The best forwards always excite but in hurling now hard work must meet talent

The best forwards always excite but in hurling now hard work must meet talent
Jason Cleere is put under pressure by Conor Lehane. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton

Éamonn Murphy

Hurling

WHEN we think of the best attacking players in any sport, it’s in terms of their scoring or creative threat.

If they are willing to get down and dirty, track back, and put in a few hard hits that makes them more balanced, but — with the right attitude — it’s easier to do than stick a ball over the bar or into the back of the net. Joe Canning has the power and bit of sauciness to make life difficult for any defender, but that’s hardly as entertaining as him cutting a sideline over or firing a perfect pass into Cathal Mannion or Conor Whelan.

Galway blitzed Tipp in the league final last Sunday with a solid defensive foundation and a championship intensity their rivals couldn’t match, but it was fuelled by their explosive firepower. It’s why they might be a more dangerous summer contender than Waterford.

Lionel Messi is a rounded enough talent to merit a slot pretty high on the greatest soccer stars of all time list anyway, but it’s his goals that really mark him out. His double against Real Madrid last weekend made it 500 in his Barcelona career. Messi’s dribbling, vision and change of pace are incredible but it’s the amount and variety of his goals that make him a living legend. He’s not an out-and-out striker but he is a devastating finisher.

Messi puts the scores on the board when the stakes are highest, like a LeBron James or Steph Curry in the NBA. LeBron is a ferocious defensive presence too on the basketball court, but it’s the slam dunks and buzzer-beaters that are really box office. Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kante might be a worthy PFA Player of the Year in the Premier League, but it’s more fun watching his team-mate Eden Hazard — when he’s tuned in — or Spurs tyro Dele Alli.

For the majority of the history of GAA, scoring or the ability to assist others in that department was all that mattered for forwards.

That landscape has changed now and a number 11 can be said to have a bad game even if he’s clipped over three or four points if the opposition half-back line isn’t under savage pressure clearing their lines.

Last year All-Ireland champions Tipp placed great store in ‘contaminating’ possession by hounding their opponent’s backs when they had the ball and on Leeside we are hoping for a campaign where the hurlers’ marquee forwards Patrick Horgan and Conor Lehane can marry that with their scoring threat.

Lehane produced a fascinating blog last week for his employers AIB when talking with Shane Stapleton, where he detailed his own progress from being a sub with Cork development squads at U15 and U16 to playing in — and enduring the heartbreak of not winning — senior All-Ireland finals.

“Being an inter-county forward has changed a lot since I made my debut under Denis Walsh in 2011. Back then you just played your position and that was it. It was a simple of routine where if you were on the wing, you were on the wing. You used to just get the ball, take on your man, and try to score.

“Now it’s all of that plus helping out the midfielders and wing-backs. No-one stays in the same position for the whole game anymore, the work-rate of the attackers is huge now, and the half-forward’s role has probably changed the most.

“As a forward, your focus is normally about making him (your marker) worry about you, but there is a responsibility at some point too if he’s holding the centre and cleaning up ball. That’s the balance of being a forward today, to adapt to each team and marker.”

How much damage would Lehane or Horgan have done if they were hurling in the 1970 or 1980s? You could see Lehane as a Tony O’Sullivan-esque multiple All-Star and Horgan stitching All-Ireland winning goals ala fellow Glen men Tomás Mulcahy and John Fitzgibbon.

What was encouraging from Lehane’s piece for AIB was that he seems to be embracing the expectation, even in an era of sweepers and forwards as the first line of defence.

“At 24, I’m expected to be a leader now and I have to say that’s how I want it to be.”

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