Jackie Tyrrell: Kilkenny-Galway to show beautiful art of defending

The always analytical Brian Cody will devise a new plan to beat Galway in the replay

Galway’s Adrian Tuohey and Walter Walsh of Kilkenny compete. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

As I sat back in my chair in the RTÉ production room last Sunday afternoon, I had a smile from ear to ear watching Kilkenny and Galway go at it toe to toe. This would be unusual in a game where Kilkenny were behind for long spells but it was just so refreshing to see the skill which I adore the most being perfected. The beautiful art of defending.

I haven’t seen such a high level of defending in a long time. Both sets of backs went at it with venom, with real ferocity and fire, as they dominated each set of forwards. There was an abandon to the way they attacked the ball on the ground and in the air. Right from the off, when Pádraig Walsh caught the very first ball lashed to the square, there was an edge and an attitude to the defending all afternoon. Pádraig caught it over Niall Burke’s head – it didn’t matter one bit to him that he was giving away five or six inches in height.

You could see from Kilkenny's body language that they were pumped and had vowed set the tempo from the first minute. Joey Holden had caught a high delivery. Paul Murphy stormed out, won a free and jumped up off the ground looking for his next victim. Kilkenny were at it. Tetchy. Hurting from Salthill.

Catching, being first to the ball, body position, defender's instincts. When they are perfected and played with the right tetchy mentality, who needs an extra defender?

As a defender, when you’re tetchy it’s a good place to be, as long as it’s controlled. Your mental state is on it. Your chest is out and you look at the opposing attacker as if to say, “What you looking at?” You’re insulted by the idea that someone is going to score against you.


Down at the other end, Galway had Pádraig Mannion soaring in the skies – he played with an air of defiance. Dáithí Burke played and defended as he always does. His whole demeanour is saying, “There’s only one winner here. I am the boss in this square and whatever I dish out, you just take it and move on to another position. Send in the next victim.” He is the man. For me he’s the best defender in the country – high or low, fast or slow, small or big, human or alien.

Defend as a unit

With Kilkenny we always defended as a unit. We had a mantra – an honest mistake won’t beat us. What we meant is that if you try to do the right thing as a defender all the time, a mistake won’t matter in the grander scheme of things. If you are out in front and miscontrol a ball, someone will be covering and backing you up because we defend as a unit.

I can remember matches when a runner got by me and Eoin Larkin would chase him down into our own square and dispossess him. I would never thank him because that is what was expected of him. Mind you, I might buy him a pint later on just to make sure he kept doing it.

Defending is about always being there for each other. When I had a ball I knew I had a defender close by and another one within striking distance. You could sense them. You almost knew each other’s breathing patterns. If I heard heavy panting behind me, I knew JJ Delaney was backing me up. We were that close we could nearly tell each other apart by smell alone.

Both sets of defences had the mantra of "not today" at the weekend. The aerial duels at stages were ridiculous. Balls were fetched out of the sky as if lads were hurriedly robbing an orchard and they could hear the farmer coming. Anthony Daly ran out of superlatives beside me as we watched in awe and with our mouths open.

It made me realise that the old values of defending are so important. Catching, being first to the ball, body position, defender’s instincts. When they are perfected and played with the right tetchy mentality, who needs an extra defender? There were no sweepers on show in the Leinster final and defences kept it to 0-18 each. Wexford opted for an extra defender in last year’s Leinster final and conceded 0-29.


In all honesty, I feel that the use of sweeper for a top-8 hurling team will not win an All-Ireland. I think it is useful further down the food chain, or for a team starting off that wants to solidify its defence before expanding to bigger things. But looking at the field and the teams left in the 2018 race for the Liam MacCarthy Cup, I just can’t see a team with a sweeper going all the way.

Teams with sweepers or seventh defenders have caught traditional teams on the hop in the past. But most teams have worked out how to play around it by now. While it can work in one-off situations – maybe as a horses-for-courses tactic every now and then – the further you go, the less you can afford it. You sacrifice too much scoring potential when you only play with five attackers.

Anyone who watched the defending between Galway and Kilkenny last Sunday could see that it is possible to keep the opposition to a manageable scoreline just through pure defending. I’m not saying it’s all man-to-man, or everyone is lining out in their positions the same as in the programme.

Obviously teams like Kilkenny and Galway sometimes drop midfielders back to defence or bolster the middle with deep-lying wing-forwards. Johnny Coen, Conor Fogarty, Bill Cooper – they play the role of sitting in front of their centre-back, watching for space and potential danger.

Galway’s Conor Whelan wins a high ball in the Leinster Senior Hurling Final. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

In the Munster final, Cork changed their defensive set-up at half-time. They didn't use a sweeper, but they smartly got their half-forward line to drop back and their midfield to drop deeper. This allowed the Cork half-back line to drop off and fill that space in front of John Conlon, knowing that their midfield was within striking distance of the man they were marking. Cork got their changes spot on and took out Clare's danger man.

Without a sweeper they were still able to defend at one end while scoring 1-14 in 35 minutes at the other end. With a sweeper you give up too much by taking a man out of your attack to play in defence. Instead, the plan should be to get your match-ups right, defend as a unit from 15 back and dictate the laws of engagement with ruthless physicality.


Sunday's replay in Thurles should see more of the same. Galway are favourites again but you can be certain Kilkenny will come with a gameplan based on the drawn game. Brian Cody has a great record in replays because of what he learned from the previous game.

Any time we were getting ready for a replay, Brian always made sure he had the gameplan ready as early as possible. When we drew with Tipperary in the 2014 All-Ireland final, we played an A v B game on the Thursday following the draw with Kieran Joyce stationed at centre-back. We had three weeks to kill before the replay but he had no interest in playing a few internal games to see who would put their hand up for selection.

Bonner Maher had caused chaos in the drawn game and Cody made sure that wouldn’t happen again. Joyce hadn’t really played since earlier that summer in the Leinster Championship, but he was parachuted in from nowhere for this specific job. This is the plan, now we work on it and make it bombproof on the day. He ended up being man of the match in the replay.

If the turnaround is tighter, like it is this week, the same rules apply. While the team is doing recovery on a Monday, Brian and his selectors are working out what changes are needed – who’s going to come in, what worked and what didn’t.

Mick Dempsey found a couple of Monaghan women in Carlow IT a few years ago to work on stats and they're vital in a week like this. I think we had a six-day turnaround for a replay against Galway one year and the two girls pretty much stayed up through the night to have the stats ready for first thing Monday morning.


When the players arrived for training in Nowlan Park this week, they’ll have decided what Galway did well on Sunday and what Kilkenny can do to counteract it. The gameplan will be clear. And above all, it will be put to the players that they have responsibilities now that they need to carry out.

Before that draw in the 2014 final, our defence had talked a lot about forcing Tipp to play long balls down on top of us. We basically said that they didn’t want to do that because our half-back line was very good in the air and their game was more based on diagonal balls into space and forwards moving around all over the place.

I will always remember Brian bringing that up with us directly in a meeting after the drawn game. As it happened, our forwards and midfield had brought plenty of pressure and Tipp had been forced into the sort of deliveries we wanted. We just hadn’t dealt with them.

“Ye were very confident that this is what ye wanted, lads,” Brian said. “This was supposed to be your bread and butter, ye said this but ye didn’t back it up. Ye have to be accountable for it.”

Brian Hogan and Joey Holden were dropped for the replay as a result.

Brian and the lads are very good at analysing games, breaking down facets of it into the good parts and bad parts and working from there. Above all, they know their players inside out and they’re not afraid to make changes. They almost never go back with the same team in a replay that they had in a drawn game. On that basis, I’d expect Kilkenny to make more changes for Sunday than Galway do.

Kilkenny will come with a new plan for the replay. They always do. Whether they’re good enough to beat Galway with it, we can only wait and see.