Nicky English: Limerick, Cork and Waterford the leading proponents of new orthodoxy

More traditional style of hurling perfected by Kilkenny’s great teams has been eclipsed

The recent retirements of Joe Canning and Brendan Maher as well as Cork's eclipse of Kilkenny last weekend have signalled the end of an era.

It’s been changing in the past few years anyway but the orthodox game, implemented to devastating effect by Brian Cody’s great teams and which set the bar for everyone else, is now obsolete.

That dominant, physical style demanded strength under high ball and confidence that team-mates could win their own possession, providing opportunities for the inside line. Ideally you put quick 60-40 ball into the forwards but if you couldn’t make it 60-40 it didn’t matter as long as it was quick.

It was significant that the two counties who spent the last decade cutting their teeth on Kilkenny, Tipperary and Galway, have also passed into history this year. Symbolically both were beaten by Waterford, one of the foremost counties in playing hurling according to what is effectively the new orthodoxy.


They, Limerick and Cork are the leading proponents. It can sometimes be characterised as a 'sweeper' system but I think that's inaccurate. Those teams play with five forwards and an extra body, who can be in defence or playing around the middle third, travelling up and down.

You need wing backs supplementing the attack, like Kyle Hayes, Tim O'Mahony and Calum Lyons. Positions have become more fluid but the basic premise is that you have five forwards so there'll be a spare defender and additional bodies in some area of the field so your half backs, or at least two of them, have to be able to get up the field and score.

This strategy has evolved out of the third-level institutions and has been road-tested in the Fitzgibbon Cup in recent years. I wonder was Clare's All-Ireland success in 2013 an influence, given the involvement of Paul Kinnerk, currently coaching Limerick.

All of the successful teams, Mary I, UL and UCC have played that style. Players from those colleges have been graduating to senior intercounty.

Cork are the latest with UCC's recent wins supplying Kieran Kingston with hurlers who play that way. A significant aspect of it is that it is player-driven; that's how they like to play – possession, moving it between the lines and it's emerged as the dominant style at the top of intercounty game.

The older game where you had 14-on-14 and Tipperary, Kilkenny and Galway the main proponents of long ball and aerial combat found itself with a fundamental difficulty that forwards, even if they do win the high ball, which is still a hard thing to do, are outnumbered.

On the rare occasion they go long nowadays, it's mostly to the corners and the player – Aaron Gillane, Patrick Horgan, Séamus Flanagan, Dessie Hutchinson – holds it up. Sometimes they shoot over their shoulder but they have to be able to hold it up more than anything else and be supported by runners. It's a changed game.

High ball

Kilkenny have made some moves in this direction but at the same time there was plenty of high ball into the Cork defence last Sunday. They neither have the players to enforce their old style nor to implement the new one.

Galway and Tipp are both in need of regeneration, ideally with new players coming through third-level. Look at Galway. We’ve seen them win the last four minor All-Irelands but we haven’t seen those players featuring particularly prominently yet in the Fitzgibbon.

Tipperary won two All-Irelands at under-21 and – after the changeover – under-20 but Cork who lost those finals look to have brought more of that cohort of players forward to senior level.

It’s possible that the Fitzgibbon Cup has become more of production line than under-age intercounty, particularly with minor gone to under-17, which means that at least it will take longer.

The three best teams just now are Limerick, Cork and Waterford. All of them have players who were really successful at third-level. Limerick colleges dominated the Fitzgibbon for a period, providing a great outlet for the county’s All-Ireland under-21 winning teams.

That squad are now the dominant force in hurling but the colleges’ baton has passed to Cork, whose players backbone the successful UCC teams. It will be interesting to see if the baton passes at intercounty and, if so, they’re next in line.

The game now is far more fluid. Like the old Dutch soccer teams and 'total football' there's an expectation that everyone can play. Corner backs take scores: Waterford's Shane McNulty, Barry Nash in Limerick, Cork's Niall O'Leary and even Cathal Barrett for Tipp – they're all comfortable moving up the field and shooting points.

When this is happening, teams are moving back to cover the defenders moving up. Players need to be extremely fit and aerobic capacity for the likes of Gearóid Hegarty, Tom Morrissey, Luke Meade and Jamie Barron has to be huge because they travel a lot and often at speed.

I played a lot at wing forward, number 10, and it was the defender’s job to mark me but if Kyle Hayes is nominally your marker there’s more on your plate than scoring because of the threat that he’ll score more than you, which drastically curtails a forward’s approach to a match.

Tactics ultimately depend on the capability of players and that’s the challenge for anyone in charge of a team. Maybe the next major innovation will be to revert to hitting early ball into a six-man attack. Who knows? But it would be a big departure given how used to the new style hurlers have become.

They also like playing that way but teams always follow a winning template so the evolution of the game will go on – it doesn’t stop.