Test your hurley and wind up for a good one. The explosion in scores from sideline cuts intrigued MICHAEL MOYNIHAN so he placed the sliotar carefully and invited a few experts to have a go
TIME was when you saw hurlers cutting sidelines into a thicket of players 20 yards infield and letting them get on with it. Not any more. This season has seen an plenty of point-taking from sideline cuts, previously an area of expertise confined to one or two players, the likes of Cork’s John Fenton in the ’80s and Clare’s Mick Moroney in the previous decade.
In 2009 alone you’ve had Brian Phelan’s sensational equaliser in the All-Ireland club final for De La Salle, Gavin O’Mahony for Limerick against Dublin and Joe Canning practically every time he goes out on the field.
Yet Wexford star of recent years Adrian Fenlon, himself a good man to point a sideline, isn’t surprised.
“I’m not, because it’s a simple enough skill if you practice it properly, and the likes of Joe Canning have perfected it pretty well,” says Fenlon. “Any sideline ball within 60 yards of the opposition goal is a good chance of a score for Galway with Canning.
“There are others who are well able to take sidelines, but he certainly stands out at the moment as being exceptional.”
Fenlon understands the mentality of the player who backs himself to score from a sideline cut, and his explanation is rooted in common sense.
“Going for it depends on the angle of the sideline ball to the goal, obviously, but it also depends on the confidence of the player – and the management team – that he’ll score it if he takes the chance.
“For someone who’s as skilful as Joe Canning with sidelines, then maybe seven in 10 shots will go over the bar so long as the angle isn’t too tight, so why wouldn’t you have a go?
“When you think about it, you have few enough chances to go for a score with people marking you, and a sideline ball is a free strike at goal, so it’s hardly surprising that more and more players are going for scores. If you’re a manager and you know one of your players can do it, why not let him do it?”
The Wexford man also calls for a reinstatement of the rule introduced for one season in the National Hurling League a few years ago which awarded two points for a successful sideline cut at goal.
“I thought that should have been continued because it’s rewarding a skill that’s a hard one to master. Certainly if they went back to that you’d see more and more players attempting scores, but it does take a certain calibre of player to score consistently from sidelines.”
Cork’s Ben O’Connor, another sharpshooter from the sideline, has a different take to Fenlon. He sees it as a percentage play because you’re aiming at the red zone whether it goes over the bar or not.
“If you take it right it’s going in the direction of the goal anyway, so it’s either going to drop short or go over the bar. It’s all about the contact you make with the ball – hit it right and it could go over the bar, but if you don’t make perfect contact you can still get the ball landing in the square.
“It’s a bit of luck. I don’t think most lads are really going for scores, to be honest – I’d say players are just trying to get the ball past the first man in front of them, and if he’s doing his job properly he’s going to be standing in a line with the goal, so it’s going to be heading in the right direction.”
O’Connor doesn’t mind the tighter angles a player faces closer to goal. “I find taking them from around the 20m line, or even a bit closer, the easiest; from out the field it’s a lot of work to get it over the bar” – but he also points to refinements in defensive play which reduce the number of scoreable sideline cuts.
“A lot of lads can do it, but during a game, how many sideline cuts are you going to get which will give you a chance of a score?
“If there were more sidelines nearer goal you might see more points, but you’d often have a game where there mightn’t be a single opportunity to even go for a point.
“If you went back through the years, too, you’d see backs who’d just drive the ball downfield and those might end out over the line and give you a shot. Nowadays most defenders drive out and find a man outside them, which cuts down on your sideline chances.”
One defender fond of trotting down his wing to cut the ball over the bar was Eamonn Corcoran. He laughs when asked to assess the percentages involved in going for a sideline score.
“I remember when Babs (Keating) was over us he’d call them miracle scores, and he’s right, depending on how close you are taking them. A lot depends on how the game is going for you, your confidence taking the sideline, but I suppose Joe Canning is the man who’s brought it to another level. He’d score nine in 10, while I might have got four in 10. It’s amazing, though, that most teams now have a player who’ll go for it, even minor teams.”
Corcoran has a pretty pragmatic explanation for the relative flowering of sideline accuracy.
“I just think lads are practising that skill an awful lot more than they did. Certainly in my time with Tipperary you’d often have a few lads out before training, even, and cutting the ball over the bar from the sideline.
“Most teams would have a specialist who’d have a go for a score – Shane McGrath takes them for Tipp but you can expect to see Noel McGrath taking them as well soon.
“I suppose when you think about it you’d expect a senior intercounty hurler to be able to cut the ball 40 yards off the ground to another player, so why wouldn’t he be able to cut the ball over the bar?”
A fair point, but last word to Ben O’Connor, who shares Adrian Fenlon’s call for a return to the two-point reward for a sideline cut. The Cork man makes a persuasive case.
“It’s a skill, and if it’s something that’d improve the game why not bring it back? I don’t know why they took it away that time. Not everybody can do it. You could get a free in front of goal 20m out and throw it over the bar, but you get exactly the same reward for pointing a sideline cut?
“There’s a touch of class involved in scoring a sideline cut, but I don’t suppose they’ll bring it back.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved