If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s a saying that is true in life and it’s definitely applicable when you look across the hurling landscape this year. The teams that have looked the best so far are the ones who have settled on their teams and formations. The ones who are still tinkering are generally struggling.
I am all on for experimentation and trying things and being innovative. The game is always evolving and you’re far better being the crowd that are keeping everyone else on their toes rather than always being reactive. But there is a time and place for all that too.
Everybody got five games of a phony league this year. If you’re coming out of that period and you still don’t have 10-to-12 of your spots filled and if you don’t have the spine nailed down, chances are you’re not in a great place. And so it has proved.
Look at the teams who have stuck with what they have tried from early on this year – they are the ones having a good summer. They are reaping the rewards. There is security in their method.
Take Clare. Halfway through a bumpy league, it was evident looking in from the outside that Brian Lohan had pencilled Conor Cleary in at full back and John Conlon at centre back. Conlon has really grown into the role with each passing game and now they go into the business end of the summer with a bedrock they can trust. They have shown strong and consistent performances right the way through the summer.
I can't really understand why Galway have gone messing about with something they didn't need to change
Settling on your three and your six is a vital bit of business to get out of the way early in the year. Dublin gave Liam Rushe a few minutes in the full-forward line in the league but really and truly, Mattie Kenny had him down for six and Eoghan O’Donnell down for three from early on. It has stood them in good stead because whatever else Dublin might lack, they are so solid down through the heart of their defence.
Kilkenny nailed their colours to the mast early on with Huw Lawlor and Pádraig Walsh. Limerick have played a small bit of Russian roulette but once Dan Morrissey went back in at full back half an hour into the Munster final, they hit the sweet spot. With Morrissey at three and Declan Hannon anchoring everything at centre back, they're in a good place.
This is why I can't really understand why Galway, of all teams, have gone messing about with something they, of all teams, certainly didn't need to change. When they played Dublin in Croke Park a few weeks back, Gearóid McInerney lined out at full back and Daithí Burke was given the job of playing at six. I know that's where they played a few times during the league too but it still makes very little sense to me.
This is all too sensitive of an area to mess around with. It is like playing with fire. When you have a good thing going in the full-back line, you trick about with it at your peril. Good full backs are like hens’ teeth. Great full backs – and make no mistake, Daithí Burke is a truly great full back – are a once-in-a-generation thing. They are a precious commodity.
Full backs are a different breed, they think differently to everyone else. A good one can set a team’s tempo, even from a position that is miles away from most of the players on the pitch. They have something pure, rare and often intangible but everyone knows it when they see it. They are hugely important as a result.
Think about it: when a full back breaks out through a few tackles to clear his lines with ball in hand, it does something to the crowd and to the rest of the team that nobody else can. Think of Brian Lohan, Diarmuid O Sullivan, Noel Hickey. When they drove out with the ball, it was blood and thunder. The noise level of any stadium was completely in their hands, to be raised or lowered as they pleased. Very few players in any team have that sort of power.
This makes it all the stranger to me that Galway have gone tinkering with the heart of their defence. They have the best full back in the country and they have moved him; and for the life of me I can’t see why. I guarantee you every team that is planning for a game against Galway is delighted not to have to play against him on the edge of the square. Every one of them is thinking Galway are more vulnerable there now.
If you have a dominant player and particularly the sensitive position like full back, you don’t mess with it by moving him about. Fair enough, try it in the league to get game time and miles into the legs of certain key players and to keep the whole thing fresh. But fixing something that isn’t broken come crunch time? It just doesn’t make sense to me.
There was a domino effect, meaning that the rest of the Galway team found themselves funnelling back
Full back is such a pivotal spot on the pitch. Rewind to 2012, when a guy I went to college with, Kevin Hynes, ended up at full back for Galway in a bid to shore up their defence. Kevin was a natural centre forward but Galway’s back line was their Achilles heel. In fairness he ended up doing a decent job, but it came at an expense.
For one thing, it moved him away from his best position. For another, in order to give him some protection, Tony Óg Regan would drop back in from centre back and sit in front of him. There was a domino effect, meaning that the rest of the Galway team found themselves funnelling back to cover off Tony Óg’s defensive channel. They robbed Peter, Paddy, Pedro and Paschal to pay Paul. That was how bad the need for a full back was for Galway at the time.
In the years that followed, they were never going to get anywhere until they found someone for the number three jersey. Galway managers prayed to God and St Peter and anyone up above who would listen to them in a bid to help find them a full back, any kind of a full back.
And in the end, they didn't just get any full-back. They got one who has gone on to be the best in the country since JJ Delaney retired. Someone who continues to be the best one, just ahead of Eoghan O Donnell. This guy is 28 and already has five All-Stars – the same as JJ at that age. That is the kind of trend this guy is on. A trend destined for greatness should he persevere and should Galway push on.
Burke has that aura about him. When the large hand goes up to the skies and grabs a ball, it’s a huge momentum boost for Galway and kills a bit of the fire inside their opponents. He oozes a presence around the square, he brings a calmness to the defence. When the ball is in his vicinity, it is like time slows down. He makes it look so simple.
The really strange thing about it is that it isn’t like everything else in that area of the pitch is set in stone for Galway. This is only Éanna Murphy’s second year in goal. Same for Shane Cooney and Fintan Burke. Darren Morrissey is in his rookie year. The one thing all four of those guys need most of all is some bit of certainty and assuredness.
Burke and McInerney should be the two rocks of the defence, playing in the positions where they have won All-Irelands and All-Stars in the past. That would give the less experienced defenders peace of mind – if they’re in trouble, they would know help is exactly where it is supposed to be, doing what it is supposed to be doing. But instead, Burke and McInerney are both trying to get used to unfamiliar surroundings. They have enough to be worrying about.
It is amazing the effect it can have on a defence when things are suddenly different to before. Defenders are creatures of habit. They crave certainty. They don’t like new stuff, they don’t like change. Newness brings uncertainty. Newness takes time to adapt. Defenders don’t have time. They definitely don’t have time for unnecessary change.
I always liked to know more about the guy I was playing behind and beside me than I knew about my own family. What side he normally hits off. What way he will break with the ball. What he does when facing his own goal. What signs to look for to see that he is gassed and needs help. Everything down to what way he liked his steak.
Oh, I better not go too far, Daithí isn't minding the edge of the square
After being so good for so long, a change like this has to upset the thinking of the rest of the defence. The corner backs get a little uneasy. The goalkeeper doesn’t have that peace of mind under a dropping ball. It’s even buzzing in the back of the midfielders’ minds – “Oh, I better not go too far, Daithí isn’t minding the edge of the square.”
He is the most important piece in the puzzle. The year is not dead for Galway, not by any stretch of the imagination. They had a bad day against Dublin but that can happen. It’s time for them to get back on the horse.
And that has to start with getting the best full back in the country returned to his proper slot. I fully expect Burke to be back there against Waterford tomorrow. Fire in eyes, ice in his veins, leading the Tribesmen to a victory. If that’s the case, they are hugely back in the hunt.
But if he is playing anywhere else only the edge of the square, Galway won’t be winning any All-Ireland this year.