I was sitting in the RTÉ studio in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday stuffing my face with Jelly Tots and watching Clare play Waterford on the screen in front of us. I asked myself the question – which of those two forward lines would I prefer to be playing against as a defender?
Now, maybe it was the sugar in the Jelly Tots that was making me energetic and ballsy in the first place – I’m 37 next month so the correct answer is obviously neither of them, because I’m well past it. But if I really had to, part of me still had a notion I could survive somehow on some of the Waterford forwards.
Even if that’s nonsense, it’s not a good sign for the Waterford attack that the thought would enter my head. There was just such a huge contrast between their forward division and Clare’s that it set me thinking. Walsh Park is one of the tightest pitches in the country and still Clare were able to create so much space in so many different areas.
Clare defenders coming out with the ball always had options. Their shape and set-up has evolved to suit their players. They have pace and movement and there was method and electricity every time the ball entered that half of the field. All the Jelly Tots in the world wouldn’t have made me think I could survive in that scenario.
You can't fault the full back for losing Conlon – he did the right thing, blocking the point and fighting for the ball
By comparison, when I looked at the Waterford attack, I saw patterns of movement and ball delivery that seemed manageable for opposition defenders. Shane and Stephen Bennett were making predictable runs a lot of the time – out towards the sideline to balls that were sent diagonally away from goal. That's not a bad option on the face of it but if you keep repeating it, a top intercounty defender is going to come alive to it very quickly.
Pauric Mahony spent most of his day tracking David Fitzgerald’s runs back into his own half. Mikey Kearney never got on top in his duel with Jack Browne, Peter Hogan didn’t feature at all really. Outside of Austin Gleeson, they had no real threat or presence.
When Maurice Shanahan came on, he was dynamic and caused problems in the air. He caught one ball and got fouled for a 20-metre free. He caught another and scored a point of his own. That at least was asking a different question of the Clare defenders, but when it comes right down to it, Maurice didn't touch the ball until the 70th minute when Waterford were five points down. It was very comfortable for the Clare defence up to then.
Go back to the Waterford defence and ask them what sort of afternoon they had and comfortable wouldn’t come into it. They were constantly being moved around and each Clare player presented them with a different problem.
Podge Collins dropped deep when Clare didn’t have the ball but bombed back up to support when they had. John Conlon roamed from the square to the wing for puck-outs but made sure he was inside as a target man the rest of the time. Shane O’Donnell played everywhere and couldn’t be harnessed. The sum total of all that movement was confusion – just look at Conlon’s goal for the perfect example of that.
Donal Tuohy's puck-out landed down on the edge of the Waterford D and there was a scrap for possession with four Clare forwards converging on the scene – Conlon, Podge, O'Donnell and Peter Duggan. Each of them brought their man with them and Tadhg de Búrca got in around it too, meaning that when the ball hit the ground, nine players were bunched about 25 metres from goal halfway between the D and the sideline.
O'Donnell had started as the closest player to the Waterford goal but he sprinted towards the scene, followed closely by Noel Connors. What this all meant was that a huge acre of space opened up in front of the Waterford posts. Because O'Donnell is so sharp at getting the ball into his hand, he was the one who came out of the bunch with it and straight away, Conlon sprinted into the open space.
Waterford nearly got away with it too because unusually for him, O’Donnell didn’t look up to see was there a goal on and instead went for his own point. If he’d scored it, I’d say Conlon would have had a few words for him. But what actually happened was that Conor Prunty pulled off a great block and as O’Donnell went to pick up the loose ball, Prunty chased him for it.
You can’t fault the full back for losing Conlon – he did the right thing, blocking the point and fighting for the ball. Waterford’s problem was that three other defenders all went chasing the ball too and nobody copped that if Prunty was battling with O’Donnell, then Conlon must be loose somewhere.
It was Conlon’s speed of thought and rapid movement that killed them, along with O’Donnell’s ability to get the ball into his hand in a tight space. It looked like a bad goal to give away because Conlon found himself in so much space. But the constant movement of the Clare forward line is designed to create that space. The question for Waterford is what are they doing to create similar space up the other end?
I measure a forward’s movement very simply – when a defender looks up as he comes out with the ball, the forward should have his mind made up for him where to deliver it. Indecision is a no-no in a high-intensity championship game so a good forward takes the possibility of indecision out of his team-mate’s mind. His first job is to make the out ball obvious.
This is a two-stage process. First you have to make the space, then you have to time your run into it. Hold your run, leave the space open, make two, three or four dummy runs laterally to create separation and then explode into the space at the moment the man in possession strikes the ball.
As a defender, you can track and shadow a forward’s movement comfortably enough for up to five or six seconds. After that, it starts to become increasingly difficult. The combination of the physical output and the mental focus needed to keep an eye both on your man and on where the ball is all adds up. The really good forwards know this and they almost try to wear you out by running at around 75 per cent of their max pace for those five or six seconds.
Waterford need to create more and better space with intelligent runs and find some variation
As you fatigue trying to shadow them, they then lean into you at the moment of breakaway. In the NFL, you see wide receivers getting penalised for pushing off their defenders as they go to catch the ball – in hurling, the poor corner back has no such luck. The really good forwards use you as leverage and push away from you, getting into a full sprint out to the ball.
The good ones might only need one or two dummy runs. If you’re at a game over the coming weeks, watch how Aaron Gillane, Shane O’Donnell or Séamus Callanan do it. They are the market leaders in this field. All they need is a yard or two. Once they’ve created space and separation, you know you’re in trouble because these lads don’t mis-control the ball. By that stage, you’re just hoping for the best.
Watching that game on Sunday, I counted at least four instances in the first half alone where Pat O’Connor and David McInerney won that foot race for possession with the two Bennetts. But if their movement had been dynamic enough, it wouldn’t have come down to a foot race. The hard running comes before the ball is pucked in.
Waterford's other problem was that they didn't have enough variety. The Clare defenders had so many options when they looked up. They could pop it short to Tony Kelly in a midfield pocket of space. They could go long and high to Conlon in the square or Duggan down the wing. They could puck it any way possible to O'Donnell and he'd make something of it. Or they could run it through the lines with Kelly, Fitzgerald and Colm Galvin all a factor.
All that said, you have to admire Waterford for staying in it. Even if the scoreboard flattered them in the end, they were never dead in the game and there’s a lot to be said for that.
When you dig down into the numbers and stats, you see that Waterford were efficient with the ball. They had 66 possessions, 36 shots created, 22 scores. They scored eight points from frees and only had eight wides, two of them from sideline balls. Those are actually decent enough performance numbers, all in all.
Where they fell down was in penetration and possession inside in the danger zone beyond the 20-metre line. Stephen Bennett had a glorious chance of a goal in the first half but couldn’t control the ball. Over the course of the afternoon, they didn’t get a score inside the Clare 20-metre line. That’s not going to cut it from here on out.
Definitely not this weekend in Thurles. They're heading to play Tipperary who are buoyant and in a mean mood and if they don't get a result, the year could be over for them. Tipperary scored 2-28 on Sunday, 2-24 from play. Everyone from number five to 15 got on the scoresheet. More importantly, their inside line John McGrath, Callanan and Jason Forde scored 2-10 (2-7 from play).
Waterford have a huge job ahead of them. They will need more from Jamie Barron and De Burca to try curtail this Tipperary attack but more importantly, they will need a serious evolution in their forward division. I don't know if you can do that in the space of a week but they're going to have to find something.
They need to create more and better space with intelligent runs and find some variation. Maybe Brick Walsh comes in, maybe Maurice starts – something to add size and aerial prowess. One way or the other, what they scored last Sunday in Walsh Park isn’t going to get it done. Not against Tipperary in this sort of free-scoring form.