Nicky English: Third-level tactics impacting inter-county game

Traditional 15-a-side formation gives way as coaches try various set-ups with ‘extra’ man

Before the Fitzgibbon match with UCC earlier this year one of the decisions UCD had to grapple with was whether to use Dublin's Cian O'Callaghan to mark Cork's Alan Cadogan, who we feared could score goals or play him in the middle of the field on Jamie Barron to curb his influence.

We plumped for Cadogan in order to prevent the more obvious danger and it was Waterford ace Barron that beat us.

For all third-level coaches the challenge of managing and coping with top players goes with the territory. Inter-county average ages are going down so they’re playing Fitzgibbon at the same time as they’re playing for the county whereas in the past most didn’t play at that level until after they’d been to college.

But the influence of the third-level game on what happens at inter-county level goes well beyond individuals.

Derek McGrath’s use of Tadhg de Búrca as an extra defender is perhaps the most celebrated example of modern tactical innovation.

The most recent evolution of hurling – and I’m avoiding the term ‘sweeper’ because it’s just one use of an extra player – has all but replaced the 15-a-side formation in colleges over the last number of years.

Recent successful teams have been operating with a 3-3-3-3-2 line-up with the two in the full-forward line rather than at midfield.

Most teams are playing that format: corner forward goes to wing and wing goes to centre and midfielder goes back around the half-back line. It’s either an extra man in front of the half backs or behind them. Teams are more fluid than we would have seen in the past, both at third level and inter-county.

In the middle of that Davy Fitz has been at LIT, favouring the sweeper as a regular feature, but for most teams it's not as dogmatic as that.

They’ll play with two full forwards to create space unless there’s maybe an outstanding full-forward line, like UL have had in recent years, and they can change things around. It’s nearly a formula. Creating space up front is the name of the game.

On the opposition puck-out you are short one and all teams will try to target a corner back, someone who they want to receive the short puck-out and they will attempt to engineer that situation by leaving him free as they’re happy to see him getting the ball and to press from there.

Players are much more athletic now and better able to travel. Orthodoxies develop to suit teams and players and these days the ball is travelling so fast and players are now so mobile that under current conditions, the game will continue to evolve.

Ball-winning scorers

Look at football and someone like Dublin’s Jack McCaffrey for whom a fixed position doesn’t matter that much. He’s able to move all around the pitch and that pattern is now evident in hurling, for example Wexford’s Diarmuid O’Keeffe and Jamie Barron for Waterford.

I don’t favour having a sweeper even though we’d often enough have a spare man back because the opposition is using one and we’d have a spare defender. We would regularly have a withdrawn corner forward and a withdrawn wing forward. You might say, ‘what’s the difference,’ as we’re not playing an orthodox 15 anyway and hardly anyone does at any grade.

It’s worth pointing out that if I had six really good forwards able to win their own ball, I’d simply say, ‘now lads, here we go’ and take on the opposition. There continues to be a basic aim and that’s to get good supply to ball-winning scorers, which isn’t always easy if they have a spare man back.

In addition playing six-on-six for opposition puck-outs demands personal responsibility, which sometimes gets lost in the two-against-three tactical maze.

For me the principles are still: going to the ball, winning the ball against your opponents and using it well.

But what Kilkenny were doing in terms of dropping a bit into midfield, became more pronounced in colleges, as coaches set about taking it farther by tactically planning what Kilkenny were naturally doing. I’m not sure Kilkenny knew they were doing it themselves when they started.

In the colleges this became the new orthodoxy. You had sweepers being employed in different situations and by different coaches. If you have a sweeper at one end, you’ve a spare man at the other and you have to have a guy who can play that role.

Then there’s the crowded middle third, which is increasingly familiar at county level but even more pronounced in colleges’ hurling because the weather is worse, causing a serious number of rucks to the point where the winning or losing of these becomes a clear key performance indicator (KPI).

Individual battles

The bulk of these inter-county players are either on each other’s college teams or opposing one another. They are playing with different systems and comfortable changing tactics. Teams in general are trying to vary their formations so that you have movement in the forwards and players trying to break forward from midfield.

Coaches in the colleges have had a role in this but without being prescriptive it’s actually the way young fellas like to play.

Take Cuala in the club championship. They were doing the same thing – leave space inside for Con O’Callaghan. That’s the way it’s evolved.

You’d imagine that with teams having an extra defender, which has been nearly the norm in colleges’ hurling in the past number of years, it would be harder to score. Anecdotal evidence tells me that UCD’s scoring rate has gone up but not by enough to win, which means we are being outscored so the overall rate is increasing despite deeper defence.

To be honest tactical variations are rarely the key influence on the outcome: you have to win your ball; you have to beat your man; generate and capitalise on that momentum. If you win a minimum of nine individual battles you’ll win most hurling wars. And the same principle applies in Croke Park on Sunday.