The Waterford and Clare systems have effectively retired the position of full-forward, writes Donal O’Grady

Sport is constantly changing and evolving. Hurling is no different.

In 1970, Cork’s Pat McDonnell changed full-back play completely in a season that saw him crowned hurler of the year.

Up to then the position of full-back and full-forward were interchangeable ‘power positions’ with Kilkenny’s Jim Lynch and Pa Dillon being prime examples of the approach. And as McDonnell revolutionised the role of the full-back, Ray Cummins was reshaping the definition of full-forwards forever.

But these were individual changes. Now, we are witnessing the broadening out of collective team play. Brought up on a diet of playing in positions as per the match programme it takes time for changes to be accepted by fans. But these are accepted eventually. There is no longer groans of disapproval from supporters when a goalkeeper strikes a short puck-out or gets a back pass as there was a decade ago.

A team’s success depends on a defensive system that avoids the concession of early scores and makes that team difficult to beat.

Last Sunday, Leicester City conceded a goal in the opening 10 minutes of their clash with Manchester United. It was their first such concession all season.

Waterford and Clare have developed systems to make them more difficult to defeat. Kilkenny operated their defensive system for over 10 years and it has served them well.

It is a results driven business for managers.

Winning by not losing the game early is what it’s all about.

Instead of holding trials supposing a hurling manager, seeking fresh talent, placed an ‘ad’ in the Irish Examiner inviting replies from “interested parties of a sufficient standard to play inter-county hurling”.

If these same managers are fans of the modern Waterford and Clare systems they might insert the sentence that: “Traditional full-forwards need not apply”.

Last Sunday, during the first half of the league final in Thurles, I kept a tally of the deliveries driven forward towards the traditional full forward position.

Waterford struck eight. Seven of these were won by the Clare defence.

Waterford’s Patrick Curran plucked one from the air at the edge of the ‘square’ but was immediately double tackled and was prevented from shooting by Cian Dillon.

Back in the day, if a full-forward fielded a ball at the edge of the square it was normally a one-on-one scenario with advantage lying with the attacker.

By grabbing the ball Curran lost, rather than gained an advantage.

Under the circumstances, he would have been better off flicking the ball on with his hand.

The Déise defence won the 10 deliveries struck by Clare towards their full-forward, the tall Peter Duggan, who started as an orthodox 14.

Clare and Waterford play an extra defender in front of goal. It is tactic that means inside forwards always have to be patient. They hope for one or two quality deliveries and then they do damage. With the systems employed by Waterford and Clare even if they get one or two good deliveries invariably they will have to beat two defenders.

So why bother playing a full-forward at all?

The Waterford and Clare systems have effectively retired the position.

An extra speedy half-forward, capable of quick shooting from outside would be of more benefit.

Clare could use Colin Ryan in this role while Waterford could deploy the athletic, strong-running Tom Devine as a double centre-forward operating next to Shane Bennett.

That way the opposition would have only one free defender and would be forced to employ him in front of the square to cut out goal chances.

Running from outside — directly at the centre of the defence — and popping passes to support runners operating off the shoulder might draw frees and prove profitable whereas long balls forward will only provide possession for defenders. Waterford missed five scoreable frees and one ‘65’.

Missed frees damage morale. It piles the pressure on defenders, denying them the breathing space necessary to relax and hurl with composure. It’s an area that manager Derek McGrath will ponder deeply.

Sports fans of a certain age will remember the breakthrough Offaly football team of the early 1970s. Their half-forwards had particular roles.

Outstanding centre-forward Kevin Kilmurry’s work rate and probing runs made the forward line tick. Right half-forward Johnny Cooney engineered frees and Tony McTeague’s role was to convert them, which he did with tremendous consistency.

What if Waterford manager Derek Mc Grath had deployed Pauric Mahony as ‘freetaker’? Mahony, not fully match fit would stand near the corner flag, not get involved in any real physical contact while tying down one Clare defender. Then, somewhat like American football, he would assume the role of ‘freetaker’ when the chances presented.

Rest and recuperation is key for the players. Prioritising areas of improvement has been the chief task of the management teams this week.

Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald won’t have found that role too difficult and one statistic will have alarmed him: The Banner conceded 21 frees, 13 in scoreable positions. They committed very avoidable transgressions as they also did recently against Limerick, in a game they controlled.

As well as cutting out the avoidable concession of frees Clare’s management will have seen that they created 10 good scoring chances in extra time when the game opened up.

They will seek to replicate these openings under the tight conditions that will prevail again for the majority of this game.

Waterford had five points from play in the final 20 minutes of ordinary time.

Prior to that, they had two.

Like Clare they will also scrutinise the video film in a bid to recreate the conditions that enabled these scores. Whoever learns the most will have the advantage.

How important is the National League final? Is it more important than a first round championship game?

HawkEye has been trialled and found to be in good working order in Thurles. If next week’s final was in Croke Park it would be available.

It was announced that HawkEye makes its debut for Cork -Tipp later this month. But surely the CCCC of the GAA can make the simple decision to have it in place on Sunday. It’s the least the players deserve.

Here’s a little extra sport. Watch the latest BallTalk for the best sports chat and analysis:


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