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Joe Canning: ‘You can't beat Limerick playing like Limerick’

Rival contenders will have to come up with something different to dethrone the champions

I’m a hypocrite. I’ll admit that from that start.

During my playing career – and throughout the latter part of it especially – I wouldn’t have had the greatest relationship with the media. I’d say there are journalists looking at my name at the top of a newspaper article and thinking, “Oh, so now he has something to say?” The truth is, I’m nearly as surprised to find myself here as they are.

I tried to steer clear from media stuff most of the time when I was playing. I know maybe it looked like I was in the papers quite a bit at certain times of the year and there would have been a perception that I was out there all the time, talking away. But when it came down to it, I would say I only did about 20 per cent of what I was asked to do over the years. And yet here I am, writing a weekly column.

Perceptions inform a lot of things. People make assumptions about hurling based on lots of different perceptions. They see the scoring totals rising year after year – especially at inter-county level – and instead of applauding the skill and dedication and sheer work it takes to get them up to that level, they nearly dismiss it all.

Scoring rates keep rising because the best teams leave each other with no choice in the matter. Free-taking is part of it

You’ve heard all the arguments and explanations by now. The ball is lighter. The hurls are bigger. The refs give frees for anything and everything. True or not, relevant or not, they all feed into the same perception. The logic seems to be that if the scores are so high, it must be because it’s easy to score.

If it was easy, everyone would be able to do it. But everyone isn’t. Scoring a point is the most natural thing in the world because it’s the first thing you really want to do when you’re a kid. As soon as you’re able to rise the ball and get a good strike on it, you try to put it between the posts. That’s natural. But it isn’t easy.

Scoring rates keep rising because the best teams leave each other with no choice in the matter. Free-taking is part of it. If you miss two frees in an inter-county game these days, you’ll be very lucky to get to hit a third one. If you’re facing a team that has Patrick Horgan or TJ Reid or Aaron Gillane or Stephen Bennett in it, you have no margin for error.

Team set-up is a factor as well. Look at Limerick’s defence – three of their key players started out life as forwards. Kyle Hayes, Declan Hannon and Barry Nash all spent their formative years as hurlers with only one thing in mind – to score as many points as possible.

Go back to the great Cork team of the early 2000s and their brilliant half-back line of John Gardiner, Ronan Curran and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín. They were pure defenders, first and foremost. That’s what they were there for. Gardiner scored frees from distance and Seán Óg got forward for the occasional score but they were out-and-out defenders. They were there to stop the opposition.

That isn’t the case any more. The best teams want to see scores coming from everywhere. Joe Cooney came to prominence as a forward for Galway but he has developed further back the field. Jack Fagan is back playing wing-back for Waterford. Aussie Gleeson will pop up regularly in any position and drive on from there. You need to widen your spread of scorers or you will come up short eventually.

Nobody gives out to a corner-back for shooting now in the way they might have previously

That’s probably the biggest shift in the game over the past decade and a half. No matter who you are in the team now, you are expected to be able to take a score if it presents itself. If you think you can score, the right option is to take the shot, regardless of what number is on your back.

If you’re a forward at inter-county, you’d want to be confident of scoring from anywhere within 70 yards of the goal. If you’re not, then you’re not training hard enough or putting in enough practice with your shooting.

If you’re a back and you find yourself in that position, management will generally want you to take the shot. Nobody gives out to a corner-back for shooting now in the way they might have previously. It’s not that they’re okay with it going wide – they’re not. But they’d rather you took the shot than turned down a scoring chance. Big totals don’t come from turning down opportunities.

Taking all this into account when you’re game-planning probably goes in the opposite direction to what most people think. I was never in a team meeting where we sat down and went, “Well, they’re going to score 30 points so we have to score 31”. That’s not how it works.

What you do is you break it down and give yourself smaller things to focus on. If you get enough of those small things right, it hopefully builds up into a winning picture in the end. Very often it’s about what you can do to reduce their total rather than to raise your own.

So in your opposition analysis, the stats guys will give you heat maps of where the other team’s scores tend to come from. What is the position on the field that they like to shoot from? Which players do they like to get into that position? What can we do to disrupt the way they play in that area of the pitch while at the same time implementing our own game plan?

In 2018, we played Clare in the All-Ireland semi-final. John Conlon had been immense for Clare all the way through that summer and was in the running for Hurler of the Year. One thing our stats guys had noticed was that Clare liked to vacate the 13 corner and that’s where they would deliver ball from out the field for him to drift onto.

It may or may not have been a deliberate tactic on their part but there was a definite pattern there. He would go out towards that sideline and either take a shot himself or recycle it for someone else to shoot.

So ahead of the semi-final, that was a piece of information that our backs were able to use. It allowed our defenders to take a step towards that corner of the pitch when they were marking him. That sounds like a very small thing – just a step, nothing more. But it’s those very small things that add up and become crucial to the end result.

Think about it this way – John Conlon had scored 1-22 in six games before that semi-final. So he was averaging over four points a game. But over the course of two matches against us – including extra time the first day – Daithí Burke was able to hold him to a total of five points altogether. So Daithí basically cut his average in half. In the end, we won the replay by a point.

Was it the winning of the game? No. When two teams are only separated by a point after two games plus extra-time, you obviously need luck to go your way too. That replay came down to the width of a post late in the game and lucky for us, Aron Shanagher hit the outside of it rather than the inside. The margins are tiny at the elite level of sport. You try to turn as many of them in your favour as you can.

Limerick put up a record score in last year’s All-Ireland final so that’s what everyone has to aim at now. The question is how. Will it be, ‘They scored 3-32 so we have to score 3-33’? I don’t think it will. I don’t think you can beat Limerick playing like Limerick. Someone else has to come up with something else.

Go back to the Kilkenny teams of the 2000s. The first version of them was beaten by Cork’s running game. The second version was beaten, eventually, by Tipperary’s movement. Every team that tried to take them on physically or to ape their style of play only ended up playing into their hands.

You game-plan, you target certain areas, you prepare yourself properly. But when you're out there and the ball is whizzing around, you can't force things

So look around the teams that are gearing up for the championship this weekend. Waterford are trying something different to what Limerick have been doing. It’s all off-the-shoulder running, huge pace from deep, looking for gaps to create goals. Even Kilkenny are looking to adapt now as well, trying to play with more possession than before rather than just having every man fight for his ball.

One way or the other, the team that will give Limerick the biggest challenge will be the team that gets into a flow with whatever it is they’re trying to implement. You can’t go out and say, ‘We’ll try to score 1-11 in the first half and 1-14 in the second and that will see us over the line’. It has to be a more natural thing than that.

Sport is a place where you have to trust your instincts a lot of the time. You game-plan, you target certain areas, you prepare yourself properly. But when you’re out there and the ball is whizzing around, you can’t force things. You play it as you see it.

Look at the best golfer in the world at the minute. A month and a half ago, Scottie Scheffler had never won a professional tournament on the PGA Tour. Now he’s won four times in six weeks and he’s the Masters champion.

He went into each of those tournaments with a plan for what he wanted to do but when the pressure was at its highest, he played each shot as it came naturally to him. It wasn’t a case of needing to get to 10-under by the seventh hole or whatever else. Everything is just flowing for him now. He’s not overthinking anything.

The best teams in the hurling championship will be the ones who can get themselves into a similar state. We know sitting here now that you’re probably going to need 30 points to win a lot of these games. But to get there, these teams will have to go about it ball-by-ball and score-by-score, doing what comes naturally. Sounds easy when it’s put like that.

It isn’t.