What does the number on your back even mean any more in hurling?rooted through the bag of jerseys and asked how the job spec for each position has changed
Goalkeeping has changed utterly in hurling in the last two decades. An accurate rather than lengthy restart is a must-have for keepers now, as well as a willingness to offer defenders under pressure an outlet pass.
Many inter-county keepers, like Kilkenny’s Eoin Murphy, chip in on the scorebooard — see Mark Fanning’s penalty goal for Wexford in last weekend’s Leinster final.
The basics remain however: Tipperary’s Brian Hogan showed how important shot-stopping is last Sunday against Limerick.
The old days of physical strength and holding the forwards out of the square are a distant memory. The modern corner-back needs to be comfortable receiving short puckouts.
Consequently they need more confidence than ever in their handling and passing (in addition to the small matter of handling top-quality forwards). Little wonder that Cathal Barrett (Tipperary) has played midfield for the county and that Johnny Coen of Galway was converted from the full line of defence to the middle of the field.
What happened to the macho beasts prowling the small square? The full-back was traditionally an enforcer who barred the way, yet now practically every inter-county side drops the centre-back deep to protect the number three behind him.
Clever technicians such as Mike Casey of Limerick are now the preferred option — with defensive support around breaking the ball away from forwards rather than trying to burst out inspirationally is often a better option.
Gaelic football’s influence on hurling often focuses on loose-hand tackling, but what about the free-scoring half-back modelled on the Jack McCaffrey template?
The notion of wing-backs dazzling with their skills has taken a quantifiable leap forward with the onus on wing-backs to chip in on the scoresheet. Cork’s Mark Coleman and Ronan Maher of Tipperary are obvious examples of overlapping defenders with an eye for a score, while Diarmaid Byrnes’ accuracy from downtown is a key weapon in Limerick’s armoury.
Traditionally where a manager would locate his best player in the hopes of influencing the game, but the great old days of ‘hurling a world of ball’ and picking the sliotar out of the sky have been replaced by a demand for a playmaker.
This player needs to have every shot in his bag: the 20-metre popped pass to a lurking wing-forward or angled 60-metre drive aimed for his corner-forward’s benefit.
With deep-lying midfielders supporting them, sixes like Limerick’s Declan Hannon — formerly a forward — and Tipp’s Padraic Maher have the freedom to pick out those passes and start attacks.
As above, the midfielder must now help to screen his half-back line and support them, but the traffic is so heavy now between the 45s that a different type of player is required to flourish there.
Limerick’s Cian Lynch is that different player par excellence. He arrived as a trickster with showy ball skills, the old ideal of a corner-forward; now he uses those skills for processing more than finishing, snapping up ball when it’s loose in the middle and moving it on quickly to the man on his shoulder.
The deep-lying wing-forward has been with us for over a decade, with the likes of Eoin Larkin of Kilkenny in particular covering the ground and screening half-back lines to good effect. Larkin’s accuracy somewhat disguised the fact that he was working so hard in the middle of the field.
Now all teams have at least one wing-forward — and often two — who have changed from solo-runners hugging the touchline to workers rolling up their sleeves to toil in the middle third. Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher was doing it ten years ago and now Dan McCormack does; Daniel Kearney and Luke Meade of Cork, Tom Morrissey and Gearóid Hegarty for Limerick. All active in the battleground, backing up their midfielders, winning that dirty ball.
How many centre-forwards were told over the years to simply get the ball past the centre-back and their job was done?
Now the number 11 has the freedom to drop off —to play as a false 11, if you like — and pull the strings from out the field.
That movement — see the likes of Galway’s Joe Canning and Tipperary’s Bubbles O’Dwyer — asks questions of defenders: stick or twist? Follow and leave space behind, or stay back and watch your man put the ball over the bar? The 11 who was a handful physically has been replaced by the elusive long-range scorer.
The corner-forward’s brief is still to get scores, but another job has been added to his workload in terms of defending.
Teams have always wanted their forwards to defend from the front but corner-forwards now dictate opposition restarts with their alignment on puck-uts.
If they push up on their markers they seek to force the keeper to go long; alternatively they leave the ‘weakest’ defender free for a short puckout and hope to turn him over. It’s a considerable change in duties compared to the time they could expect every puckout to sail overhead and land 80 yards away.
This is a position which truly combines old demands with new realities. The full-forward has to work with his corner men to influence the opposition’s restarts, but he must also give that deep-lying centre-back something to think about, so he shuttles in and out from the small square to engage the number six.
Because of that there’s almost more pressure on the full-forward to make his chances count, as opponents are so keen to shut down that space. Then again, pressure has always been part of the job — of everyone’s job.