Green Monster: What can your team learn from Limerick’s 2018 hurling machine?

Limerick’s gritty collectivism was the story of the 2018 hurling championship. The side coached by Paul Kinnerk illustrated what hurling played at its best looks like and presented us with a welcome reminder that individual brilliance is not the only sort of brilliance worth celebrating. The basis for the following statistical study of the Limerick performances is to identify some of the more interesting patterns associated with those displays in the hope that others can learn from such excellence.

During the 2018 season Limerick prioritized a collective game.

What elite teams like Limerick often hold over opponents is a disciplined adherence to a game plan. The New England Patriots’ dominance of the NFL, for example, has been based on coach Bill Belichick’s understanding that a team requires a series of complimentary pieces in order to succeed. Similarly the Limerick management team led by John Kiely built a system of play which worked to pool the ability of the players.

The point of hurling tactics is to multiply the abilities of players and not just add them up. Indeed, the view that the best players simply go out and win a hurling contest is a bleak one; that every game is won based on an aggregate of talent. Instead, the beauty of hurling is that it allows for a smart strategist to compensate for his players’ limitations.

Talent is all well and good, but in the end you have to organize it. A fevered dream is not enough – you need a strategy. Good managers wrap their system and game plan around the players at their disposal. A system of play helps players, it does not hinder them. A sturdy tactical structure gives players something to lean on. The system delivers the players to the ball in attack and in defense.

During the 2018 season Limerick defended well, attacked well and were a complete unit. And, must crucially the members of the team were predictable to one another – they shared an understanding of what everyone was supposed to be doing based on the game state.

When Limerick had the ball during the 2018 campaign they had 15 players to call on and when Limerick did not have the ball during the 2018 campaign they also had 15 players on that they could call on.

This is the greatest compliment that you could pay to any team. Every Limerick player was prepared to work when the team did not have the ball and then in possession every Limerick player had the moral courage to take responsibility and use the ball constructively.

If you are a coach, manager or player involved with a hurling team ask yourself: how many players do you have on your team when you are in possession of the ball? The answer probably is: fifteen (all of your players are eager to contribute). Then ask yourself how many players do you have on your team when you are not in possession of the ball?

Do you still have fifteen? Are all of your players prepared to contribute to the defensive effort? So, who are you going to pick on your team? The players who can do anything on the ball or the players who will do anything to win it?

Please see below for a scatter plot graph which was created following the 2018 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship. The performance of each team was compiled and averaged out depending on the number of games that each team played. The ability of each team to create scoring chances and each team’s determination to defend was then cross-referenced to present you with the final product below. Guess which team worked hardest both on and off the ball during the 2018 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship?

CAMPAIGN INFORMATION

During the 2018 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship campaign Limerick contested the following games:

Limerick 1-23 Tipperary 2-14
Limerick 0-28 Cork 1-25
Limerick 2-26 Waterford 1-16
Limerick 0-15 Clare 0-26
Limerick 5-22 Carlow 0-13
Limerick 0-27 Kilkenny 1-22
Limerick 3-32 Cork 2-31 aet
Limerick 3-16 Galway 2-18

Following those eight contests please see below for where Limerick ranked across a number of different statistical categories in comparison with the eleven other teams who also competed in the championship.

Limerick used twenty-seven players during the 2018 championship campaign and for the purposes of the following analysis each individual has been categorized as follows –

Goalkeeper: Nicky Quaid.

Full-back line: Seán Finn, Mike Casey, Richie English, Tom Condon, Séamus Hickey and Richie McCarthy.

Half-backs: Diarmuid Byrnes, Declan Hannon and Dan Morrissey.

Midfielders: Darragh O’Donovan, Cian Lynch, William O’Donoghue and Paul Browne.

Half-Forwards: Tom Morrissey, Kyle Hayes, Gearóid Hegarty, David Dempsey and Barry Nash.

Full-forward line: Aaron Gillane, Séamus Flanagan, Graeme Mulcahy, Shane Dowling, Barry Murphy, Peter Casey, David Reidy and Pat Ryan.

PUCK-OUTS

Goalkeeper Nicky Quaid enjoyed an extraordinary season – Limerick retained possession on their own re-start 72% of the time which is absolutely ridiculous (won 190 puck-outs, lost 75).

The following illustration breaks down what area of the field all 265 of Nicky Quaid’s puck-outs were delivered to and the result of same. The graphic on the left features all 265 puck-outs, the one on the right features the puck-outs lost and in the middle the 190 puck-outs won. Please pay particular attention to the green dots on the middle map; the green dots identify where Quaid picked out free Limerick men and whatever about a goalkeeper pinging the ball out to someone unmarked inside his own 45-yard line finding a man in a pocket of space inside the opposition half on such a regular basis is ridiculous.

Since elite forwards will only go for goal when they are sure of scoring the ability of the goalkeeper to manage the game and launch attacks is, in effect, more important than his shot-stopping ability. The goalkeeper is not the last defender; he is the first attacker – it is important to make this distinction because the goalkeeper is very significant tactically.

Please note: it is not a long puck competition.

Conversely the following graphic illustrates how Limerick elected to defend the opposition puck-out – overall Limerick disrupted just 35% (103 won, 192 lost) of the opposition’s re-starts.

On the left of the illustration below you will find every opposition puck-out taken against Limerick and the result of same. The central illustration features all of the opposition puck-outs won by Limerick and on the right all of the opposition puck-outs lost by Limerick.

The obvious pattern here is that Limerick were quite happy to cough up the short puck-out to the opposition. Limerick, however, knew what they wanted to happen next.

Limerick dropped off and allowed the opposition goalkeeper to take short puck-outs – Limerick were then prepared to defend the long delivery into their half of the field and the second ball following the opposition’s short puck-out; that way the side coached by Paul Kinnerk always had a solid shape, were ready to win the ball and then spring forward on the counter-attack.

SHOT LOCATION

If you want your team to contend for trophies you must be defensively sound; before you can decide what you are going to do with a ball you must be able to win it in the first instance. The key is to occupy the pitch well – to have a short team when not in possession of the ball and a long team which stretches the opposition’s defense when in possession i.e. you make the pitch big when you have the ball and small without it.

Please note below a shot map from the 2018 championship which illustrates every shot taken by Limerick. On the left you will find an illustration of every shot taken by the Shannonsiders, in the middle an illustration of each successful shot and on the right an illustration of the shots which went wide, were dropped short, were hooked or blocked down and/or were saved.

The slightly greyed area on the graphic is designed to give you a clear idea of the optimum position which teams should be taking shots from. Ideally, you want to take as many shots as possible from optimum locations and to concede a lower number of shots from that same area.

During the 2018 championship Limerick, for example, took 93 shots from inside this area and scored 73 points (success rate: 78%). Meanwhile, from a defensive point of view, Limerick allowed 62 shots from this area. In total the opposition scored 36 points from this zone which boils down to a 58% success rate – Limerick were much better than a whole series of opposition teams on pressuring the strike in this key area of the field.

Below you will find an illustration of the shots taken by the opposition teams against Limerick during the 2018 championship.

DEFENSIVE STRUCTURE

Ideally, you do not want to commit your entire back six to man marking. Your centre-back, for example, should be a source of stability and a rallying point for the team. Therefore he needs to hold his ground in front of the full-back line and read the game. The centre-back should not man mark, but if you go man-to-man in your defense the opposition forwards will determine your defensive shape; the opposition will determine who your centre-back is going to be and where he is going to play.

So, if you concede that the members of your full-back line need to man mark then, ask yourself, how can you create a situation whereby your half-backs, especially your centre-back, can play zonally?

The way to achieve this is by demanding a massive work rate from your midfield and forwards. In 2014 Kilkenny’s Paul Murphy, for example, discussed a block made by Colin Fennelly: “Colin might be a forward, but he’s not a forward once we don’t have the ball” – a devastatingly simple maxim.

Becoming a team which is hard to beat is a collective responsibility – when we have the ball every player on the team is an attacker and when we do not have the ball every player is a defender. And, this especially applies to forwards who determine the quality of ball that is permitted to enter your half of the field. The opposition defenders can’t be allowed to come out with their head up and enjoy time to play a quality ball forward.

Below you will find an illustration of where the Limerick players completed hooks, blocks and tackles during their eight championship games. The graphic on the left illustrates where the defenders completed hooks, blocks and tackles, the centre graphic denotes the defensive actions completed by the midfielders and then on the right the corresponding contribution made by the forwards.

Prior to the 2016 All-Ireland final former Waterford manager Derek McGrath made an interesting comment about the game between Kilkenny and Tipperary potentially coming down to the battle between the respective wing-forwards – which pair worked back more effectively and then also contributed to their respective team’s attack.

Similarly, the Limerick wing-forwards (probably better described as wing-midfielders) – allied to the extraordinary work rate of centre-forward Kyle Hayes – represented the lungs of the team. The determination of this trio to drop back allowed the midfield partnership to also drop back into a central area and the cumulative effect compacted the space in the Limerick half of the field. Meanwhile ball carriers were forced wide and into areas where only low-percentage shots could be taken from. The shape of the team did the work.

Because the Limerick midfielders and forwards were tackling ferociously the half-back line could then play zonally and centre-back Declan Hannon, especially, enjoyed the opportunity to drop off his man and occupy the space in front of his full-back line.

Here we discover the evanescence of the game – the work rate of the forward informs the job that the defender needs to do.

During the 2018 campaign the defining characteristic of the Limerick team was the forwards’ determination to contaminate the quality of possession that the opposition enjoyed.

Just consider the following – during the 2018 All-Ireland winning campaign Limerick’s top five tacklers were as follows: Kyle Hayes (65), Tom Morrissey (42), Seán Finn (41), Cian Lynch (40) and Graeme Mulcahy (37).

In total during the 2018 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship the Limerick players completed 544 hooks, blocks and tackles in total. Of that total the defenders completed just 37% of the hooks, blocks and tackles, the midfield 16% and the forwards 47%.

So, the combination of the midfield players and forwards contributed 63% of the defensive effort from a tackling point of view. When your forwards are the best defenders on your team you know you are onto something.

In all the Limerick half-back line comprising of Diarmuid Byrnes, Declan Hannon and Dan Morrissey contributed just 16% of the team’s hooks, blocks and tackles. This figure is low within the context of a Limerick team which defended brilliantly from the front.

Here, once again, we happen upon the role played by a hard-tackling attack which reduces the defensive work that the defense needs to do. In a broken team (one which does not defend and attack together) you would expect the tackle count of the half-back line to be much higher.

INTERCEPTIONS

Please see below for an illustration of where the Limerick defenders (left), midfielders (centre) and forwards (right) intercepted opposition deliveries during open play.

The pressure exerted by the Limerick forwards often forced the opposition defenders to clear over the shoulder or off the back foot. And, the cumulative effect of such a work rate allowed the Limerick half-backs to play zonally.

Ideally, you do not want your half-backs tackling or trying to win turnover ball. No. You want your half-back line reading the play, intercepting or challenging for the ball in the air with their hand, winning it, coming forward and delivering quality ball to the forwards with the pass before the assist making the critical difference to the quality of the scoring chance which is subsequently created.

You can take the experience of centre-back Declan Hannon as a very clear illustration of how the Limerick defensive system worked in a cumulative sense.

During the 2018 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Limerick did not employ a sweeper system (seven defenders), but Declan Hannon still enjoyed the luxury of dropping off his man and protected the D (he was not required to spend his time in the middle third of the field marking the centre-forward).

On the right below you will find an illustration of the instances where Declan Hannon got on the ball during the 2018 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship. In the middle the green dots illustrates where Declan Hannon intercepted opposition deliveries. And, on the right the red dots illustrate where Limerick centre-forward Kyle Hayes completed a hook, block or tackle; please note that the Kyle Hayes illustration does not illustrate the number of times that Hayes made a valiant effort to hook, block or tackle an opposition player. Hayes performed a hook, block or tackle 65 times, but he worked tirelessly to complete a much higher number than that.

Kyles Hayes’ tackle map is included here because it illustrates the determination of the Limerick forwards to tackle the opposition ball carrier. And, the map of Declan Hannon’s interceptions illustrates the result of same – Hannon could not hope to play zonally or win intercepted ball unless forwards like Kyle Hayes are ploughing through such an amazing body of work.

And, it wasn’t just Declan Hannon who benefitted for the work rate of the Limerick forwards. In total Limerick players intercepted opposition deliveries 285 times – the defenders were responsible for 70% of those interceptions. Here’s how those interceptions broke down: Seán Finn (36), Richie English (35), Dan Morrissey (34), Declan Hannon (29), Mike Casey (28) and Diarmuid Byrnes (27).

So, the priority has to be to control the middle third of the field at all costs. If you can lock down the middle third of the field like a vice you own the game.

The real guts of the game are to be found in the battle for the middle eight.

The following axiom is a good rule of thumb to adopt: the players positioned in the middle third (from right wing-back to left wing-forward) win the match and your inside forwards decide by how much. It always helps when you have players capable of sinking the knife in, but ball winners are game winners.

Finishers get the headlines from gullible people, but these guys decorate the game and finish the work of others as opposed to digging the foundation of the win.

How many times over the years, for example, have Tipperary teams (heavily populated with corner-forwards) looked better on paper than on the field; the kind of team which might excite a neophyte fan, but worry real hurling people.

So, the gearing of your team is important. You have got to develop a functioning team. Unless your team is prepared to put the work in the platform that they are trying to win the game from is on fire. You have to dominate the terms and conditions of the contest.

Do not make the mistake of having too many shooters on your team; you may end up attempting to hurl your way around the opposition rather than through them.

Effective teams tackle from the front and make the opposition play fast – they allow no time for the opposition to make good decisions; they play at such a speed that even the most mundane task becomes difficult.

Every inter-county player, for example, can complete a pass into an advantageous part of the pitch if they are under no pressure to do so – the percentage task completion rate of a player is not defined by the skill of the player, but, instead, by the situation that the player finds himself in.

Pressure changes everything. Take away that first decision. Speed the opposition up and provoke the mistake. Make them think again and the good decisions will soon run out.

TURNOVER AS PLAYMAKER

Experienced analysts are, rightfully, suspicious of possession statistics with specific relation to hurling contests – possession statistics illustrate how you played, but not how well you played. Ultimately, what matters is which team scores the most and not the team which enjoys the majority of possession. There can, for example, be a stark difference between dominating the possession of the ball and tactically dominating a contest.

Hurling is an invasion game. It is about defense, attack and the transition in between. And, the most important phase of the game is the transition phase (moving from attack to defense or from defense to attack). Hurling is not a game of possession, it is a game of constantly managing the turnover in possession; manage those turnovers effectively and you win.

The game of hurling is not won when the players are lined out neatly in their positions – the game of hurling is won when that structure breaks down. Indeed, the turnover in possession is the best playmaker there is and that assertion has important implications for how we should think about the sport.

Please note below a shot map from the 2018 championship which illustrates every shot taken by Limerick. On the left you will find an illustration of every shot taken by the Shannonsiders, in the middle an illustration of each successful shot and on the right an illustration of the shots which went wide, were dropped short, hooked or blocked down or saved.

In total Limerick scored 12-136 from play – Limerick generated 36 goal-scoring chances and 252 shots from points.

Now, the source of the Limerick attacks is more than interesting.

For the sake of this study we break down the successful Limerick attacks (which ended in a shot) into attacks and counter-attacks. Attacks comprise of shots which originated with Limerick puck-outs, attacks from sideline balls and from long-range frees while counter-attacks involve attacks which originated from opposition puck-outs, interceptions, rucks and turnovers in the tackle.

Overall from attacks Limerick generated 125 shots and scored 2-53. Nicky Quaid, for example, had his finger prints on 2-42 as Limerick generated 110 shots from moves which originated with their own puck-outs.

The counter-attacking figures, however, are much more revealing:

  • Thirty-eight Limerick shots originated from the opposition puck-out (scored 2-22)
  • Limerick generated 20 shots as they emerged from rucks (scored 0-11)
  • In open play Limerick generated 69 shots from interceptions (scored 3-37)
  • From turnovers in the tackle Limerick generated 38 shots (scored 5-16)

So, in total Limerick scored 2-53 from attacks and 10-86 from counter-attacks.

Just think about it: When a team does not have possession of the ball they are organized, but at the point when possession changes hands the opposition defense can be destabilized; the opposition is often pulled out of its defensive shape when in possession of the ball.
Every player (defensive or otherwise) is being coached to support the player in possession and get in position to make off-the-shoulder runs.

In transition the opposition is not organized in a defensive sense. So, that’s the moment when you can do most damage and this is where the most accomplished teams are at their most devastating. No matter what system a team plays they are never more vulnerable than after coughing up possession.

Imagine: the opposition can actually be in most danger when they have possession of the ball. So, the turnover in possession is the best playmaker there is.

Limerick appear to be consciously setting a trap for the opposition and then plan to counter-attack. Limerick are an attack-minded team – it’s just that the Shannonsiders work to attack on their own terms.

In this sense a huge work rate is demanded from the Limerick forwards because it serves a tactical purpose. The essential idea is to set a trap for the opposition and create a game cycle which will benefit the team. The defensive set-up works to control the opponent and then creates the conditions for Limerick’s attacking play.

The idea is to create a game cycle whereby the opposition hit the ball long into the Limerick half of the field and then, when Limerick win the ball, they work it short before hitting an accurate delivery into the full-forward line who are positioned close to the opposition goal.

Reactive and counter-attacking hurling is often described as pejorative, but playing such a system is not about being afraid of the opposition. The system is founded on the desire to attack. You need to control the opponent in the first place if you want to play an attacking style. Limerick defend in numbers and work like dogs to force turnovers and interceptions not because they want to keep the score down or because the Shannonsiders fear the opposition, but because Limerick want to attack more. Indeed, the defensive set-up represents the first stage of Limerick’s attacking strategy because it creates the conditions for the manner in which the team wants to attack.

Great things come to those who work hardest.

BUILD A BRIDGE

When a team opts to play this kind of defensive system they immediately face a problem: how do you build a bridge between how you intend to defend and how you are then going to attack?

This is a recurring issue with teams – often a side will decide to play a sweeper or a three-man midfield in order to restrict the space enjoyed by the opposition, but then make the mistake of not working out how they intend to attack based on the defensive system that they have opted to employ.

It is one thing to decide how you intend to defend, but it is quite another to successfully build a bridge between how you intend to defend and attack.

The organization of the team as it moves from one game state to another is important.

Smart teams breathe in and breathe out – think of the players as a flock of birds moving back and forward as opposed to fifteen guys being asked to play to a specific position.

Similarly in soccer the formation of a team is just a handy notation to describe how a team is set up, but it is really about how that team flows from a defensive state into an attacking one and vice versa.

Out of possession the team breathes in while in possession the team breathes out (both game states set off a chain reaction in terms of how players are expected to behave with specific regard to their individual role).

In order to succeed you must defend and attack well. And, how you defend must be related to how you attack. If a team does not attack and defend together it can’t be described as a team, it is a broken team.

You cannot set up a game plan for defense and for attack and then hope that they work independently – how you attack is dictated to you by how you defend; how you defend is dictated by how you attack.

You cannot break the team in two by having defenders defend and attackers attack – the entire team must defend and attack together. Otherwise you end up with a pantomime horse of a team – the front is set up to play one way and the back another.

You build your success on your ability to transition from defense to attack (and from attack to defense). You must marry good defensive structure to good attacking structure. You have got to know how to land a punch.

Please see below for an illustration of where the Limerick assists and the second assists took place during the build up to each of the team’s shots from play during the 2018 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship. On the left the green dots identify the location of the final pass before the shot was taken (the assist) while the red dots on the left identify the “second assist” in each instance (the location of the second last pass before the shot was taken).

Typically, when a game of chess is reported by specialist media observers the analysis is not concentrated on the killer final move, but, instead, on the sequence which sets the inevitable end game in motion. Similarly the most significant drama in hurling often occurs during the build up to shots. And, what unfolds in the middle third of the field is often much more interesting than the actual goals and points scored.

Elite teams treat the moment when possession changes hands very seriously. Indeed, at the point of the turnover the player in possession is then the most important attacker on the field (and much more important than the player who actually ends up taking the shot).

The breakdown is a massively important area of the game – whether a player has just won a puck-out, intercepted an opposition delivery, turned over an opponent, won a break or a ruck ball what that player does next is of vital importance.

So, players need to be taught to recognize the opportunity presented by a turnover in possession.

In an ideal situation once the ball is turned over via a tackle or interception it should set off a chain reaction in your team – your players should know what is supposed to happen next.

Out of possession the Limerick team drops back into its defensive shape (breathes in), but once possession has been won the team breathes out – here Limerick’s method of defending becomes their most potent playmaker.

The real beauty of Limerick’s defensive ploy is the advantage that it presents to their attack.

When the ball is won the midfielders and forwards (who have dropped back to defend) provide an outlet to maintain possession. The extra bodies available near the breakdown ensure that Limerick have good options for an outlet ball from defense.

Critically, the Limerick players do not make the mistake of lamping the ball down the field to where their forward colleagues are not. Poorly-coached teams win the ball and balloon it down the field at the very first opportunity.

Considering the defensive shape of the Limerick team why would you lamp the ball over the head of the half-forward or midfielder who is working back to help his defense and consequently make a hero of an unmarked opposition half-back?

The half-forward line represents the engine room of the team; these players represent the bridge between how the team intends to defend and then attack based on that counter-offensive strategy. And, once the attack has been launched the half-forwards rush forward in order to support their inside line.

If players fall into the habit of winning the ball and then hitting it straight away into the final third of the field when this delivery is subsequently intercepted it is generally intercepted by an opposition player who is facing your goal and coming forward; the delivery of that player will then, more often than not, go over the head of the individual on your team who first won the ball and your half-back line and midfield are forced to turn and face their own goal.

Ask yourself: are long and high deliveries forward an effective attacking strategy at any level of hurling? No. Just remember what Tipperary’s Tony Wall wrote in 1965: “The high ball into the full-forward line from centre-field or half-back is practically useless”. Similarly, Kilkenny coaching legend Fr Tommy Maher wanted his players to think their way around the field as opposed to getting the ball, hitting it mindlessly and leaving it up to someone else to then retrieve the situation.

The Limerick team is asked to defend together and to attack together – out of possession every player on the team is a defender and in possession every player on the team is an attacker. Therefore, when in possession, it is the responsibility of each individual player not to lamp the ball down the field; to treat each ball as precious given the effort it takes to win the damn thing in the first place.

Generally, defenders need to develop a greater expectation of themselves in this regard – to change the notion of what a defender is supposed to do once in possession of the ball. And, it must be remembered that the vast majority of players go through their formative years listening to coaches who encourage them to “drive it” once they gain possession.

In Tipperary, for example, idiots in the crowd constantly roar at players to “drive it” and when players do that the crowd reacts with a roar. Therefore when a player leathers the ball that action is reinforced by a cheer – players are encouraged by the crowd and by years of conditioning to do the wrong thing.

Cork coach Dónal O’Grady, for example, has argued on several occasions that players need to be taught to ignore the crowd because they are “generally ignorant about hurling”.

If you lamp the ball down the field against some teams you will get it back, but if you lamp the ball down the field against a good team like Limerick they will hang on to it and pick you apart.

Accomplished teams will successfully defend the long ball into their half all day long. Indeed, the better teams want you to hit the ball long into their half of the field; they want you to attack that way. So, the clearance off the back foot is the very last thing that a defender should consider doing.

A blind clearance should originate with a defender only when he has no other option and is forced to strike the ball under pressure, but when the defender has that golden extra second his delivery should give an advantage to his attackers.

It is pragmatic to make a good pass, not a bad one.

The better you play out the field the easier the finish will be in the end.

ESCAPE THE CONTACT AREA

So, what you will regularly find with an elite hurling team like Limerick is that they are exceptionally good at moving the ball short out of the contact area in order to get a man free and moving forward; that player is then in a position to deliver a quality ball forward and to the advantage of the inside forwards (you escape the tight in order to exploit the remaining space).

The idea here is that the player who has gone to the trouble of winning the ball has sacrificed his view of the field to do so and is not best-placed to launch the subsequent attack. Therefore ball winners are best advised to deliver a short pass out of the contact zone to a player who has a better idea of what is going on and can do something considered with it. Hence the common mantra: win the ball, one pass, deliver.

Delivering quality ball to the inside forward line is the main objective, but you must plough through some unglamorous work before you can crack the opposition open. The winning and losing of the game will come down to how well each team finds their inside men. So, our obligation is to give the forwards the ball in the best possible condition. Inside forwards want quick ball, but not quick ball which is to the advantage of the marking defender.

To their absolute credit Limerick are brave enough to go through that extra phase of play in order to get into a position where the ball can be delivered properly (via a 50-metre stick pass as opposed to something of the 80-metre variety).

The Limerick players appear to appreciate that the most important pass during an attack is the pass before the assist; that one extra pass is so important in terms of the quality of the attack that it creates since it presents the ball carrier with the option of by-passing the opposition half-back line while a first-time delivery turns the contest into a game of tennis between the opposing half-back lines.

The traditionalists like to moan about the hand passing involved, but the whole point of this technique is to release a player who can face the opposition goal, move forward, look up and pin-point a delivery which can by-pass the opposition half-back line.

The pass before the assist contributes hugely to the quality of the final shot – the better the quality of the approach play the simpler the final shot. Indeed, the better teams make the passing and shooting situation simpler. If you deliver bad ball your forwards need to be very good to win it, turn and shoot. You need brilliant forwards when the ball coming in is bad.

Take another look at the assist map. It seems clear that Limerick have clearly defined areas where the assist and the second assist are supposed to happen before the ball is moved into the scoring zone.

INSIDE FORWARD POSITIONING

The final part of the Limerick attacking equation involves the positioning or rather the starting position of the inside forward line – it is critically important, for example, that the inside forwards do not eat their own space.

Generally, Limerick’s inside forwards appear to start in a narrow (triangle) formation and as high up the field as possible in order to maintain as large a pocket of space as possible in front and to the sides of them; that is, of course, until the ball carrier is ready to deliver.

The inside forwards then make their run (from inside to out) and the ball is delivered to where the forward is going to be and not where he is (and certainly not down on top of his head which suits the defender). In traditional, no-tactics hurling you lump the ball towards where the inside forward already is, but the secret to Limerick’s brilliance is that they play the ball to where an inside forward is going to be.

Helpfully, this strategy encourages defenders to mark from behind and it also works to restrict the influence of an opposition sweeper.

The inside forward then gathers possession and enjoys an opportunity to take on his man, shoot or feed the supporting off-the-shoulder runners as they pour through.

And, please note the patterns associated with the following illustration of where the Limerick players got on the ball during the 2018 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship. On the left you will find where the Limerick defenders got on the ball, in the middle the midfielders and on the right the forwards.

Isn’t it interesting to see the patterns associated with the forwards – Limerick do not move possession into the central channel until the team is ready to take a shot.

Limerick defend from the front, tackle hard (and with discipline), do not allow the opposition the time or room to make a good decision, out-number the opposition in the Limerick half of the field, turn the landing area into a meat grinder, create a scenario whereby their half-backs can play zonally, work the ball out of the contact area and then deliver a quality ball into the opposition half of the field before moving possession smartly into the scoring zone.

Simply brilliant hurling.

If you have any comments to make on the above or questions that you would like to ask please email me: sixtwofourtwo@gmail.com.

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