What does (winning) hurling look like?

The point of this project was/is to create a detailed picture of what an excellent hurling performance might look like and what it took, from a statistical perspective, to win games during the 2019 inter-county senior hurling championship.

Data was collected from all 29 games which comprised of almost 2,248 minutes of action (the contests spanned 77.52 minutes each on average) and featured 13,347 individual player possessions. Each contest was analyzed and the following report features 18 graphical representations of the data collected.

Please note, however, that the following comes with a health warning attached. The focus was, of course, to identify the patterns associated with game-winning performances, but given how fast the game moves forward and the conditions associated with the Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic the 2019 figures may not inform how the 2020 series of games are likely to pan out.

Gene Wolfe once declared: “You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you’re writing”.

This argument could also be associated with hurling: the machine you build to win one championship may not (and probably will not) turn the trick next time round. There are no absolute answers. The data should, however, give you an inkling of what is required to succeed and at the very least help you to identify where each team needs to improve.

Winners & Losers

The 2019 inter-county hurling championship featured 29 games in total – three of those games were drawn. The table below is based on the 26 games which generated a winner and a loser.

So, how did the winners and the losers do, on average, across a range of 28 statistical categories?

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The figures above cannot be said to be definitive.

In order to succeed you do not need to hit such magical key performance indicators, but the figures do give you an idea of the factors which, generally, separate winners from losers i.e. if you hit some of these targets your capacity to win a game should increase.

That said this table allows for a lot of variance with some lop-sided games polluting the statistical picture.

Win Probability

The 2019 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship featured 29 games in total. There were three draws and so 26 games produced a winner and a loser . . . in those 26 games the following was the win percentage across 28 different statistical categories for the side which prevailed . . .

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Again, this table represents a simple tool to help you to identify some of the patterns associated with performance which may separate winners from losers.

One statistic, however, which will catch your eye is the fact that in 85% of the games (22 from 26) the team which prevailed fouled more (conceded more frees) – more later on this issue.

Rankings – Series One

Below you are presented with some basic statistics related to the average scoring performance of each team during the 2019 inter-county hurling championship.

Please note that “scoring chances” relates to the combined tally of scorable frees, goal chances and point shots in games.

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The statistics above are pretty self-explanatory except for the scoring chances created/conceded; this is a cumulative figure i.e. if a team has 20 point shots, three goal-scoring opportunities and also earns 11 scorable frees then the total scoring chances are: 20 + 9 + 11 = 40. Here, each goal chance is worth three points.

Also, Westmeath are an outlier in “Average Scoring Chances Created” since they competed in just one game, but accumulated 52 scoring chances (one goal chance, 40 shots for points and nine scorable frees = 52). During that contest against Cork the Westmeath lads scored 0-20 in total (0-15 from play), but also fired 14 wides and dropped 11 shots short.

  • During the 2019 inter-county senior hurling championship 786 points were scored from play, 456 frees were converted and 74 goals were scored
  • In total there were 1,450 efforts to score points from play; 786 were scored, 446 were wide and 218 dropped short, were spoiled by a hook or were blocked down – a 54% success rate
  • There were 586 efforts to score points from placed balls; 456 were scored, 100 were wide and 30 dropped short – a 78% success rate
  • In total 187 goal-scoring opportunities were created; 74 of those were converted and 113 were missed – a 40% success rate

There is, however, a very significant point to be made here with specific regard to “Average Scoring Chances Created”: 26 of the 29 games in 2019 (three draws) produced a winner and a loser, but the side which created more scoring opportunities only prevailed 77% of the time.

In six of the 26 games noted the team which created more scoring opportunities lost.

Therefore, the quality of the opportunity created (not all shots are born equal) and the ability and the composure of the players to translate opportunities into scores is critical.

  • Waterford lost to Clare 0-22 to 1-20, but created more scoring opportunities (46-35)
  • Galway lost to Dublin 0-24 to 3-19, but created more scoring opportunities (44-36)
  • Cork lost to Clare 2-18 to 2-23, but created more scoring opportunities (48-47)
  • Kilkenny lost to Wexford 0-23 to 1-23, but created more scoring opportunities (47-36)
  • Dublin lost to Laois 0-23 to 1-22, but created more scoring opportunities (51-45)
  • And, Limerick lost to Kilkenny 2-17 to 1-21, but created more scoring opportunities (46-36)

Limerick’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kilkenny was considered controversial at the time because of a refereeing error, but you can be sure that their analysis team would have noted the Shannonsiders’ missed goal chance, 13 wides from play, five short shots from play and two frees wide. In that game Limerick converted just 33% of their shots from play.

Please note that Dublin also drew with Wexford (1-22 to 2-19) despite creating more scoring opportunities (53-49) and Galway also drew with Wexford (0-16 each), but created more scoring opportunities (48-43) than their opponents.

Aggregate Scores Plus/Minus

Here we look at how each team did in terms of their average score for and the average score conceded during the 2019 inter-county hurling championship.

Again, the tallies below represent cumulative scores (points and goals scored combined).

And, it is interesting to note that even though Tipperary did not register the highest average score for or the lowest score allowed on average the Premier County enjoyed the very healthiest differential (+7).

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Rankings – Series Two

Here we take a look at how each team performed in terms of specific chances created or conceded and also how accurate each team was in terms of converting shots.

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Please note that Westmeath are an outlier in the “Average Total Of Point Shots From Play” because they competed in just one game and managed to create 40 point shots at goal (scored 0-15, had 14 wides and dropped 11 shots short).

The “% Of Total Shots From Play Converted” relates to accuracy i.e. Cork converted 59% of their shots from play while “% Of Total Points Shots Converted Conceded” relates to how the opposition did against a particular team. Here Laois did best i.e. they only permitted the opposition to score 47% of their point opportunities from play while Westmeath did worst when allowing the opposition (Cork) to convert 74% of their point-scoring opportunities.

Rankings – Series Three

Here we breakdown the source of the attacking opportunities created by each team.

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Please note that for this series of rankings “Shots” relates to all scoring opportunities created – it is a cumulative figure i.e. Tipperary created an average of 51 scoring chances across the course of the 2019 championship; on average 9.38 of that tally originated from their own puck-out, 11.50 from the opposition puck-out and 30.13 from turnovers in general play.

The three columns positioned to the right of the table illustrate the percentage breakdown for each game state and how they relate to each team.

Please note the patterns with relation to the shots created from turnover ball.

You would have to argue that the patterns here are significant and that it should influence how you think about the effectiveness of your team.

Think about it this way: on 1,120 occasions (43% of the time) the sequence which led to a scoring opportunity registered during the 2019 inter-county senior hurling championship originated from a re-start while on 1,477 occasions (57% of the time) the sequence originated from a turnover in possession during general play.

  • Teams created a scoring chance via their own puck-out 729 times (28%)
  • Teams created a scoring chance via the opposition puck-out 391 times (15%)
  • Teams created a scoring chance via a turnover in possession 1,477 times (57%)

Better still, where did the majority of the goal chances come from?

In total 187 goal-scoring opportunities were created – 59 from a team’s own puck-out (32%), 29 from the opposition team’s puck-out (15%) and 99 from turnovers (53%).

The point of the following graphic is to illustrate the origin of each team’s shots (point-scoring, goal-scoring and free-scoring opportunities) as a percentage of that team’s overall scoring opportunities i.e. on average Limerick created 25% of their scoring opportunities from their own puck-out, 13% from the opposition puck-out and 62% from general turnovers in possession.

In this instance a turnover in possession is said to have occurred in general play when a ball is intercepted or won back from the opposition via a tackle or ruck ball et cetera.

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Please be mindful of the fact that the majority of opportunities originate from broken play.

Savvy teams will attempt to use the ball smartly and thereby limit the number of scoring opportunities that the opposition are allowed to create via counter-attacks.

Careful use of possession is vitally important, if you give the ball away against a good team they will not give it back to you.

So, it is in your interests to treat possession of the ball as reasonably precious.

Rankings – Series Four

Here we attempt to identify the patterns associated with each team’s performance on puck-outs.

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“% Of Own Puck-Outs Won” relates to the overall performance on a team’s own re-start.

Next up “% Of Opposition Puck-Outs Won” relates to how a team performed in terms of winning the opposition re-start.

“% Of Own Contested Puck-Outs Won” illustrates how effective a team was when the re-start was delivered into a contested scenario.

“% Won Of Opposition Contested Puck-Outs” illustrates how well a team did when defending a contested opposition puck-out.

And, the final two columns illustrate how often each team was likely to opt for free man or a contested scenario i.e. 77% of the time Kilkenny dropped their re-start into a contested area while only looking for a free man 23% of the time across the course of the championship.

In total the ball was pucked out 1,884 times during the 2019 championship and the ball was won by the delivering team 62% of the time, but that 62% success rate does not allow for much context.

So, the following breakdown might make for interesting reading:

  • 1,111 re-starts were delivered into a contested area in 2019 (59% of the time)
  • Of the re-starts which were delivered into a contested area only 504 were retained (45%)
  • 657 re-starts were pinged out successfully to a free man (35% of the time)
  • Re-starts were pinged out short (inside the 45-yard line) to a free man 419 times (22%)
  • Re-starts were delivered to an unmarked player between the 45 and 65-yard line 141 times (8%)
  • Re-starts were delivered to an unmarked player beyond the 65-yard line 97 times (5%)
  • 116 re-starts were intercepted by an unmarked member of the opposition team (6%)

Innovation in puck-outs is always interesting to take note of and Wexford’s use of the medium delivery (between the 45 and 65-yard line) to an unmarked player was particularly noteworthy during the 2019 championship.

Wexford only looked for a free man on 63 occasions from their 189 re-starts (33% of the time), but when David Fitzgerald’s team did manage to pick off a free man between the 45-yard and 65-yard line the Leinster champions were particularly sharp at moving the ball on from there via an off-the-shoulder runner emerging from the full-back line or with a line break or stick pass forward.

It was a pity, from a Wexford point of view, that they did not employ this strategy when enjoying a numerical advantage against Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final (which they narrowly lost).

Prior to facing Kilkenny in the group phase of last year’s championship Wexford delivered their re-start into a contested area 55% of the time, but after that Wexford delivered the re-start into a contested area 75% of the time

The following graphic illustrates the puck-out inclinations of each team during the 2019 inter-county senior hurling championship.

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This graphic is pretty self-explanatory i.e. Westmeath opted to puck the ball out to a free man on their own re-start 64% of the time and delivered the re-start into a contested area just 36% of the time.

Conversely, Kilkenny opted to pick out a free man just 23% of the time and delivered the re-start to a contested area 77% of the time.

From the patterns you can see that there is a general move away from delivering the ball into a contested area while it can also be argued that when opposing teams set up to defend the re-start they appear happy to allow the opposition to pop the ball out to a free man, get their shape right and then defend from there.

The Kilkenny example is interesting since that during the 2019 All-Ireland hurling final the Cats opted to go long with 92% of their re-starts while Tipperary went long 46% of the time. Ultimately, in that final Tipperary won 77% of their own re-starts and Kilkenny 41% of theirs. Indeed, Kilkenny created zero scoring opportunities based on the Tipperary puck-out while Tipperary created fourteen scoring opportunities which originated from the Kilkenny re-start.

Rankings – Series 5

Here passing and the passing inclinations of each team are the focus.

The first three columns relate to the number of hand passes, stick passes and punt passes that each team completed on average while the last three columns illustrate the percentage success rate of each team with respect to each type of pass i.e. Clare completed 95% of their attempted hand passes, 81% of their attempted stick passes and 31% of their attempted punt passes.

In terms of working definitions hand passes are self-explanatory while a stick pass is defined as a considered attempt to pass the ball with the hurley.

Meanwhile the punt pass category covers deliveries which are less considered and give the intended receiver a less than 50% chance of winning the ball.

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During the 2019 inter-county senior hurling championship 7,887 passes were attempted and 6,025 were completed (76% success rate).

  • 34% of the total passes attempted were hand passes (2,670)
  • 48% of the total passes attempted were stick passes (3,817)
  • 18% of the total passes attempted were punt passes (1,400)
  • 91% of the attempted hand passes were completed (2,439)
  • 81% of the attempted stick passes were completed (3,110)
  • 34% of the attempted punt passes were completed (476)

Here we attempt to illustrate the passing inclinations of each team i.e. which team prefers to hand pass, stick pass or punt pass the ball.

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The graphic is self-explanatory i.e. of their total pass attempts Laois attempted to hand pass the ball 48% of the time, stick pass the ball 40% of the time and punt pass the ball 12% of the time.

Conversely, Kilkenny opted to hand pass the ball 36% of the time, stick pass 39% of the time and favoured the punt pass 25% of the time.

In terms of working definitions hand passes are self-explanatory while a stick pass is defined as a considered attempt to pass the ball with the hurley. Meanwhile the punt pass category covers deliveries which are less considered and give the receiver a less than 50% chance of winning the ball.

Typically the further the ball goes (the longer the ball is in the air) the less chance you have of winning it because those circumstances suit the defending player and it also allows time for the defending team to out-number you on the (potential) break.

If you take Tipperary as an example and look through their figures you will find that, generally, they did not want to punt the ball.

During the All-Ireland semi-final against Wexford, when reduced to 14 men the Premier County strayed from their game model and attempted punt passes 27% of the time, but in the reverse scenario against Laois (against 14 men) Tipperary punted the ball just 11% of the time.

Over the course of the entire championship Tipperary attempted the punt pass 19% of the time, but you can see that the general intention of the side managed by Liam Sheedy was to use the ball in a more considered way.

Rankings – Series Six

The following rankings relate to an assortment of statistics.

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Please note: “Possessions” relate to individual player possessions and not team possessions.

The “Average Number Of Passes Completed” refers to the average tally for each team in terms of hand passes, stick passes and punt passes completed.

“% Of Total Pass Attempts Success Rate” illustrates how well each side did with respect to the number of passes they actually attempted while “% Of Opposition Pass Success Rate Allowed” relates to how well each team did in terms of disrupting the opposition’s attempted passes.

Rankings – Series Seven

The following rankings relate to the average performance of each team during the 2019 inter-county hurling championship across a series of statistics – here we examine frees won and conceded, line breaks won and conceded and how each side did with respect to the number of contested catches won and conceded.

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A “Line Break” is considered to have occurred when a ball carrier takes on a defending player and bursts past the defending player (breaks through the line) i.e. Limerick were the outstanding team in this regard when recording an average of 31.67 line breaks per game while Carlow did worst when conceding 31.75 line breaks on average per game.

The “Contested Catch” is said to have occurred when two players or more address a dropping ball and one of those players manages to catch the ball.

Frees won and conceded are self-explanatory i.e. Waterford were awarded 15.25 frees on average per game while the Déise conceded 9.75 frees on average per game.

The patterns associated with frees demands further attention – in all 757 were awarded during the 2019 inter-county senior hurling championship.

And, the 2019 championship presented an extraordinary pattern – 29 games were played in total, there were three draws and of the 26 games which produced a winner and a loser the side which fouled more won 85% of the time (on 22 occasions from 26 games).

Tipperary, for example, lost the free count six times during their eight games.

The following graphic illustrates the frees awarded to each team in each game.

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Rankings – Series Eight

Now we turn our attention to figures which illustrate the work rate of each side in terms of tackling, ruck balls and breaking balls.

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A “Turnover In The Tackle” occurs when a ball carrier is dispossessed via a tackle.

For this study the “Tackle” was defined as: to stop or significantly delay the forward progress of a ball carrier via physical contact.

A “Ruck Ball” is said to have occurred when three or more players are battling for the ball on the ground and a “Breaking Ball” is said to have occurred when a ball drops between players and then “breaks” to the ground.

Please note that “Work Rate Ratio” is calculated by dividing a team’s total number of hooks, blocks and tackles completed into the number of possessions enjoyed by their opposition (the lower the score the better) – the resultant figure presents you with a handy (but not definitive) illustration of how hard a team worked in proportion to the opposition’s possession.

Think about it this way: if team A completed 50 tackles and team B completed 25 tackles it might seem as if team A was working harder, but if team B had 200 possessions and team B had 100 possessions the Work Rate Ratio for both sides would be identical i.e. Team A (200/50 = 4) and Team B (100/25 = 4). So, a team’s tackle count can only be accurately assessed when the possession enjoyed by the opposition has been taken into account.

Work Rate Ratio can be used as a means to assess the determination of a team to tackle the opposition ball carrier i.e. how many possessions will your team allow the opposition to enjoy before getting in a tackle.

During the 2019 championship Galway performed best when only allowing the opposition 4.22 possessions of the ball on average before getting in a tackle.

The 2019 championship featured 2,787 hooks, blocks and tackles in total – 2,320 tackles (625 of those were turnovers in the tackle – 27%), 104 hooks and 363 blocks (which included saves). The championship also featured 689 rucks and the breaking ball was contested on 1,293 occasions.

The patterns associated with the hooks, blocks & tackles category are worthy of further discussion.

Galway led the Work Rate Ratio stat in 2019, but the prevailing year-to-year pattern is interesting.

Analysis of the 2016 championships suggested that the most accomplished sides registered an average Work Rate Ratio of less than 2.50 (the lower the better), the 2017 championship presented a figure of less than 3.50, the 2018 championship suggested a figure of less than 4.00 (in 2018 All-Ireland champions registered an average of 3.80) and in 2019 Tipperary registered an average of 4.51.

We would not argue that the leading teams are working less hard, but we would argue that teams are being coached more and more to avoid contact while in terms of defensive strategy individual sides are making strategic choices in terms of where they wish to tackle.

That said a strong correlation can still be identified between how hard a team works and winning.

On the following scatter plot graph, for instance, we combine each team’s average Work Rate Ratio with their respective ability to create scoring chances.

So, the graph measures the determination of a side to tackle the opposition while it also measures how successful each side was in terms of imposing their own game on the hurling contests (by creating scoring chances).

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Above, Tipperary are out on their own as the team who managed to combine a work ethic with an ability to create scoring chances.

The scatter plot suggests that Tipperary earned the 2019 All-Ireland senior hurling crown by working harder and creating more scoring chances on average per game than any other side.

Who would have thought it that the team which worked hardest (both on and off the ball) enjoyed the better chance of success?

  • 51.00: Tipperary created 51 scoring chances on average per game played
  • 4.51: Tipperary recorded an average work rate ratio of 4.51

Next, we plot the work rate of each team against their ability to create scoring chances in each game – each of the Tipperary games (dark blue dots) generally feature among the best performances while one Cork (red dot) display has also been highlighted here as a contrast.

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The performance of the Rebels against Westmeath is highlighted since it illustrates that although Cork created 61 scoring opportunities and won by 23 points (1-40 to 0-20) their Work Rate Ratio was a very poor 8.74 i.e. Westmeath were allowed to create 52 scoring chances.

Now Westmeath were not capable of punishing Cork, but Kilkenny were.

During the subsequent 2019 All-Ireland quarter-final against the Cats the Rebels registered a Work Rate Ratio of 6.86 which is not nearly good enough. For their part Kilkenny’s Work Rate Ratio was 4.34. Kilkenny won by six points (2-27 to 3-18).

It is still hurling when you do not have the ball.

It is still hurling when you do not have the ball.

It is still hurling when you do not have the ball.

Are Limerick the team to beat?

Finally, we plot the work rate of each team against their ability to create scoring chances in each game with each of the Limerick games (green dots) highlighted – the Shannonsiders did not perform consistently well in 2019, but their display against Tipperary may have been the season’s best.

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Was Limerick’s 2019 Munster final performance the best of the year?

Limerick beat Tipperary on a 2-26 to 2-14 score line and won by 12 points when converting 57% of their point shots while also restricting Tipp to a 48% point shot success rate. In all Limerick created 62 scoring chances (Tipperary 39) and registered a Work Rate Ratio of 4.52.

In the Munster final Limerick won 62% of their own puck-outs and 60% of Tipperary’s while also completing 79% of their attempted passes and restricted their opponents to a 72% success rate – in total the Shannonsiders completed 152 passes (Tipperary 115).

Limerick also dominated the breaking ball (30-13) and broke through the Tipperary line on 34 occasions.

Tipperary recovered to win the Liam MacCarthy Cup and, perhaps, it was during this 12-point defeat at the hands of Limerick at Páirc nan Gael that Liam Sheedy’s team best represented their collective identity as a team.

Limerick were rampant and everything went wrong for the Premier County, but Tipperary still registered their second best Work Rate Ratio of the championship (4.14 – their best was against Cork on opening day, 3.95).

To further amplify this point Tipperary dominated the turnover-in-the-tackle count 17-12 and also dominated the ruck balls (20-12) in the provincial decider.

The next time that Tipperary found themselves at the wrong end of a broken bottle (against Wexford with fourteen men in the All-Ireland semi-final) they responded with a searing collective effort and prevailed.

But, of course, all of that means nothing now. The 2020 series of games will be different.

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Brian McDonnell

Brian McDonnell is a data analytics student at the Athlone Institute of Technology and an analyst with GAA Insights who is currently working to create a new future for himself following a career as a journalist.

The purpose of this project is to illustrate Brian’s ability collect data, to pull something complex apart and then put it back together again in visually interesting way.

You can contact Brian via his Twitter profile @sixtwofourtwo, on LinkedIn or by email on sixtwofourtwo@gmail.com.