AFTER the 2016 drawn league final between Clare and Waterford, then Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald said it “was one of the most tactical games he was ever involved in”.
Fitzgerald wasn’t surprised when he heard that the teams produced 39 wides between them.
Players on both sides were trying pot shots anytime they got a glimpse of the posts.
Neither team scored a goal but the tactic, especially from Clare, seemed to not even consider scoring goals, and to fully engage in a total shoot-out for points.
“That 45 (metre-line) to 45 was a war zone and that is why there were so many wides,” Fitzgerald said afterwards.
“I am sure Waterford had more wides in the first half and the reason for that is that we were trying to make them shoot from as far out as we could.”
There was a lot of debate afterwards about the high wide count, because inaccurate shooting on that scale does alter the tone and texture of any hurling spectacle.
Yet, the geography of the pitch had been clearly altered with sweepers and layered defences that afternoon.
With the high percentage scoring zones so heavily populated with defenders, players were forced to shoot from distance.
Fourteen of the wides in that drawn 2016 league final were launched 65 metres or more from the goal.
In the middle of the last decade, especially when sweepers were fully in vogue, teams were shooting a lot more from distance, and far more liberally.
Yet possession has become far more systematically produced in recent years. With so many players moving now, and with the players in possession constantly looking for the best option, teams are consistently working on improving their shooting range.
That was obvious in Limerick’s play last year. In three of their championship matches in 2019 - against Waterford, Tipperary (Munster final), Kilkenny - Limerick hit a combined total of 53 wides.
They won two of those games handy but some of the profligate and wild shooting they showed in Munster came back to haunt Limerick in the 2019 All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny when they had a 50% conversion rate.
Some brilliant data from the excellent ‘GAA Insights’ team though, showed that, while Limerick had the highest number of shots per game in the 2020 championship, Limerick had the second-lowest number of shots from outside the 65-metre line (6.4).
Limerick defenders scored 0-11 from play but Limerick were still shooting from better positions, than they had in 2019.
The ‘GAA Insights’ data from 2020 showed that, while Limerick had the highest number of shots per game, they also had the highest number of shots per game inside the 45-metre line (24.2), and the highest number of shots between the 45-65 metre lines (14.6).
Only Waterford played as many championship games (5) as Limerick in 2020, so it was no surprise that Waterford’s defenders scored 1-13 in the 2020 championship.
Yet Waterford were also second behind Limerick in how they took 24 shots inside the 45-metre line.
On average, Waterford took 9.8 shots per game from outside the 65-metre line, which accounted for 41% of their average total number of shots per game.
As a comparison, Limerick’s percentage of shots scored from outside the 65-metre line amounted to 26% of their total score.
Wexford were the highest shooters from distance in the 2020 championship, when averaging 11 shots from play from outside the 65. Having taken an average of just 17.5 shots from play, 63% of Wexford’s shots from play in 2020 were from distance.
Wexford’s style, especially with Kevin Foley’s role as the sweeper, encourages more shooting from distance but the high volume of long-range shooting last year (six of the 10 teams had over 40% of their total shots from outside the 65-metre line) captured another step in the game’s evolution.
In hurling, the scoring zone has never been so big, while the areas close to goal have never been more condensed with bodies.
Changes in the sliotar, increased levels of strength and conditioning, and greater tactical and defensive sophistication all over the pitch has also further expanded the scoring zone.
The naturally corollary of such increased redrawing and expansion of the tactical grid has been a decreasing number of goals and more long-distance shooting.
So many teams now have so many good outside shooters that they don’t need to work goals, especially when three quick points has the same mathematical value.
Limerick clearly did the sums last year – they have an incredible ability to create goalscoring opportunities, but they have such a capacity to rack up huge points totals that they weren’t hung up on scoring goals in last year’s championship.
Shooting from distance, especially accurately, is now a skill in itself. It’s also more logical with so many teams now playing with deep-lying forwards or retreating midfielders.
With half-forwards and midfielders dropping back under puck-outs, and covering back in a range of other scenarios, half-backs have become increasingly available in space to attack and shoot.
Every team is also so heavily governed by retaining possession now that the free player in the middle third is often an advancing defender coming off the shoulder.
And once players come outside their own ’65, the shot is on if the pass to the forwards inside isn’t a high percentage option.
In that context, it’s no surprise that more and more teams are harnessing that potential of attacking more often from defence.