IN an Irish Times column over 20 years ago, Eamon Cregan made a prediction, which has certainly come to pass.
“I think hurling will become peppered with what I call mullicking - four or five lads scrapping for a ball,” wrote Cregan.
What he termed mullicking is now called “the breakdown” but the rugby terminology doesn’t just stop there because the ball is continually being delayed now in hurling scrums. In rugby though, the scrum-half dictates how the ball is played out of those scrums but in hurling, hordes of players are trying to dig out the sliotar, none of whom are willing to give an inch.
In the sixth minute of last month’s Kilkenny-Tipperary league final, a high ball down the central corridor of the Tipperary attack was contested by four players. Once the ball went to ground though, it was like watching a game of pinball in an arcade.
There were 10 attempts at trying to roll or jab lift the ball but nobody could. The sequence of scrambling lasted for 25 seconds until the sliotar finally popped into some space and James Maher eventually got possession of it.
Maher only had the ball in his hand for 1.7 seconds before he tried to get rid of it but he was blocked down by Brendan Maher. The mass of bodies everywhere rushed the Kilkenny man’s decision-making process but in the modern inter-county game now, a player has, on average, just 1.7 seconds to get rid of the ball before being swallowed up.
That timeframe has decreased from 4 seconds to 3 to 2 to now 1.7. And it’s getting even shorter. When Damien Young, statistician with the Tipperary hurlers, made a presentation at the GAA’s Annual Coaching Conference in 2016 titled ‘So many decisions, so little time’ he produced one killer stat to underline that theme.
In the 2015 All-Ireland final, Young showed how Kilkenny’s Cillian Buckley was on the ball just eight times, for a total of nine seconds. By the time he’d got it, Buckley was already getting rid of it. Gone in 1.1 seconds.
Hurling’s randomness has always been a fundamental part of its appeal but the modern game has been all about reducing that influence, subverting orthodoxy and having a plan. And that plan is mostly about shutting players down, swallowing them up.
Players have never been more skilful but the game has changed so much that many of the old traditional skills are redundant in hurling now. First-time, or ground hurling, isn’t coached anymore. Possession is king but since there is little or no room for randomness anymore, the game has lost some of its aesthetic beauty.
Repeated rucks around the ball certainly prove as much.
Coaching has become so structured that spontaneity has still been restricted. The former Wexford hurler George O’Connor said in 2007 that there were around 150 skills in hurling but possession skills, and the tactics of denying possession, are dominating how the game is largely evolving.
In 2003, when Donal Óg Cusack and Cork first began experimenting with short puckouts, the hurling public, including their own people, were horrified and bewildered during that year’s All-Ireland final against Kilkenny when Cusack pucked the ball just 20 metres to Cork full-back Diarmuid O’Sullivan. If they knew what else Cork had up their sleeves, they would have been apoplectic.
Before that game, Cusack had practised giving the ball to O’Sullivan, who in turn would pass it back to the goalkeeper to set up an attack. Cork didn’t follow through with it but over a decade on, Cusack’s successor Anthony Nash, regularly executes that tactic. On eight occasions during Cork’s 2016 qualifier against Dublin, Nash either pucked the ball short to a defender, before taking the return pass, or else took a backpass from a defender during play before launching it long over the Dublin defensive cover.
Kilkenny are finally doing the same now, with Eoin Murphy regularly taking back passes, or short puckouts before taking the backpass around 20 metres from goal before taking out his rocket launcher.
That is the modern game now. Guarding possession is king but instinctive genius has still been replaced by a more programmed and measured mind. Hurling’s two greatest scores - Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s overhead double against Galway in 1983, and John Fenton’s ground-bullet against Limerick in 1987 - will probably never be seen again.
Those skills aren’t coached anymore but players wouldn’t even consider attempting those shots because it’s not playing the percentages.
The possession game has systematically stifled ground hurling to such an extent that the skill is extinct at inter-county level. When Galway won the 1988 All-Ireland, there were 98 ground balls played in that match against Tipperary. When Galway bridged a 29-year gap last September, ground hurling was non-existent in the final against Waterford.
The only way ground hurling and first-time striking will return is if some enlightened manager or coach feels that it will serve their team’s needs, and if they have the confidence and the players to carry it out.
The game has never been faster but is ground hurling the next step to increasing that speed? That is extremely unlikely but managers, coaches and players need to realise just how lethal that skill can be for forwards around the goalmouth, and how difficult it is for goalkeepers to stop ground shots.
Eddie Brennan’s ground shot rocket in the 2008 All-Ireland final, and Shane Bennett’s ground bullet in the 2015 All-Ireland quarter-final were two of the best goals of the last decade but that skill around the goalmouth isn’t utilised nearly enough in hurling.
One of the defining moments in last year’s Kilkenny-Wexford Leinster semi-final was a brilliant late save from Mark Fanning off a Chris Bolger shot. Yet Bolger gave Fanning the chance to get his body in front of the ball by picking it, when making a good connection on the ground would have given the goalkeeper little or no chance.
Ground hurling is dead in the modern game. But there is still a place for it. In the right place. And at the right moment. And within 1.7 seconds.