Enda McEvoy: Could rule change signal green shoots for hurling's goal-scorers in 2021?

Although goals now matter less in hurling than they’ve ever mattered, how will anyone unhorse Limerick this year unless it’s via the medium of green flags?
Enda McEvoy: Could rule change signal green shoots for hurling's goal-scorers in 2021?

THE RIGGING: A goalnet at MacDonagh Park in Nenagh. Goals now matter less in hurling that ever, argues Enda McEvoy. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Thoughtful and thought-provoking email from a reader lately that posited an interesting either/or hypothesis for hurling in 2021 for us to chew on.

(A) The coming inter-county season will produce a dearth of goals for any number of reasons, all of them obvious. Too much thinking, too much analysis, too much Zoom coaching. Tactical fouling. What one might term the extirpation of extemporisation, Ken McGrath being the last of the Mohicans in this regard.

Or…

(B) The coming inter-county season will produce a feast of goals for any number of reasons, all of them obvious.

Some reek of reality, most notably the assumption — or hope — that the introduction of the black card will render it less profitable, and thereby less popular, for the last defender to haul down the oncoming attacker.

Others are more nebulous but not to be instantly dismissed regardless, not least because this won’t be another winter championship. The evenings are stretching out. I wanna feel sunlight on my face.

Or as a Nemo Rangers spokesman so incontrovertibly put it last week, Tá an samhradh ag teacht.

So what’s it gonna be then, eh?

All of the above constitutes more than merely fodder for what used to be known, a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, as a bar-stool discussion. It has a practical application too. Let’s face it: Although goals now matter less in hurling than they’ve ever mattered, how will anyone unhorse Limerick this year unless it’s via the medium of green flags, and green flags arising from opponents getting runners bearing down on Nickie Quaid’s goal?

Long-term prediction. If — and it’s a very big if — the MacCarthy Cup holders are dethroned, chances are it’ll be in an All-Ireland semi-final. Probably against Galway, the other inter-county outfit who double as a Panzer division. With Limerick slightly below par, as will have to be the case for them to be deposed, and finishing up on the wrong side of a scoreline that reads something like 0-25 to 2-21 or 3-19, the goals issuing from 20-metre frees.

Not that the wearers of the green are any more vulnerable to being run at than any other team, naturally, but the installation of a sin bin for cynical fouls inside the D will alter the rules of defensive engagement in 2021 to a degree that for the moment can only be guessed at.

One certainty, according to Paudie Butler, is that it “will increase personal discipline rather than having the referee enforce if, which will be a good thing”. Another easy surmise is that wing-forwards, rather than staying outside their marker and contenting themselves with the handy point, are more likely to be tempted into adventure.

Amusing as it is to visualise teams disposing their fastest runners on the half-forward line, sounding the bugle and having them take the straightest line to goal, expect one scenario to play out on a reel over the next few weeks nonetheless.

What will ensue when Speedy Gonzalez at number 10 or 12 evades the sharks, makes it inside the D and a decision presents itself?

Will he settle for a certain point or, having done the hard work in getting this far, will he decide to keep going and commit the next defender?

Surely the latter, given that the dice — black card for yer man if he gets the tackle wrong, unhindered shot at goal for you if he pulls out — are now loaded in favour of the forward.

To hold that the recent age of goalless and few-goals encounters may be coming to an end would be premature. An enforced return to first principles for defenders, however, can be taken as read. Good.

The path the sport has taken over the past 20 years has rendered the modern defender a renaissance man.

He is simultaneously a first receiver, a give-and-go merchant, a link man, and a long-range shooter. He has replaced the midfielder as hurling’s utility operator. He does everything except defend.

So much the better, then, if the introduction of the black card forces coaches to coach defending. Blocking, hooking, interpolating the hurley, judicious employment of bodyweight, standing up an opponent. The actual skills of, y’know, defending, as demonstrated by Mike Casey in his deconstruction of Jonathan Glynn in the 2018 All-Ireland final. Imagine.

Here’s a prediction, incidentally. Should taking out opposition runners before they reach the D become a minor growth industry, it won’t be long before a campaign is initiated to extend the sin-bin territory out to the 45-metre line.

Either way, the game — now distorted to the extent that a team can hit 1-23 in a championship match and still lose by 10 points to opponents who do not raise a single green flag and could not care less about doing so — needs goals. This much is inarguable.

Seánie O’Leary scored 29 championship goals for Cork.
Seánie O’Leary scored 29 championship goals for Cork.

Digressing not very wildly, here — thanks to the good offices of statistician supreme Leo McGough — is a random selection of leading goalscorers of the past. Cork readers of a nervous or nostalgic disposition are advised to put the paper down and make their way quietly to the nearest exit.

Seánie O’Leary: 29 goals, all from play, in 36 championship appearances;

Charlie McCarthy: 27 (22 from play plus five frees) in 45;

JBM: 25 (24 from play plus a penalty) in 40;

John Fitzgibbon: 13 (12 from play plus a free) in 18.

In his absorbing new autobiography John Callinan, one of the Clare pathfinders of the 1970s without whom there would have been no emergence from the Bastille in 1995, argues that hurling has become a possessional game “when it was created to be a propelling game”.

Whereas much that has happened along the way has conduced to the betterment of the sport, some ancient verities have been lost to its detriment. Among them is the extinction of the once-famous species Greatus Corkus Goalscorerus.

John Fitzgibbon netted 13 goals in 18 championship appearances. 
John Fitzgibbon netted 13 goals in 18 championship appearances. 

THE absence of a proper Division 1 final constitutes a source for regret.

A championship should always have a starter course.

Yes, we grumble about the league and its structure and what it achieves and what it fails to achieve, and we’ve been grumbling about all these things for many moons now.

But the prospect of a championship encounter between the Division 1A and 1B winners that doubles as a league final does not stir the blood. The reality, if it comes to pass, will not stir it either.

This is the only other leading national inter-county competition and it matters. Now someone will win the 2021 league and hardly anyone will notice.

Winning a National League that was run as a precursor to the championship would — a chunk of silverware, a bounce into the summer — have done two or three teams no end of good. Waterford. Wexford. Cork. In talking about how long these counties have gone without an All-Ireland title we overlook how long two of them have gone without a league title.

Cork’s plight is plumbing depths unimaginable even a few years ago. Bad enough not to be winning All-Irelands; worse to be stranded in the depths of Only Half Dressed Without Tipp territory; worst above all that they’re failing to leave the barest outline of a footprint in the sand.

They departed against Tipperary last season and it was almost as though they’d never been there in the first place.

The one crowd who don’t require league silverware are the defending champions. Doesn’t mean that’ll stop them. If they put their minds to it will Limerick win the league? Indubitably. Given their depth of resources, might they win it even if they don’t put their minds to it? Clearly.

So commanding was the nature of their MacCarthy Cup triumph that the substance of the achievement has been slightly overlooked. The obvious often is.

LAST year’s was a championship like no other. Different setting, different weather, different training schedule, different atmosphere. Empty stadiums, Covid protocols and in their case the irritant of a Munster quarter-final. Yet John Kiely’s troops not only made a second title in three years seem easy, they made it seem preordained.

There was never a moment — not even when Galway were coursing them during the second half of the semi-final — when Limerick didn’t look as if they were going to win the All-Ireland. The one pity was that those fans who’d endured the darkness for so long were not there to exult in the spectacle of their heroes in the light of day, surrounded by a celestial halo.

If Kiely’s Limerick resemble a team of the past it’s the Kilkenny of 2002-03, similarly big and strong and forceful and not overly endowed with nuance. No matter; the best sides are what they are and have no need to apologise for what they’re not.

Where Tipperary’s greatest strength under the Eamon O’Shea school of enlightenment was their ability to alter the dimensions of the pitch and create more space for themselves in the other half of the field (it is no leap to imagine that O’Shea’s favourite team ever, in any sport, even before the Kilruane MacDonaghs of the mid-1980s, is Cruyff’s Holland of 1974), one of Limerick’s greatest strengths under Paul Kinnerk’s regime is their ability to compress space in their own half of the field and asphyxiate opponents.

This won’t change any time soon. Nor will their obsession with points, although their brief siege of Stephen O’Keeffe’s goal in the first half at Croke Park last December may signal a tweak of emphasis to come. Limerick will win most matches when returning 0-30; they’ll win every match when returning 2-30. Herein lies their scope for continued evolution in 2021.

Tá an samhradh ag teacht? Tá an samhradh anseo.

- You can read the Irish Examiner's 20-page special publication looking forward to the Allianz Hurling League and Championship with your Friday edition of the Irish Examiner in stores or from our epaper site.

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