COMING soon to a venue near you - puke hurling. Have you noticed how poor the hurling championship has been so far this year?
There has been nothing in Munster or Leinster to get enthused about. Rucks, mauls, throw-ins, it’s like watching rugby with sticks and a smaller ball.
There is bunching and crowding everywhere as time and space is closed down by players that have become fitter, faster, stronger.
It started with Cork under Donal O’Grady a few years ago. There was a return to basics, a focus on hooking, blocking, harassing the player in possession. That was Donal’s forte as a full-back, in his own considerable playing days.
I came up against him on several occasions, big occasions in club hurling, and he was a good one. I also played against Martin O’Doherty, Conor Hayes of the Glen and Galway, Frank Cummins of Blackrock and Kilkenny, Jim O’Brien from Bruree and Limerick ten years earlier – against a few right good defenders.
O’Grady was as good as any, but more frustrating than most – he simply wouldn’t let you hurl. Winning possession was only a tenth of the battle with him, and even that was a battle, but the real challenge against O’Grady was in getting off the shot.
He was glued to you, so much so that even the handpass wasn’t on. Donal brought that sort of defensive intensity to Cork in 2003, and gradually, beginning with Kilkenny, other counties have followed suit.
It wasn’t just one-on-one, and it wasn’t just in defence. When a player won possession he was immediately surrounded and the pressure came on – now what do you do? Throw the ball up and it’s robbed from you, hold on and it’s a free against you, drop the ball to the ground and the likelihood is that you lose it – for the player in possession, a lose-lose-lose situation.
This philosophy started up front with the full-forward line and carried through all the way back the field; the engine driving it all was work-rate. Support the tackler, cut off the outlet ball, close down the space – sound familiar?
Puke hurling, that’s what it’s become, and with every team now putting a premium on fitness levels, every team has started to master the concept.
The teams who suffer most are the teams who haven’t yet reached those fitness levels - witness Waterford against Clare in the first round in Munster. Blanket defence, swarm defence, call it what you like, but Clare have it perfected, as have Tipp.
Kilkenny have been there for years, they are the true masters, and two weeks ago in Portlaoise, poor Offaly learned that to their cost. And talk of naivety – you get one chance to get rid of the ball when you’re playing Kilkenny, but time and again, having won priceless possession, an Offaly player would take just one more touch and find himself suddenly engulfed.
By the way, this is not criticism of all that defensive effort, nor is it an appeal to the law-makers to tinker with any current rule to outlaw this kind of spectacle. If I were coaching a team in the morning I’d be telling them to do exactly the same thing, defend from the front and in packs to make it as difficult as possible for a defender to clear a ball, for a forward to get off a shot.
Last Sunday Limerick’s Seán O’Connor was bottled up, but did brilliantly to slip inside a Clare defender and pass the ball to Donie Ryan. Before Donie even had proper control of the ball he was surrounded by four or five players, and couldn’t even free his hand for the handpass - he was blown for overholding. Superb defence by Clare, terrible spectacle.
There’s a way to combat this. The same ugliness blighted rugby for a while, suffocating defence, but what we’ve seen from South Africa and New Zealand over the last couple of weekends is the way forward – offload in the tackle, support runners timing their runs to perfection, changing the angle of attack, and suddenly we have an open game again.
Hurling has a ready-made tactic to combat this new blanket defence – first-time ground hurling. Bring it back. Move the ball out of the contact area as quickly as possible, move it on at pace and come onto it at pace.
That would open up the game again and force hurling back to one-on-one situations, and in the process resurrect some old skills that are dormant.
It’s probably too late for it this year, you’re not going to hone that skill in a few weeks, so it looks like we’re going to be stuck with this buzzing, swarming, choking game for the rest of this season.
But take it on board or the diminishing crowds of the past few weeks will continue to vote with their feet. You never know – it might even win you a bit of silverware.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved