarily so.

It is not embarrassing for a team to be undone by Seamus Callanan. It is nothing less than embarrassing for a team to be undone by a Seamus Callanan who is allowed pick up possession unmarked, stroll forward and put the sliotar in the net without a hand, glove, chest, shoulder or stick being laid on him — and all in the third minute of a championship opener.

Shane Long would have been proud of him.

It was defending to make an U12 manager tear his hair out: everyone running towards the ball and not minding the chap in the yellow helmet. Did Cork need somebody to spell it out to them beforehand that, hey, nobody seems to know much about this young Callanan lad but you never know, he might be dangerous..?

Much was said afterwards about the failure of the Cork attack, particularly the half-forward line, to deny Tipperary clean water at source. Perfectly true. But defending as a team also entails plugging gaps in one’s own half of the field. Witnessing Callanan’s point in the 17th minute could not have been any less excruciating for the home supporters.

Sean O’Brien’s long-range missile dropped on the 14-metre line, as many a long-range missile does. The strength of the respective forces there to contest the break? Three Tipp lads, with the half-forwards out the field in order to create space for the inside men.

Three Cork lads left to their own devices, with nobody assisting them by acting either as a screen in front or a bulwark behind, and two of the half-backs ambling — there is no other word for it — back towards the scene of the action.

All it was going to take for a certain Tipperary scoring opportunity was for the sliotar to bounce outwards rather than inwards. Thus it bounced. Diarmuid O’Sullivan was badly missed at two venues last weekend. (The other being in Greg Kennedy’s vicinity at Nowlan Park.) So too were Jerry O’Connor and Tom Kenny, one or other of whom would have been back helping out and giving his team a numerical advantage.

Cork have previous on this count. Remember Michael Breen’s point shortly before the interval during the league game two months ago? Jake Morris able to take a second touch before shoving the ball back to Breen because his marker was a couple of metres off him? Breen having about five minutes to take aim and pull the trigger because there wasn’t another red jersey within an ass’s roar of him?

Bill Cooper was the only man who brought the necessary energy levels that afternoon at Páirc Uí Rinn, as John Meyler acknowledged afterwards. Cooper wasn’t there down the road on Sunday. Neither was Colm Spillane, two men without whom Cork cannot accomplish the nitty-gritty.

All of that said, while 2-24 is a humongous total to leak from play, not so long ago there was a team that leaked 1-24 from play against Tipp: Kilkenny in the drawn 2014 All-Ireland final.

For Rebel followers in search of a comfort blanket tomorrow, the Limerick forwards, for all their myriad virtues of industry and selflessness, do not have the same liquid ease that a full-flow Tipperary possess.

Limerick didn’t have a superstar last year. It was one of the reasons they won the All-Ireland.

Limerick may not have a superstar this year. It is one of the reasons they may not retain the All-Ireland.

Then again, they may not need to. An uptick of two or three per cent per man, or per 11 or 12 men, will augment the bottom line. What’s more, everything he showed during the National League indicated that Aaron Gillane is on the verge of bridging the gap that separates Very Good Youngster from Showstopper. One can only assume Paul Kinnerk has put him through many a session of practising keeping the ball down and on target when he’s one on one with the goalkeeper.

People love to bang on about “born goalscorers”. The fact of the matter is that goalscoring can be coached. Exhibit the Most Recent: Raheem Sterling. In 64 Premier League outings in the two seasons 2015-17, he scored 13 goals. 1n 67 Premier League outings in the two seasons 2017-19, he scored 35.

Do reasons exist for Limerick fans to be apprehensive over the coming weeks? Of course.

They’re Limerick fans.

Still, what a pleasant change for them to be fretting about keeping other people’s hands off the MacCarthy Cup as opposed to fretting about getting their own hands on it.

The ultimate First World hurling problem.

It would be better if they didn’t go four for four during the provincial round robin and it’s unlikely they will, but how they’ll cope with a defeat is unknowable.

One wonders how long Shane Dowling can continue to be Shane Dowling if he’s not starting, although Tom Condon looks a new man and Peter Casey remains an ideal sub when a game becomes stretched.

Given the possibility – even, on the evidence of their league form, probability – of the aforementioned bottom-line improvement, it’s feasible that Limerick will be a better team this year without retaining the title. This can happen and it does. Ask the Clare of 1996 or 1998 or the Wexford of 1997. If the MacCarthy Cup is to be lost it may well be by dint of getting caught in an All-Ireland semi-final.

That, however, is a worry for late July. Limerick spent the spring producing statement performances. They’re capable of starting the summer doing the same.

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