Dear 1989 . . . you will not believe what we have done with hurling

Obviously, the game of hurling has changed drastically during the past thirty championships, but how has it changed?

The following project attempts to identify some of the evolving patterns associated with team performances in All-Ireland hurling finals since 1989. A thirty-year period (1989-2019) has been broken down into five-year intervals in order to determine a sample. So, the following analysis of performances is based on seven All-Ireland finals in total (1989, 1994, 1999, 2004, 2009, 2014 and 2019 – the drawn 2014 decider is also included).

Please Note: The purpose of this project is not to celebrate one era at the expense of another. The hurling product we are presented with today is of a significantly higher quality than those of yesteryear. If the Tipperary team of 2019, for example, were to take on their 1989 Premier County counter-parts they would hurl them off the field. The modern game is more technical, more physical, quicker and much more tactical than it was three decades ago, but it is also reasonable to assume that if the players of the past were exposed to modern training methods they would respond just as capably. Past games do not hold up well to modern scrutiny, but those teams, players and coaches were no less talented than their modern equivalent, they were simply a product of their time.

The following analysis should give you an idea of how the game of hurling (through the lens of the All-Ireland final) has evolved during the past thirty years; some elements of the game have changed significantly.

So, here we go: dear 1989 . . . you will not believe what we have done with the game of hurling.

WIN-LOSE MATRIX

Here we look at the seven All-Ireland finals (1989, 1994, 1999, 2004, 2009, 2014 & 2019) in question and try to identify what elements of performance correspond with winning across nineteen different statistical categories.

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The vast majority of the categories here are self-explanatory.

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

COMPOSURE

A noticeable pattern associated with the table above is how significant composure is when scoring opportunities are created in All-Ireland finals. In the 1994, 1999, 2009 and drawn 2014 finals one of the respective sides created significantly more scoring chances on aggregate than their opposition, but did not, ultimately, win the contest.

Below you will find a more detailed breakdown of the scoring chances created in each of the respective finals.

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In 1989, 2004, 2019 and the 2014 replay the victorious side created more scoring chances on aggregate than their opposition and duly proceeded to win the game, but in 1994, 1999, 2009 and in the drawn 2014 final the side which created more scoring chances did not prevail.

In 1994, for example, Limerick lost to Offaly when they converted just 25% of their point-scoring opportunities. The Shannonsiders also fired fifteen wides and dropped twelve shots short (this figure includes blocked down efforts). On aggregate Limerick created 54 scoring chances (thirty-six shots for points from play, six point shots from frees and four goal-scoring opportunities), but still lost the game.

Meanwhile in 1999 Kilkenny created far more scoring opportunities than Cork (the Cats spurned four goal-scoring opportunities and twenty-one shots for points from play) and paid a dear price for it. Similarly in 2009 and the drawn 2014 final Tipperary created enough scoring opportunities to beat Kilkenny on both occasions, but did not win. It is interesting to note, however, that in the 2019 final Kilkenny actually converted a higher percentage of their shots from play (59%) when compared to Tipperary’s 55%.

The following table categorises the patterns associated with point-scoring opportunities, scorable frees and goal-scoring opportunities in each of the respective finals.

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Again, this data is reasonably self-explanatory, but please note that the “Aggregate Of Scoring Chances Created” features goal chances multiplied by three in order to determine the aggregate tally i.e. the 1989 final featured forty-one shots for points from play (41), eighteen point shots from frees (18) and eighteen goal-scoring opportunities (54). So, the aggregate tally of scoring chances created is calculated as follows: 41 + 18 + 54 = 113.

POSSESSIONS & WORK RATE

The number of individual player possessions has varied during the past thirty years with the 2019 tally (559) weighing in at ninety-seven more than the 1989 decider.

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Aside from the possession tallies the table above features some interesting statistics which relate to the number of contested catches, hooks, blocks & tackles, rucks and frees which featured in each of the respective contests.

For this study the tackle was defined as: to stop or significantly delay the forward progress of a ball carrier via physical contact (turnovers-in-the-tackle, whereby the tackling player dispossess the ball carrier via a tackle, are also included in this category).

One additional statistic here needs to be explained: a line break occurs when an individual player (in possession of the ball) elects to take on and get past a defending player (he breaks through a line).

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

The highest tally occurred in 1999 when Cork and Kilkenny were exposed to deplorable weather conditions, but the most interesting pattern was noted in 2014. Given the prevailing nature of the contest Kilkenny were quite fortunate to avoid defeat during the drawn game, but they were ferocious in the replay. Indeed, Kilkenny’s hook, block & tackle count jumped from fifty-four in the drawn game to ninety-two in the replay and the knock-on effect on Tipperary was devastating. In the drawn game, for instance, Tipperary scored 1-24 from play, converted 75% of their shots from play and created six goal-scoring chances, but when Kilkenny re-asserted themselves in the replay Tipp’s shooting percentage dropped to 42% and although the Premier County still created plenty of scoring opportunities the pressure being exerted by the defending players was significantly different. It is still hurling when you do not have the ball.

PASS COMPLETION

The manner in which the respective teams have attempted to pass the ball has changed significantly during the past thirty years. The following graph, for instance, illustrates how the pass completion rate has jumped from 61% in 1989 to 76% in 2019.

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Below you will find a table which illustrates how the passing patterns associated with the respective finals has changed over the past three decades.

Please Note: a punt pass is considered to have occurred when a player elects to pull wildly on the ball, hits the ball blindly down the field or simply decides to lamp the ball high and long forward for no apparent reason. Meanwhile a stick pass involves a player opting to deliver a considered ball or some sort to playing colleague via the hurley.

It is interesting to note that the number of punt passes attempted as a proportion of total passes attempted has dropped significantly over the sample games (from 42% in 1989 down to 18% in 2019). The proportion of stick passes also fluctuated significantly (varying from 35% up to 52% of passes attempted) while the use of the hand pass has also seen a significant increase (from 15% of total passes attempted in 1989 to 30% in 2019).

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It is extraordinary to note that traditionalists still like to promote the use of the punt pass even though possession is so seldom retained i.e. not once during the sample eight games did a team manage to retain 50% of such deliveries (Tipperary in the drawn 2014 final actually managed to retain 47% of the forty-one punt passes attempted).

Please see below a graphical illustration of how the number of punt passes as a percentage of the total passes attempted in All-Ireland finals has dropped significantly over the years. Possession is hard won in All-Ireland finals and when you decide to lamp the ball 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.

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PUCK-OUTS

The following table illustrates the puck-out breakdown for each of the respective finals. As you can see in 1989, 1994 and 1999 100% of the re-starts went long, but since then there has been a slightly more enlightened approach adopted.

It is also very significant to note here the percentage of shots (including scorable frees and goal-scoring opportunities) which originate from turnovers in possession in general play and not from puck-outs.

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Please Note: A puck-out is considered to be delivered long when it lands in the area beyond the delivering team’s own 65-yard line; a short puck-out is delivered to a receiving player inside the team’s 45-yard line and a medium puck-out is delivered to the sector of the field between the delivering team’s own 45-yard and 65-yard line.

The following graph illustrates how the percentage of puck-outs delivered long in All-Ireland hurling finals is dropping. In the 2019 final, for instance, 73% of the puck-outs went long, but please note that in that decider Kilkenny 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.

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Furthermore, a common misperception pervades the game and concerns the belief that puck-outs represent the key source of attacks. The re-start is, of course, significant, but please note that typically over 65% of scoring opportunities originate from turnover ball (and not puck-outs).

A turnover in possession or turnover ball occurs when possession changes hands as the result of a tackle or the interception of a delivery during general play. Turnover ball does not relate to possession won directly from the opposition puck-out.

The graph below illustrates the percentage of scoring opportunities which originated from turnover ball in each of the respective All-Ireland finals; the remainder of the shots in each of the games originated from puck-outs. Please be mindful of the fact that the majority of scoring opportunities originate from broken play and this has been a consistent pattern during the past thirty championships.

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EXCEL FILE

An Excel file, featuring all of the data collected from the respective All-Ireland hurling finals, can be downloaded by clicking here.

BETTER YET TO COME

Over the years the game of hurling has changed significantly and given the patterns it is reasonable to expect that the best is yet to come. Just remember what Cork legend Christy Ring once said: “let no one say the best hurlers belong to the past. They are with us now. And, better yet to come”.

BRIAN MCDONNELL

Brian McDonnell is a data analytics student at Athlone IT and an analyst with @gaa_insights who is currently working to create a new future for himself following a 25-year career as a journalist; Brian is also an R enthusiast who is fascinated by data analytics, the smart(er) sports story and coaching (then, now, next).

You can follow Brian on Twitter or learn more about Brian via his LinkedIn profile. You are also welcome to contact Brian by email on sixtwofourtwo@gmail.com.