Apologies, apologies… A pun about sweepers is hard to resist, given the wild unbridled madness about Brexit across the water. Yet the pun is more than glibness. Brexit fixated on a break with tried and trusted structures, a brave old world of renewed sovereignty and control.
Sound familiar? Sweeper systems (Swexit Remain) were likewise a break with received ideas. For most observers, structures established since hurling went 15-a-side for the 1913 season have served the most beautiful game well. These observers argue the beauty is ebbing from hurling due to current defensive patterns. Do they not have a point, seeing what we have seen this summer?
The situation is complicated. Other observers put little meas on aesthetic considerations. This group includes experienced figures such as Cork’s John Allen. If synchronised swimming hurling beat Kilkenny, synchronised swimming hurling is fine and dandy. The wider picture extends no further than seeing the champions overturned.
Allen has been admirably explicit on this point in his newspaper column. Commenting on sweeper systems last May, he stated: “Like it or lump it, the end game is slaying the stripy dragon and keeping it slayed.” Before this season’s Leinster Final, he wrote of Kilkenny in a similar vein: “if they are to be beaten one would prefer it is in the next game when there is no way back.”
Over the last four or five seasons, certain managers and coaches dissented from hurling orthodoxy. They held that non-traditional counties, such as Clare and Waterford, needed to do things differently, an independence that evolved into playing with more backs and less forwards, same as in Gaelic football.
Davy Fitzgerald and Dónal Óg Cusack, clever and media catnip, became the Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson of Swexit. Derek McGrath, calm and considered, became the Jacob Rees-Mogg of Swexit. Jim McGuinness of Donegal was its Michael Gove, incisive and willing to think the unthinkable. Those four GAA men have achieved a lot and deserve ongoing respect, same as Brexiteers revere Farage, Johnson and Gove. Clare or Waterford might yet win the 2016 Senior All-Ireland. But how healthy would this outcome be for the wider game? Or is the query no longer important?
Which or whether, nothing stands still. Waterford’s Munster Final capitulation by 21 points to Tipperary rearranges the picture. Another facet in the same frame is Clare’s unconvincing show the previous day, when seeing off Limerick by four points in the qualifiers.
Sweeper-centred hurling is no longer the cure-all it seemed when Clare emphatically beat Kilkenny in an NHL semi-final last April. Swexit Out, as of last weekend, acquired a much stronger hand.
Derek McGrath and colleagues were entitled to the benefit of doubt. We had to see what Swexit Remain could achieve in concrete terms. Where politics has elections and referendums, hurling has championship results. Neither mode is exactly right or wrong. It is simply fact in the guise of codified opinion.
Now we have a significant championship result, that 21-point defeat. What does it tell us? Quite a lot, to my eye.
Last Sunday, Tipp crowded Waterford’s sweeper, Tadhg de Búrca. This tactic significantly reduced his effectiveness, with a knock on right through their team. Crowding the sweeper as a counter-gambit had been coming for a while, because there is clear logic to its application.
As the saying goes in the Kingdom of Kerry: hammer the hammer.
No team is obliged to remain passive when faced with a seventh defender. Under Anthony Daly, Clare went this route against Kilkenny in 2004, deploying Alan Markham as a sweeper. They earned a draw the first day, 1-13 apiece, and could have won. For the replay, Brian Cody sent Martin Comerford to take up Markham. Kilkenny won a low-scoring game by five points, 1-11 to 0-9.
This means of stifling a sweeper, without pushing up seven on seven, is available to any team. Tipperary advanced a version of it, denying Tadhg de Búrca the time in possession to which he had become accustomed. Following last Sunday’s denouement, the mystique of a sweeper should be gone.
Far more is involved in this system than a seventh defender. Much more significant is how both Waterford and Clare routinely deploy two or three extra bodies around midfield, which leaves three or two forwards up front. Last Sunday, we repeatedly saw a Waterford player gather around midfield and look up for a teammate inside. Often as not, possession had to be recycled sideways or backwards.
Hurling is many things. Central among those things is the ability to control a speeding ball. If you cannot send possession fast and direct to inside forwards, you are lessening tempo. If you lessen tempo, the effectiveness of your most skilful players is reduced. Waterford have skilful forwards. So do Clare.
Has the logic of Sweep Remain capsized? Item: the direct hurling of Waterford’s U21 side on Wednesday , when they dismantled Clare 3-23 to 1-11. Children sometimes develop what is known a lazy eye. The remedy involves putting an eye patch on their strong eye, so as to force the weaker one to work harder. Eventually, the patch can be removed, because the same strength has been established in both eyes.
The problem with sweeper-centred hurling is the eye patch can never be taken off. Using a sweeper does not cure deficiencies in defence, as was glaringly apparent last Sunday. Why persist with a system that makes you the third- or fourth-best hurling team in Ireland unless said system allows the possibility of beating the first and second-best teams?
Judging by Derek McGrath’s post-match comments, he is still Sweep Remain. He said of the defeat to Tipperary: “It would revert me to thinking we’re actually better playing a particular way.” Pushed to fullest extent, this logic would mean U14 hurling upwards should be played with a sweeper. Is this road the one to go?
So, midway through the season. Little enough done and much more to do. Is Swexit on the bucket list?
Or has this change itself become unthinkable?