A misstep from Clare in the dance of percentages

Lacking immediate inter-county action to contemplate, I got thinking about tangles subsumed under the heading ‘tactics’. 

A misstep from Clare in the dance of percentages

The issue is topical because what Clare attempted last Sunday, defending the Cork puckout, ended up pure daft.

The matter was hardly that complicated. Defending the Cork puckout, Clare should have dropped Conor McGrath to half-forward and John Conlon to midfield, with Colm Galvin or Tony Kelly screening Conor Lehane’s movement.

Conor Cleary, in this arrangement, sits at centre back, allowing Clare an extra defender if Cork go long. The dance of percentages is with The Banner.

If Cork go short, allow Stephen McDonnell the ball. McDonnell is jittery in possession. Let him off as distributor and see how Cork progress in this arrangement. The dance of percentages remains with The Banner.

Clare’s actual plan all but cost them a Munster title. Common sense went missing in action.

There are wider implications to tactical kerfuffling, hurling’s version of a trickle down effect. A friend, as sharp a hurling man as you would find, was asked last year to mentor a Waterford club’s U14 B panel, their second team in the grade.

The proposed selectors met up and all was grand until one of them, not previously known to him, piped up: “Who would be our best young lad as sweeper?”

Thus forewarned, my friend stepped out, since he knew there would be no meeting of minds. Pointless argument is not his bag. The dance of those U14 B percentages would have been a clunky affair.

Any issue cuts a deeper groove when honed on the strop of personal experience. Hurling is no different. Ballyhale Shamrocks won their fifth All-Ireland against Portumna in 2010. There came much frustration when my native club missed out on Kilkenny’s senior title in 2010 and 2011.

Tommy Shefflin, showing courage, took on managing Ballyhale Shamrocks for 2012. He brought in John Drennan, Michael Kelly, and myself as selectors. There was a big job to do. Then we were without TJ Reid, following a heinous belt in 2012’s replayed All-Ireland final against Galway.

The team needed to be reset. Joey Holden went to centre back. Éamonn Walsh, previously full-back or centre-back, became a partner for Michael Fennelly at midfield.

Our calculations were straightforward. The Ballyhale backline would defend adequately any balls struck from midfield. So force the opposition to strike there, preventing possession being run out of this sector, which creates overlaps and goal chances.

Fennelly and Walsh are both well over six foot, seriously strong and excellent hurlers. Particularly on autumn’s soft ground, the terrain on which local championships are decided, their physical presence alone would force opponents to strike long.

Cha Fitzpatrick had been man-marked out of the 2011 senior final against James Stephens, draw and replay alike. To complement the new pairing, Fitzpatrick received a roving role at right half-forward.

His call, where he went and when he went there. We were also conscious of the lovely swathe of space opened up in front of our right corner-forward if the wing back followed.

No specific instructions fell to Cha except when striking on the beat, when striking to a number rather than delivering to a specific colleague. Striking on the beat, he should deliver diagonally to 12 or 15 rather than down the line to 13, where it might be two backs on one forward.

These alterations were initially met with derision in the parish. Nor was the man himself best pleased at first, having felt sidelined out of the Kilkenny team by Brian Cody not picking him at midfield. But Cha, as sharp in the head as in his strokeplay, warmed to the brief once its possibilities were clocked.

Equally, Éamonn and Michael were tasked with swapping into wing-forward, every third puckout or so, with Cha dropping to midfield. Any time either man swapped, goalkeeper Richie Reid was to land the ball on that spot.

These gambits were not the whole story but paid a good dividend. Ballyhale Shamrocks won the 2012 senior Championship, overcoming Dicksboro in the final. All through, Cha Fitzpatrick hurled brilliantly as a wild rover, setting opponents unending problems.

Preternaturally composed in possession, he never so much as struck one ball disadvantaging his right corner forward. Lifted into full flight, Cha had hurling genius like Sinatra had tunes, deceptive ease no barrier, in either instance, to piercing impact.

Down in Wexford Park, Oulart-The Ballagh claimed our Leinster semi-final by a point, after Henry Shefflin limped off in the first half. No rejig, however apt, survives that level of loss in personnel.

Before economic bust dropped a guillotine, there was an awards scheme in Kilkenny via which a team of the year and a hurler of the year in three grades were picked.

Had that scheme survived, Éamonn Walsh would have been senior hurler of the year, hands down, for 2012. South Kilkenny style of things, only silverware trumps derision.

Although inter-county hurling is several steps up from club matters, the same principles obtain.

You simply could not take any two men of six foot three and any stickman so as to build a championship-winning middle third. Hurling, true hurling, is not ground in that mill. An approach’s success derives from the talent involved rather the personnel’s success from the mooted approach.

Only Cha could do what Cha did that season. Never stint this moral. Get it the right way round.

While the history of hurling is replete with examples, this panorama offers nothing by way of a method. Successful teams played over the decades in many different fashions, with courage the only sure source of momentum.

Again, the reason why commentators were obsessed with asserting that Kilkenny ‘did do tactics’ in the 21st century is because such figures want to discover some method to what is afoot, some replicable or portable element other teams could adopt.

There is no replicable or portable element because there is no GAA transfer market. I am reminded of what the great novelist EM Forster said of Joseph Conrad’s gifts: “The secret casket of his genius contains a vapour rather than a jewel.”

Hurling is no different. The magic of hurling achievements is evanescent, lost to the air as key personnel become unavailable. If this truth were not so, beautifully and heartbreakingly so, Tubberadora would have harvested every All-Ireland since 1895.

The dance of percentages forever moves through the jigs and reels of personnel.

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