PM O'SULLIVAN: Sweeper systems are the Rubik’s Cube of modern game of hurling

Clare and Waterford players struggle to gain possession during the NHL Division 1 final replay. Picture: Ken Sutton

Sport needs rivalry, same as egg requires salt and Simon Cowell would not be without Sharon Osbourne.

Hurling is no different. Rivalries sharpen and define an era, bestowing colour and drama beyond mere results, winners and losers. Clare and Tipperary electrified hurling in the 1990s, same as Cork and Wexford in the 1950s. Rivalries make life a dream, lifted and truer and endlessly meaningful.

Next Sunday, Clare and Waterford resume cudgels. The pairing might become a definitive one for the second half of the 2010s. There has been quite a build up to this Munster semi-final, due to 2016’s drawn and replayed league final. These two counties have a lovely bit of previous, not long gone.

Clare’s comprehensive defeat of Kilkenny, so as to make that decider, plumped the stakes. There came the logical inference that All- Ireland wherewithal was available to both camps. There are plenty in the mood for that thought. And they are not deceived.

The talent is there.

Who will win this weekend? That it took a dazzling point in added time to give Clare league victory suggests we are dealing with slivers rather than rivers of advantage. Barring odd events, Sunday afternoon should be swelteringly tight.

My sense is that a majority favour Clare. Not a huge majority but a majority nevertheless. The click here would be a sharper edge as regards goals via the brilliance of Tony Kelly and Conor McGrath.

This perspective is sound, so far as foresight goes, but the sweeper-based fashion in which both teams operate makes punditry unusually difficult.

Such heightened emphasis on defence leaves it harder to envisage a forward delivering the day’s decisive measure.

Item: Wexford’s Conor McDonald getting bottled up by Dublin at U21.

You could elect Waterford too. A sound free-taking performance would have seen them home, quite comfortably, that first league day. Then, Waterford, second day, lost a two-point lead with three minutes to run. By the way, is this scenario not exactly what using a sweeper is designed to prevent?

Sweeper systems are the Rubik’s Cube of our present. Anyone can solve it, given time, but it is precisely time that counts.

The essence of the Clare and Waterford set ups is easily enough conveyed in cold print. By and large, there are two backs and two forwards near the goal, with a sweeper in attendance at both ends of the field. Including the goalkeepers, 12 players are occupied in this fashion.

The middle third is the sector in which innovation’s sting is most keenly felt. The nub is 18 bodies in a space that traditionally held four bodies. Both defences, most often through the designated sweeper, try to work the ball short to magic in midfield, skillsters, who can process possession in tight circumstance. They must then open up space by evading tackles and producing a deft offload.

Time will scroll the implications in the only sphere that counts, the grass arena, but this new arithmetic around the middle third inevitably cuts a certain groove. Contact has impact and increased contact has increased impact, with an increased chance of cards.

Both Clare and Waterford are treading those fine lines between the beautiful and the ugly, between song, dash, gallop and crash, bang, wallop.

Will next Sunday’s contest be decisively influenced by sendings off? The supposition is as sound as any other one.

This type of hurling is attritional and hardly for medium-term haul, but 2016 is the only co-ordinate that counts, not the next three seasons.

So, winning on Sunday is crucial. Making the All-Ireland final along the scenic route would involve a couple of dangerous canyons, where the hills have eyes. Besides, scenic routes have never favoured attritional forms of conveyance.

Not everything is happening this weekend on Tom Semple’s Field. Tomorrow, Croke Park sees the finals of the Lory Meagher Cup, the Nicky Rackard Cup, and the Christy Ring Cup.

These competitions were among the last decade’s best initiatives, providing meaningful hurling for counties not typically associated with the most beautiful game. As per Kerry’s league showing this spring in Division IB, the Ring Cup can provide a platform for improvement, but the push has to be a long-haul project, an engagement rather than a fling.

There are no magic solutions, no silver bullets. There is only ash and leather, divided by speed. Plus time, on repeat.

To rejig Guided By Voices: hurling is a cut-out witch, a difficult and demanding mistress.

Sunday holds two Leinster quarter-finals. Galway face Westmeath, an encounter in which the latter should offer a decent account of themselves. Hopefully.

A sound display would indicate that this Westmeath group can withstand a bit of psychological pressure, a scoop of expectation.

Offaly can partially redeem their season by beating Laois and earning a tilt at making the Leinster final. They should achieve this end, in that Laois have regressed from last season, when they troubled Galway for 20 minutes in a Leinster semi-final.

The best hurling story of my lifetime, as for anyone in their forties, is the rise of Offaly to prominence in the 1980s and ’90s. That Faithful arc provides the template for all counties with genuine ambition. Galway managed the same a little earlier, if from a somewhat stronger base.

The excellent food writer Jim Harrison wrote: “Historically speaking, great cuisines (like Chinese and French) tend to emerge from economies of scarcity.”

Is it not appropriate that Offaly, with such small playing numbers, should be sponsored by Carroll’s Quality Irish Ham? There was a time when they could conjure feast from deceptively few ingredients. Let us hope ampleness might return in time.

Meanwhile, the sun has got its Bank Holiday hat on. Mayflies are about the river.

Clare and Waterford are coming out to play.

Embrace the rivalry, even though I would not counsel a large bet on the outcome of this instalment.

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


Columnist and trained counsellor Fiona Caine offers guidance to a woman who’s growing resentful of her widowed mum’s needy behaviour.Ask a counsellor: My mother is so clingy since losing my dad – what can I do?

More From The Irish Examiner