Henry Shefflin sees no reason yet to panic over hurling’s future
Kilkenny legend has reservations about the sliotar and the surfeit of long-range free-taking
Henry Shefflin at the launch of the Allianz League Legends series in Dublin: “ I wouldn’t be one for saying, ‘No, it’s been devalued’ or the entertainment value is reduced. I don’t think that and I think teams will improve and evolve as they go.” Photograph: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
A leading football pundit recently described watching hurling as like taking a trip back in time, to a boring football game 15 or so years ago.
Too much lateral passing, too many short puck-outs and sweepers and games being reduced down to free-taking competitions between ace marksmen like TJ Reid, Donal Burke and Jason Forde who regularly score from inside their own halves.
It chimed with a general outrage across social media these past few weeks that hurling, an intricate game of skill and speed, is under attack from fussy referees, obsessive coaches and ping-pong sliotars that can be struck remarkable distances.
Chances are there’ll be more complaints after the penultimate round of Allianz NHL games this weekend. But is hurling really in crisis or on some sort of slippery slide downwards?
“No, there’s two things for me,” said Kilkenny legend Henry Shefflin, the most successful hurler of them all with 10 All-Ireland medals.
“The first is the reduction in goalscoring. I don’t have the stats in front of me but obviously we can see that happening. The other thing then is the retention of possession and teams playing through the lines.
“That physical contact of the one-to-one battles is gone out of it a little bit. I think the entertainment value of not having spectators there last year didn’t help either and it hasn’t helped so far this year. I think that will improve it [when crowds return].
“But I don’t see a drastic decline. I think it’s too quick to jump to conclusions. I think Waterford-Kilkenny last year with a full house would have been a marvellous game and obviously some of the semi-finals the previous years as well.
“I think just like football it will evolve and teams will realise that they can’t maybe outpoint Limerick so they will have to get a couple of goals. How do you do it? Maybe instead of going through the lines you go through the lines to a certain phase and then have a target man, or someone inside that’s going to stay close to the goals, and let’s get some balls in there and try and muster up a couple of goal opportunities and take advantage of that.
“That’s my sense but no, I wouldn’t be one for saying, ‘No, it’s been devalued’ or the entertainment value is reduced. I don’t think that and I think teams will improve and evolve as they go.”
On the issue of modern sliotars carrying 100-plus metres through the air, enabling players like Reid and Burke to rack up 1-18 and 0-18 tallies in respective games for Kilkenny and Dublin this season – or how about Jason Forde’s 0-14 against Limerick, Pat Horgan’s 3-22 from his three games or Aidan McCarthy’s 0-13 for Clare in Portlaoise? – Shefflin has a possible solution for that.
“The sliotar is one thing I would like to keep an eye on this summer,” he said.
“I do think a free-taker coming back out the field, and I’ve done this myself so I’m a bit of a hypocrite, but a free-taker coming back 100, 110 yards to strike a ball over the bar, it’s probably taking that entertainment value out of it,” said the Shamrocks man.
“It’s one I would keep an eye on, whether it’s the sliotar, the composition of the sliotar, whether it’s something drastic like not letting you score from a certain range from frees, something to that effect that speeds up the game.
“Obviously a free-taker coming out from the full-forward line like Jason Forde, it’s going to slow down the whole game and he has a routine to go through. I think that’s one to keep an eye on.”
The irony so far in the league is that while some teams, like Shefflin’s Kilkenny, are noticeably playing more through the lines to perhaps mimic Limerick, the Shannonsiders themselves are struggling, losing twice and drawing once.
Shefflin views their Division 1A tie against Cork on Saturday evening as a significant match but isn’t concerned for them in championship terms.
“I did hear John Kiely in his post-match interview the last day saying, ‘five weeks away’, and it was the first time I’d heard someone talking about the championship,” said Shefflin.
“I think that’s where John Kiely and his team and his management team are focused on, peaking at that phase.”
On Kilkenny, Shefflin sees plenty of positives after three games and three wins. They’ve looked at 28 different players including Billy Ryan who struck 1-4 against Wexford last weekend and Shefflin’s clubmate Adrian Mullen who is returning from a cruciate layoff.
“They seem to have figured out Wexford’s sweeper system and the way they play it through the lines for the first time, where they really cracked it,” said Shefflin.
“I think there have been phases where they have been on top in the past and all these psychological doubts creep in. The meltdowns against Dublin last year and against Waterford in the semi-final are very much in the rear view mirror there now.”
* Kilkenny legend Henry Shefflin was speaking at the launch of the Allianz League Legends series. This year marks the 29th season that Allianz has sponsored the National Leagues, making it one of the longest sponsorships in Irish sport.