Ball in hand, world of trouble

LAST year this column had an interesting chat with Ger Loughnane up in Shannon. Over the toasted special and hot coffee the Galway boss made an interesting observation about primary possession in modern hurling.

“One feature has been the ability of hurlers to win ball out of the air,” said Loughnane in July 2007.

“It’s a skill that’s out of this world. It was never perfected as well as it is now — you have lads flaking on the ball and a small man like Tommy Walsh can reach up and come away with it. It’s phenomenal.”

Far be it from us to contradict Ger, but one impression from last Sunday’s All-Ireland final is that fielding the ball cleanly — particularly among forwards — isn’t the boon it once was.

There’s been a lot of non-specific discussion of what makes Kilkenny so good, ranging from generalised guff about the fact that there’s no other serious challenge to hurling as the top sport in the county to sundry other semi-libellous propositions we need not go into here.

But something Kilkenny do very well is tackling in groups. It’s noticeable that when an opposition player contests his own puck-out, for instance, that Kilkenny players descend on that player from nearby sectors: if a ball is landing on an opposing wing-forward, then, he can expect a Kilkenny corner-back, centre-back, centre-fielder and possibly a wing-forward to join the wing-back marking him.

In that context catching the ball is almost counterproductive. The traditional top outcome for a puck-out is that the target player fields the ball cleanly, turns and then dictates the play up front.

By tackling that puck-out target in numbers, however, Kilkenny make a weakness out of a traditional strength: if the opponent catches the ball cleanly he’s surrounded by at least three opponents and isn’t going anywhere, either coughing up the ball or overcarrying it. If he doesn’t catch the ball cleanly then nine times out of 10 the ball is going to go to one of the rapidly-converging Kilkenny defenders coming to augment the wing-back.

Waterford probably suffered more than most teams last Sunday from that Kilkenny development. In the likes of Seamus Prendergast, Dan Shanahan and Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh they have accomplished catchers of the ball, but outnumbered by Cats time and again, they couldn’t win the ball to establish a bridgehead. To top it off, Tommy Walsh — as described above — and JJ Delaney are superb fielders in their own right. In a 50-50 battle you’d back both of them to win more than their share of ball anyway, and thus it proved in Sunday’s game.

Up front Kilkenny stock their own half-forward line with excellent aerial competitors Martin Comerford and Eoin Larkin are well able to contest the dropping ball, but Henry Shefflin is in a class of his own underneath his own puck-out, with two particularly impressive trademark moves.

Sometimes Shefflin — who stands well over six feet tall — doesn’t engage with his marker in the pushing and shoving underneath a Kilkenny puck-out, waiting until the last possible second to launch himself across the defender to win the ball, his momentum then carrying him into the centre and goalwards.

When the Kilkenny man is caught up in grappling with an opponent, he has a devastating ability to deflect the ball onwards past his man — not with a wild pull but by angling his hurley to bounce the sliotar into space behind him. His size and strength is an asset in this case, as he’s able to keep his hurley steady while holding off his opponent.

Other teams will come up with strategies to combat these developments, but at the moment nobody executes them as well as Kilkenny, so those other counties are suffering.

It would be a source of grim satisfaction to a lot of older hurlers to see the (dis)advantage now gained by catching the ball cleanly counteracted by the grand old art of overhead pulling, which would seem to be one of the few options to get around the group tackling as well.

What money on Brian Cody and his backroom to come up with a way to stay ahead of the posse, however?