Jackie Tyrrell: Defenders do your job. Do it to the maximum

I have been pulling my hair out at some of the defending on show - try to tick off the don’ts

Antrim’s Shea Shannon scores a goal against Wexford. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Antrim’s Shea Shannon scores a goal against Wexford. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

When the pandemic started all those months ago and social distancing brought the concept of the two-metre rule into everybody’s lives, I must admit I had a little smile to myself. All my hurling life, I had made myself live by pretty much the same rule, except in reverse.

To perform at a high level, I had to keep certain thoughts and reminders constantly in my head. This was one that I used to simplify my task in order to survive against forwards like Lar Corbett, Eoin Kelly and Andrew O’Shaughnessy. I even had a measurement for it - the two hurls rule.

Actually, for me the ideal distance to maintain between myself and the player I was marking was one hurl. I always felt that if I was one hurl length away from an opponent I could influence him and his actions and apply enough pressure to deny a score or a pass or the creation of space. But you’re not going to stay within one hurl of players of that class for 70 minutes - and setting yourself unrealistic expectations is ultimately self-defeating.

So I held myself accountable for constantly keeping my opponent within two hurls. That was the challenge I set myself in every game. It was one of the measurements I used in review - how many times did my man get more than two hurls away from me? I would set the bar at three times a half in open play. Anything under that and I more than likely had a decent game. Anything above it and I was usually in trouble.

In the 2012 Leinster final against Galway, Damien Hayes broke the two-hurl barrier on me five times in the first half alone. Actually, make that at least five times - I stopped counting after the fifth one. By then, I didn’t need to know that statistic because the far more relevant numbers were up on the scoreboard. We were 2-12 to 0-4 down at half-time. No point worrying about the two-hurl rule when you’re 14 points behind.

I still think it’s a handy thing for a defender to keep in mind. I totally accept that it’s a lot more challenging these days. At the top level of hurling, teams have become far better at creating space, far more precise with their distribution, far more pinpoint with their stick-passing.

Think of Ger Mellerick’s ball to Jack O’Connor last weekend, for example, for Cork’s second goal - diagonally across the Limerick defence into a lovely pocket of space down in front of O’Connor. Richie English had no chance of getting to the ball and O’Connor was able to take it on the spin and roll away from him and get in behind. It was excellent corner-forward play but it was made possible by the accuracy of Mellerick’s crossfield ball.

Evolution

To a certain extent, we all have to accept that scoring has become easier. The smaller rims on the ball make it go further and truer. The bigger bás on the hurls mean a greater margin for error. Shane Kingston had a bás on his hurl against Limerick that was the size of the roundabout outside the Jack Lynch tunnel.

The evolution of hurling equipment has all been designed at every step along the way with scoring in mind. There’s nothing unusual in that - it’s the way sports equipment in all sports evolves. The idea is always to make the game easier to play, to make it more efficient. It’s not done to help defenders.

Tactical evolution is slightly different. It’s more reactive, it goes in cycles. At the minute, we’re in the middle of a tactical wave that makes the half-back line of the elite teams a really important platform for scores. Partly that’s a step forward from the sweeper days of three or four seasons ago.

But partly too it’s down to the fact that the scoring zone is so much bigger now. Nobody gives out to a half-back taking a shot rather than feeding his inside forwards. In some cases, it’s often seen as a waste of a ball - you had the ball in space 70 yards out and the corner-forward had a man right up his backside, why didn’t you take your score? That’s a major shift in the game in a very short space of time.

But even though hurling has evolved so much in an attacking sense, I don’t accept that defenders can just throw their hands in the air and say that’s how the sport is now. It looks very likely that 30 points is going to be the baseline scoring total in this championship if you want to compete for honours. I would be looking at that as a defender and thinking, ‘Okay, there’s our target. There’s where we set our accountability level.’

Cork’s Shane Kingston solos ahead of Limerick’s Sean Finn. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Cork’s Shane Kingston solos ahead of Limerick’s Sean Finn. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

The fact that scoring has gone through the roof presents huge opportunities for defenders. There has never been this many scores in the history of the sport, which means there has never been this many shots. To score upwards of 30 points, a team is probably going to look to take around 50 shots per game. Instinctively, that feels like an unnaturally high total to allow. There has to be low-hanging fruit there.

Defenders have a lot in their armoury to meet this scoring blitz head-on. Body position and anticipation are the most basic starting points. Where is my man, where is the ball coming from, where am I in relation to those two spots on the field? That’s the calculation you have to make every time.

Tick off the don’ts. Don’t get on the wrong side and allow him to use his body to shield you from the ball. Don’t commit too early and leave yourself vulnerable over the top. Don’t show your hand to the player sending the ball in. This is all predicated on the two-hurl rule - you have to be close enough so that the split-second decision you make can have its full effect. But you also have to know when and how to limit the damage.

I was pulling my hair out looking at some of the defending over the weekend. Sloppy is sugar-coating it. A defender I really like for Clare over the past couple of years is Rory Hayes so I was really surprised by his rashness for the first Dublin goal.

There comes a time in every defender’s life when you find yourself in a vulnerable situation and you need to offer up the point. Rory found himself in one of those - a great direct crossfield ball from Cian Boland bounced up lovely to Ronan Hayes. The Dublin full-forward was collecting the ball one-on-one in the middle of the goal, 20 metres out. The one thing you cannot do as a defender there is make him think a goal is an easier option than a point.

Rory needed to step back a yard or two off him and give him the point. He needed to realise that his only job now was to stop a goal. He chose to do it by going bald-headed for the ball, which is fine if your body position is right. Rory’s wasn’t - he had to reach out and around the Dublin full-forward, who had already established himself as odds-on favourite to get the ball.

Ronan Hayes had no problem shielding Rory off. All he had to do was turn for goal and he was straight in on Eibhear Quilligan. You should always trust your defender’s instinct, knowing that sometimes it will let you down. The important thing to do is to file a mistake away in the “must not do” section. Rory has put one of them in that file this weekend. My file was large but became my strength in later years.

Shape

Individual mistakes are one thing. The shape of your defence is also key. At all times try to reduce the space between you and the other five defenders. Keep it as tight as possible, keep supporting each other and hunt in packs. Make it as unpleasant an experience as possible to be the prey of that hunt. A warning not to come wandering into our patch again.

For Antrim’s goal on Saturday, all the focus was on Neil McManus’s lovely bit of vision to flick the ball across goal to set up Shay Shannon. But good and all as it was, Wexford gifted it to him with sloppy defending, particularly for an experienced defender like Simon Donoghue.

It was an untidy passage of play and the ball bounced around the Wexford 20-metre line a few times, which is always a dangerous situation. But when the ball fell to McManus, there were three Wexford players around him already. More to the point, there were three Antrim players lurking at the back post.

It was a crazy decision from Donoghue to leave the three Antrim lads and try to block the one Antrim player who was actually being pressured. It made McManus’s decision so easy - his pass didn’t even have to be good, all he had to do was flick it into an area and it was automatically a brilliant pass, simply because Donoghue had left the space wide open for him. One for Simon to file away also.

Defenders need to use their energy efficiently too, especially in this weather. If you go on a mad burst up the field, are you really the best use of your team’s resources? Is it helpful for you to arrive back to mark your man gasping for air? Isn’t he just going to bring you on a spin around the pitch, keeping you in the red zone?

I totally get that teams are sourcing scores from their defenders now. I wonder have they made a determination somewhere along the way that this is the price of doing business. That instead of trying to stop Gearoid Hegarty scoring seven points from play, the best way to combat him is for his ‘marker’ to try and score three at the other end.

For instance, I see that Callum Lyons has scored 2-18 so far under Liam Cahill’s management from. His pace and energy levels are off the charts and he is clearly a scoring threat coming from deep. But I would be interested to see the GPS numbers of players like him and get a sense of how they fare towards the end of games. It looks to me like quite a few of them start to lag at exactly the time when you need them most. It must be so hard to sustain that high-octane, up-and-down the pitch play for a full 70-odd minutes.

I would rather four of my defenders use all their energy defending. If you have two guys like Lyons or Kyle Hayes or whoever, fine. But don’t gas yourself out doing someone else’s job.

Listen to the Bill Belichick mantra. Do your job. Do it to the maximum.

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