John Allen: Waterford and Clare driving the 2016 version of hurling

Impossible to predict a winner on Sunday but qualifier route may well suit the losers

William Egan: unfairly bore the brunt of a lot of criticism from keyboard warriors for Cork’s defeat to Tipperary. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

William Egan: unfairly bore the brunt of a lot of criticism from keyboard warriors for Cork’s defeat to Tipperary. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

The sweeper system or, more accurately, the sweeper himself got quite bad press after Cork’s recent poor tactical use of this modern defensive strategy. The sweeper on that occasion, William Egan, was torn to shreds by the analysts who obviously had the time and equipment to dissect his display and then comment on his and Cork’s inefficient use of their elected seventh defender. It, again, gave a lot of fodder to the keyboard warriors and those of the traditionalist bent. ‘It’s spoiling the game as a spectacle’ is the underlying assumption.

Much is made, though, of Waterford’s Tadhg de Búrca’s ability to read the game, be in the right place most of the time, and use the ball efficiently. Clare have a few players who seem to be comfortable enough in the sweeper role. But I’m not sure that it’s possible to be that comfortable playing as a sweeper when there are so many variables at play.

The great centre backs of all eras had many of the same attributes as today’s sweepers – the main one being the ability to “read”the game. The centre back who fell in behind his two wing players when necessary and cleared the lines was usually the team’s most influential player. The centre back was always a ‘good’ hurler. He had a “good” hand and was usually a long striker. There were usually efforts made by the opposition to bypass this key player by keeping the ball out of the centre.

A priority

The old worlde centre back had the advantage, though, of also being responsible for marking a particular forward. Yes, I say ‘advantage’ because I always liked (as somebody who played quite a bit of my senior years as a centre back) to have the responsibility of marking one player and very definitively knowing my role. In the old days this made the game management very straightforward. Everybody had responsibility for one opponent.

Today’s sweeper doesn’t have an opponent. On and off the ball he needs to make almost as many decisions as the air traffic controller in Heathrow. In the old game that seems now to be evolving, it made it much easier to follow instructions when every outfield player had responsibility for one opponent. Modern Gaelic football can be a bit of a free for all in which most of the outfield players move up and down the field at pace and do whatever they have to do when the need arises. Adaptability and versatility is a requirement for all top football players .

Darragh O Sé in his IT column a fortnight ago painted what I consider to be an accurate picture of the requirements of the present day intercounty footballer

“Fitness is absolutely top of the list…. it’s a running game. The buzzword this year is “transition”. Don’t be fooled; transition is mostly running. For the best teams, it’s running and kicking long at the right time. Either way, you need ridiculous fitness to survive. The next item on the list is personnel. No point having fit players who won’t do what you need them to”.

Hurling is heading in the same direction. Cork looked inept a fortnight ago because they don’t seem to know how to execute that kind of modern game plan. I would argue that they don’t yet have enough players on their squad who are prepared to play in this very demanding fashion. It is probably time for them to reconsider the make up of their panel.

But this weekend is about two teams who are innovative and adaptable and will generally have players on the field at all times who have bought into the system and are prepared to work tirelessly

Waterford and Clare are driving this 2016 version of hurling. If any team has designs on beating them, work rate and adaptability need to be the key tenets allied with a ferocious will to win.

In the two-and-a-half games we’ve already seen in this mini-series, one could argue that all but the first half of the first game were top class. Yes we had the sweepers but we also had the absolutely high work rate and adaptability. And when the game needed to be won, the special player that is Tony Kelly took the initiative with two scores of the highest quality.

One cannot but be impressed by the quality of player on both sides. Both teams also have the luxury of having more than 15 top class players in their squads.

Qualifier route

I would imagine the shortest route would be the preferred choice for both managers. Peaking for four knockout games has been perfected by Kilkenny under Brian Cody. Clare or Waterford could do similarly.

Based on recent evidence it is impossible to predict which county will win.

But we can be certain that a possible combination of managers and Maor Foirnes ,Tony Kelly , Conor McGrath ,Cian Dillon, Tadhg De Búrca, Austin Gleeson, Patrick Curran, hawkeye, the local weather and referee James Owens will have a very definite say in matters. And when all is done both teams will move on to the next game with their dreams still alive – but in different states of mind.

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