In the sporting realm, it’s obvious, but often under-appreciated in business is the maxim that you can’t get anything done without a team.
Lee C Bollinger noted, “you can only really succeed and accomplish things through the collective, the common purpose”.
Whilst Bollinger is not much of a hurling man, his expertise around the first amendment and the troubled history of a free press in America is unmatched. The first amendment guaranteed freedom of the press in seemingly clear terms but the president of Columbia University notes how this has evolved in response to social, political, educational, technological and societal change.
He stresses that even though the law will surely evolve in the coming years that a commitment to maintaining a press that is “uninhibited, robust and wide open” will sustain and progress.
His book of that name dominated my thoughts ahead of this weekend’s festival of hurling.
Not alone will we see the traditional principles associated with any successful team — the non-negotiable prerequisites of unity of purpose, attitude, honesty and relentless spirit, but we now see an uninhibited, changing game and mindset too.
Having only made two Championship appearances at senior level for Waterford between 1995 and 1999 I quickly fell into the category of one of those three-year minors who fell away for one reason or the other.
Self-awareness inherent, I stretched my senior club career to 20 seasons, though honing in on coaching and managing became my main focus. Whilst not being a great admirer of Clive Woodward’s persona, I was greatly influenced by his 2004 book, ‘Winning.
Many of the facets of preparation — perceived as over the top by some — impressed upon me the importance of detail while not eschewing the spontaneity that can exist in our ‘uninhibited sport’ too.
One conversation between Conor O’Shea and Woodward was particularly informative. Having noted that “one of the toughest skills to teach any athlete is how to think” Woodward would frown upon the ‘that’s the way we have always done it here’. He liked to challenge conventional wisdom” and asked O’Shea to stand with the forwards for the kick-off.
O’Sheas retort was informative: “I’m a full back. Full-backs don’t stand with the forwards”. Woodward’s response, urging O’Shea not to be ‘paralysed by an identity (number on his back), has echoes of all team approaches in the modern game. The guiding principle that the team is paramount is without question and teams are not successful unless every member is loyal and will subjugate their personal agenda to that of the team, but are we now at a stage where the duality and versatility of the players and management has resulted in a total hurling approach.
Fast forward to Sunday evening and you will hear the winning managers stress for the mics the simplicity of approach, the honesty of the group, the work rate. The forensic logistical and tactical strategising will remain a test for hurling minds to decipher.
Having been comprehensively outplayed by Liam Dunne’s Wexford in the summer of 2014, my family and I made our annual sojourn to Santa Ponsa. Once Sunday arrived, I took myself up to Sean’s Place, a local pub to watch Limerick and Kilkenny in a classic, rain-soaked semi-final.
It’s interesting now to hear the current Kilkenny group referred to as a new team. Hard to imagine then that eight of them played that day in the victory over the Treaty men. In fact, four of the backs - Paul Murphy, Joey Holden, Conor Fogarty and Cillian Buckley - were part of the defensive sextet with Pádraig Walsh nipping two points from wing forward.
My argument has been a consistent one around Kilkenny: The word ‘transition’ is not part of the vocabulary. The reality is that the cohort of a very experienced and good team is still there. TJ Reid, Colin Fennelly and Richie Hogan along with the aforementioned Walsh were four of the six forwards that day so where is the transition?
Interestingly only two outfield players - Graeme Mulcahy and then wing forward Declan Hannon - played with Limerick with Shane Dowling doing the bulk of the scoring.
A more telling benchmark is last year’s quarter-final and indeed the Cats’ game against Cork last Sunday week. Last year Richie Leahy came off the bench to torture a previously dominant Dan Morrissey, Richie Hogan gave Declan Hannon 15 minutes of trouble at the very start of the game, John Donnelly was only sprung with 10 minutes to go (and gave a sublime pass to Hogan for a goal) and crucially, Walter Walsh was absent through injury.
Subtle changes with a reconfiguration of their attack which saw Donnelly at 10 Mullen at 12 and TJ at 11 saw a perfect mix between doggedness, depth and skill and allowed both Joey Holden and Conor Fogarty sit only 20 yards from where Patrick Horgan and Alan Cadogan were causing mayhem. My point is that cohort of experience from 2014 has now been fused, with Mullen, Walsh, Donnelly with serious firepower from the bench also. Kilkenny will hardly repeat last year’s mistake in putting TJ in the corner on arguably the best man marker in the country, Sean Finn.
Yet for all Kilkenny’s undoubted strength, resolve, skill and spirit, it’s very difficult to look beyond Limerick at Croke Park tomorrow evening.
A quick look back at last year’s quarter-final pointed to the heroics of Eoin Murphy in denying Aaron Gillane on a couple of occasions. Even a glance at this year’s league meeting in Nowlan Park will remind that after 50 minutes, Limerick led by 2-16 to 0-8. The goalscorers were Conor Boylan and Shane Dowling who have not started a huge amount of games since.
The conundrum around the marking of TJ will occupy the thoughts of Kiely and Kinnerk. Hannon seems to be content to concede up to three points from play relying on the dogs of war (Hayes, Hegarty and Morrissey) to dovetail, with either Will O’Donoghue or Darragh O’Donovan to shut down that space.
Simultaneously the Adare man can dictate the play with short 10-yard stick passes to his deep wing forwards. He can expect to be hounded tomorrow and may have to use the handpass more than normal. Limerick have previous here in that they have been able to deal with scorers like Kelly and Bubbles with great clarity while still allowing Hannon to marry protection, marking and occasionally scoring.
Two moments from that league game this year were telling.
At half-time, Michael Rice interviewing the injured Richie Hogan asked him about the first half to which Richie replied: ‘Ah it’s very hard to play against a team with 12 men inside their own half’. It was a sharp observation from the Danesfort maestro and now they have had months to consider Limerick’s system. Even more telling and detailed was Kiely’s post-match interview when he talked of the first 20 minutes not having ‘the numbers where the ball was’.
This numbers strategy manifests itself with the All-Ireland champions being able to swamp that middle third often with both Mulcahy and Casey leaving Gillane one-on-one inside. If both Murphy and Holden don’t follow, Limerick have the game sense and playmaking abilities to keep possession creating runners off the shoulder. I would imagine that Casey’s success on James Barry in terms of his low centre of gravity may influence their decision around a possible match-up with Huw Lawlor and with Limerick’s ability to change we may see Gillane coming deeper to allow another assassin a run on goal.
Whilst preparing for Saturday’s game, I watched the Munster final back and I counted at least seven other goal-scoring chances Limerick had besides the brilliantly worked goal from Casey. The chance for Hegarty on 27 minutes was crafted brilliantly without the ultimate execution. Hayes goes to the 12 position while Tom Morrissey goes to 11. Crucially, Peter Casey comes right out behind Pádraig Maher and Morrissey but brings James Barry with him. All the while, Gearóid Hegarty is like a brilliant 200m bend runner stealing a march on Ronan Maher before straightening and receiving a pop pass from Morrisey. The route to goal has been opened by Casey’s movement and cleverness. Straight from the training ground, planned, scripted but ‘uninhibited, robust and wide open’.
The anger, indignation and energy Limerick brought to the Gaelic Grounds will have to present itself again in Croker tomorrow. This perfect fusion of work ethic and skill is evident in the figure of Kyle Hayes. His ability to hunt opposition half forwards but also score and be on the end of moves is telling and matched only by his counterparts Morrissey and the skilled Hegarty. By my reckoning, Hayes (with the exception of the Carlow preliminary round due to injury) has only been replaced once in the last two years, that after 64 minutes v Tipperary in the round-robin. His battle with Padraig Walsh will be intriguing.
The ‘jersey numbers mean nothing’ mantra applies more to Davy Fitzgerald and Wexford than any of the other semi-finalists. For Lee Chin’s 14th minute point in the Leinster final, take a look to your right and there are two possible out-balls to create a goal-scoring chance. The first would need a Bubbles-like arrowed pass to Conor McDonald, the second was a quick hand-pass to Paudie Foley, who had advanced while Mark Fanning’s puckout was in orbit. This is a regular occurrence for Davy’s teams. Dónal Óg Cusack and himself regularly encouraged Conor Cleary to be either under or on the breaks of a long puckout with the knowledge that Cian Dillon was sweeping. Now Kevin Foley provides that comfort.
Knowing Davy, I am sure he will have worked diligently again on being economical. It appears that a huge emphasis is placed in training on shooting and scoring but Davy will know that conversion and turning simple point-scoring chances into goals will be needed to advance to the August 17th final. He’ll have said to Rory O’Connor that if he finds himself in a position where a simple slip-pass to Paul Morris results in a goal, that the pass must be executed.
Likewise, he’ll be forensic on the need to shut down Tipperary’s main supplier in Noel McGrath and take down Callanan and John McGrath with respective markers. My guess is that Callanan may even go to 11 at the start with O’Hanlon picking him up but when he’s at 14, Liam Ryan will take him. A fully fit Damien Reck will be detailed to McGrath with Sean Murphy perhaps picking up Bubbles.
Wexford will take heart from Tipperary’s willingness to commit practically everyone forward against Laois. Because Laois had seven at the back, Cathal Barrett pressed high up the field. The danger there is that while it might be two v one at the back, there’s 60 yards of space that makes the clever runs of Conor McDonald and Paul Morris that bit more difficult to track. The athleticism of the Wexford midfield - normally consisting of five players in O’Keeffe, McGovern, Chin, Rory and Jack O’Connor - will be told to run and offload until the gaps appear.
Tipperary’s response will be interesting.
Those who live in a world that believes everything Tipp do is almost instinctive would do well to come into Bollinger’s ‘wide open’ world. Ten minutes into the second half of the 2016 Munster final, having raced into an eight-point lead, Declan Fanning passed by our subdued bench instructing Brendan Maher to pick up Paraic Mahony and telling Ronan Maher to “sweep, mind the house, not stir from the D”.
While the world lamented the ‘system failure’ of Waterford, the reality was completely different. These street smarts were evident during much of Tipp’s forward play during the first half against Laois which saw many of their assassins operate outside a defensive cordon provided by John Lennon.If you watch Seamie Callanan’s point from the first half, pause it on 7mins 10 secs and you’ll see Cathal Barrett on the Laois 45, with most of Tipperary’s shooters outside Lennon. In the very next play on 7 mins 39 secs, John Mc Grath has possession 60 yards out and Jason Forde whistles a chance just wide in a situation where he finds himself one v four.
These plots make Sunday’s semi the more intriguing encounter in many ways. Up to now, Wexford have mixed pushing six up on the opposition puckout before filtering Liam Og back out and Kevin Foley back to sweep, but given James Barry’s uncomfortable experiences with ball in hand the last day, will they opt for two covering three as Laois did?Given Sheedy’s ability to extract the absolute maximum from his players, he will hope that the mid-season dip of Noel McGrath, Bubbles, John McGrath and the pre-Munster final impenetrable Maher half-back line, can be re-energised and reinvigorated.
The supporting cast led by the likes of O’Meara, McCormack, Browne, Morris etc can bring a work ethic that will allow them flow.The change in our game has reflected change in society. Good change. After watching Cian Lynch, TJ Reid, Noel McGrath and Lee Chin over the weekend, pick up a copy of the ‘Playmakers Advantage’ by Leonard Zaichkowsky and Daniel Peterson and focus on the play-makers cognition, an acknowledgement that there is something more than just acquired skills and inherited abilities.
That there is “an intelligence that weaves together rules, tactics, emotions and actions during real-time competition.” This comes from not just a sixth sense but rather learning from many mistakes, where being initially overwhelming is replaced by things slowing down to a point where “awareness, familiarity and decision-making” becoming their pathway to success.Charles Darwin said in his book, The Descent of Man: “A tribe possessing a high degree of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes”.Limerick and Tipperary tribes to emerge and reach Middle Earth for the final act in a trilogy Tolkien would find hard to script.