If TJ Ryan is reading, here’s a question for him. (And if he isn’t, he’ll doubtless have heard it by tonight.) Does he know what kind of game Limerick will be trying to enact tomorrow?
A raft of subsidiary enquiries flow from this. Will he tell Gavin O’Mahony to lie back as close to Seamus Callanan as possible or is he happy to have young Dan Morrissey go man on man at full-back? Will he ask Seamus Hickey to do the same vis a vis John O’Dwyer or not? How does he propose — and more on this anon — to stop Padraic Maher, the launchpad for so many Tipperary attacks?
And so on and so forth. But the original question is the most important question, the overarching question. What kind of battle do Limerick want to fight and how do they go about ensuring it’s fought on their terms and terrain? Because — and one assumes the inhabitants of Shannonside won’t be slow about acknowledging this if the battle is fought on the terms and terrain of Tipperary’s choosing, then the hosts will win it, and will win it well.
The question isn’t intended facetiously. Knowing one’s gameplan is one thing. Knowing how to execute it cogently is quite another.
Look at the events of the past few weeks.
Waterford beat Clare not only because they knew what they were trying to do — let’s face it, there are nomads in the sub-Saharan desert who knew what Waterford would be trying to do—– but also because Derek McGrath had them primed to detonate, whereas their opponents resembled a team with the pin removed. The theory and the practice, the gameplan and the successful implementation thereof. Win the battle, then fight the battle.
The same with Tipperary, who were equally purposeful: bypass Cork’s sweeper and get the ball to the shooters on the wings. Use Seamus Callanan at full-forward by not using him as a full-forward.
The same with Kilkenny, who are never anything other than purposeful, in Portlaoise. A narrow pitch, or at any rate a pitch that plays narrow, so string a bunch of big lads across its width and throttle Dublin to death.
This much Limerick do at least have in their favour: they’re not facing Clare or Waterford. They’re not facing Clare or Waterford so they won’t be required to overthink things. The great virtue of Tipperary as opponents is that they’re straightforward. Dangerous opponents, of course, but bracingly straightforward; it’s clear how they’ll hurt you and it’s clear how to go about preventing them hurting you. And Limerick themselves are the least complicated of hurling counties.
Tomorrow, they not only have to hurl well but to think smart. Smarter than Cork did, which admittedly won’t be difficult. Among Cork’s myriad failings this past couple of years has been their inability or unwillingness to do due diligence on the opposition. They haven’t just lost the winning touch. They haven’t just lost their first touch (12 possessions coughed up in the opening half against Tipp, most of them butter-fingered out over the sideline). They’ve lost their low cunning. That last one is by far the gravest offence.
Had they forgotten one of the subtexts of last year’s All-Ireland semi-final? Do not allow Padraic Maher time and space. Against Cork, he got on the ball eight times in the first 25 minutes, starting with a point inside 30 seconds. Fair is fair, incidentally: while one can blame Cork for making him look good, in view of his travails against Waterford and Galway last summer Maher is entitled to praise for manning up.
The issue wasn’t that Kieran Kingston played a sweeper. Kieran Kingston would have been in dereliction of duty by not playing a sweeper. Similarly and in big-picture terms, the problem isn’t that some teams are deploying a sweeper. The problem is that some of these teams are deploying a sweeper badly, as Cork did.
The call for teams to “play 15 on 15 and let ‘em at it” is trite nonsense, intellectual laziness of a high order. One tailors the system to the resources at hand. Tipperary don’t employ a sweeper because they don’t need to. Their imperative is to transport the sliotar quickly and cleanly into that forward line, not fanny around with it out the field.
The following point has been made before, yet it cannot be made often enough. Hurling is going through a phase. That’s all it is. A phase, not the End of Days. Hurling will emerge from that phase, even if Waterford win an All-Ireland with a sweeper in the meantime.
(If Waterford do win an All-Ireland with a sweeper, by the by, they’ll do so by hitting something in the order of 1-21 in the final. That won’t bring down a plague of locusts either.)
Even teenagers come out of phases, for heaven’s sake. Hurling will do likewise because the game is too random and variable and the sliotar moves too fast for the scientists to win. This is not computer chess.
The code will be cracked, some deep thinker will eventually come up with a new wheeze — possibly a return to a small leavening of first-time hurling in order to open the windows in a stuffy room and keep defenders guessing — and off we’ll go again, into the next chapter in hurling’s evolutionary volume.
Reformation, counter-reformation. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
From Wexford’s aerial game of the 1950s, so deplored by poor old Ringy, through Galway’s handpassing of the 1980s through Cork’s possession game of the noughties to Waterford’s sweeper system of today. And in due course, another novel tactical heresy will emerge for people to bitch about and everyone will be happy again.
So let’s all calm down and wait for the storm to pass, shall we?
The sweeper system thrives against forwards incapable of landing points from 50 or 60 metres. It lures them in, battens on them and makes them run up blind alleys. It is undone not by a battering ram but by sniper fire. No defensive alignment, no matter how cunning, is armour against forwards who can score from distance.
The men who unhorsed Waterford last year were John O’Dwyer in the Munster final and Richie Hogan in the All-Ireland semi-final. Catch, swivel, look up, there she goes. No need to apply sliotar to stick and run into trouble.
TJ Ryan’s job tomorrow is to find a balance. Fielding a sweeper is an obvious gamble in view of Limerick’s recent unhappy experience of same against Clare and Waterford. Opting against some kind of eiderdown for a defence that contains three first-time starters, on the other hand, entails risking the sheets being ripped off during the opening 20 minutes, after which there’ll be no remaking the bed.
And in Callanan, O’Dwyer, and the two McGraths, the hosts possess what may be the most attractive looking quartet since All Saints.
Yet the issue of the Tipperary forward line’s work ethic out of possession remains, and as of now it appears to lack someone capable of injecting pace into an attack a la Ger Aylward for Kilkenny last summer. While it looked as if Patrick Maher was being phased out after half a decade of honest and faithful service, one always felt his nuisance-value alone wouldn’t be abandoned easily. He starts.
Good luck to TJ Ryan, who’s had the gumption to roll the dice. Sometimes fortune favours the brave. Sometimes it also favours those who know their battle plan and who ensure it’s enacted with thought and precision.
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