DONAL O'GRADY: The last line of defence

A number three can hurl a lot of ball, make vital interceptions, thunder out of defence, but cannot afford any mistake in front of goal. The full-back can win lots of ball but all the full forward needs is one.

TRAVELLING to matches these days by limousine or plane is not out of the ordinary. When I began attending inter-county games the mode of transport was the ‘excursion train’ or overcrowded car.

I have memories of being bundled into a black Consul driven by Mick Ryan, a family friend and former Tipperary great of their three-in-a-row team from the 1950s.

The games are now a blur, but I am reminded by some on-field plays by the post match discussions. These went on for hours as I sipped lemonade listening quietly. The conversation ranged widely, but normally included the referee and his deficiencies; the selectors who often ‘cost us the game’; the missed opportunities; the outstanding players on view and how they compared with the players of their day. One conversation revolved around full back play. “He doesn’t hurl enough of the ball,” was one contribution. The reply has stuck with me since: “He’s not supposed to hurl the ball, he just has to make sure his man doesn’t hurl any”.

Full back play has changed a lot since. Cork’s Pat McDonnell, Tipperary’s John Kelly, Brian Cody of Kilkenny, Eugene Coughlan of Offaly through to Brian Lohan of Clare and Diarmuid O’Sullivan of Cork, were all dominant hurling full backs. They thundered out of defence setting up attacks to the roar of the fans. Cody even had the audacity to solo from full back 80 yards up the right wing in one All-Ireland final. The position has changed utterly over the decades, and yet as I watched this year’s championship that reply I heard so many years ago struck a chord.

Let’s start with the first round Munster clash of Tipperary and Cork. The difference between the teams was the Premier’s goal clinically finished by Seamus Callanan. Where would Tipp be today if that goal wasn’t scored is a pertinent question.

Eoin Cadogan, Cork’s full back against Tipp, making his inter-county championship debut on Mícheáll Webster, produced an impressive performance. He cleared some good ball and picked up a man of the match award. But full back can be a cruel unforgiving position. A number three can hurl a lot of ball, make vital interceptions, thunder out of defence, but cannot afford any mistake in front of goal. The full back can win lots of ball but all the full forward needs is one. Webster didn’t do anything much that day except get in a vital flick when Cadagon dropped an ill-judged pass from his corner back. Five seconds later Donal Óg was picking the ball out of the net and Tipp were heading to the semi-final and Cork to the qualifiers.

Cork’s subsequent loss to Galway also hinged on an error in the full back line. Admittedly Cadogan showed that evening that he has a bright future in the number three jersey for Cork and blotted out Joe Canning in general play. Unfortunately, an error of judgement left Joe alone for a few seconds and his rebounded shot was put away. If that goal was not conceded where would Cork be now? This is academic now, of course. Experience is vital for any position but it can be a cruel learning process defending in front of goal.

Clare’s stand-in full back James McInerney subsequently impressed against Canning and Galway in the qualifiers, but he had to learn quickly about full back play in the Munster semi-final against Tipp. Lar Corbett and John O’Brien were given too much space and Tipp’s goals carried them through to the provincial final against Waterford.

Waterford’s main problem over the years has been their defence. And so it proved in the decider. The “gifted goal” at the beginning of the second half in the Munster final was a one-off error with Declan Prendergast attempting to gain possession instead of shepherding it sideways away from the danger area. The ball was left on a plate for Corbett’s tap in.

But the first half goal by Corbett came about as a result of poor full back play by Prendergast. Both he and Corbett attempted to catch a high ball. Prendergast didn’t need to catch it, all he needed to do was make sure that Corbett didn’t. The Waterford man failed to achieve either option and paid the price.

Similarly, Aidan Kearney showed poor judgement in Waterford’s semi-final against Kilkenny (though this was a player with no real full back experience and can be excused these lapses).

The Munster men needed to keep their goal intact, but conceded two goals. Kearney got caught in front for a high ball when he needed to keep himself goal side of Henry Shefflin, while the second was down to indecision. Kearney was caught between wondering whether he should catch the ball or parry it with the hurley.

No matter what the sport, indecision is usually punished: exit Waterford. But how far would they have gone without these mistakes?

Tipp’s semi-final against Limerick was decided by the first goal. Stephen Lucey, Limerick’s full back attempted to catch a ball he didn’t need to.

Full back play is about percentages. Lucey probably wakes up in the middle of the night wondering why he didn’t make sure that the ball hit his body and didn’t reach the full forward.

By contrast, Kilkenny’s defence has conceded very little these past few years. Their system is to defend the “D” and get enough bodies back there to prevent goals. Against Waterford they were taken for two goals, however.

JJ Delaney left his post too early, going towards the in rushing Kevin Moran, allowing an accurate Moran pass to be finished by Shane Walsh for the first while Walsh turned him easily converting the only other chance he had.

In the last 10, 15 years Brian Lohan and Diarmuid O’Sullivan have glamorised the full back role. Decades back it was entirely functional – and unfashionable – but crucial. Holding out the man to protect the goalkeeper was the major part of the role.

Modern rules now afford the keeper greater protection, and speed and mobility are prerequisites for the modern day full back. This year’s championship hasn’t been a vintage year for full back play. Far from it – too many goals have been scored from poor mistakes. Kilkenny and Waterford are well aware goals win games and Sunday may well see a return to the more “traditional” but negative tactics of denying the man possession and allowing the ball run through to the ‘keeper. It will mean returning to the mindset of times past, but that may be a more profitable approach on this occasion.


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