Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A whole new ball game is evolving

Donegal's Mark McHugh is the best sweeper in the game

All sporting success is largely derivative of other sporting success.

When Alf Ramsey's 'Wingless Wonders' landed the 1966 world cup draw rules Cup for England, most domestic clubs in the English league eschewed the traditional winger for a narrower formation.

Ramsey perfected the system at Ipswich Town, and brought it to the international stage.

When Joe Kernan brought Armagh to their solitary All-Ireland title in 2002, he did so with Tony McEntee playing as a withdrawn midfielder, dubbed as the first big-time 'sweeper' in Gaelic football.

The germ of that idea originated with the contingent of Armagh footballers who studied in Queen's and played their varsity football under the coaching of Dessie Ryan.

There, the likes of Kieran McGeeney and the McNulty brothers Justin and Enda would immerse themselves in the possibilities of what could be achieved by tweaking and tailoring formations in Gaelic football.

Around this time, we also witnessed the 'third midfielder', where an immobile lump of a man would wear the number 15 jersey usually reserved for svelte corner-forwards, and instead stay out around the middle to contest kickouts, add heft, and clear a bit of space for two inside-forwards to work in.

Then in order to counter Armagh, Mickey Harte came up with the 'swarm defence', dependent on massive energy reserves and multiple players surrounding a man in possession until he was eventually choked up.

Bearing in mind that these innovations came 20 and 10 years ago, we can safely say that the evolution of Gaelic games since has begun to stall a little.

There have been subtle shifts, but only to existing ideas. For example, take the brand leader in sweepers - Donegal's Mark McHugh.

He is not a sweeper in the Tony McEntee sense but rather a creative and energetic link who, when not in possession, cuts out the corridors for passes forward, and while in possession instantly turns defence into attack.

Alan McCrabbe achieves something along broadly similar lines for Dublin hurlers.

There is much to admire about the Irish rugby team under Joe Schmidt, but perhaps what drew most praise from the players that landed the Six Nations was Schmidt's attention to detail.

Within that set-up, their training sessions were conducted with a mixture of practical and theory. The theory was aided by video analyst Mervyn Murphy working 12-hour days right through the tournament to decipher what was relevant on the opposition.

The backroom team found a receptive audience in the players, who were able to process and learn.

It might be a point to note that, of the teams competing against them, Ireland had the second-highest average age of 26.66 years.

That's a lot of maturity to draw from within a panel.

That maturity, and their humility, made things easy for their sports psychologist, Enda McNulty.

Embedded in the set-up and working across a number of platforms, the depth of tactical knowledge in rugby has been an eye-opener for him since his Queen's days.

"In sport," McNulty says, "We're far too simplistic in our problem solving after a defeat. 'We weren't fit enough' is the classic one in Gaelic games."

Many who have been involved in Gaelic football and hurling will be startled to recognise the truth in that sentence.

As a child, I recall watching my uncle playing on a Tempo Maguires team badly beaten by local rivals Brookeboro.

Immediately after the game, the manager punished his players by forcing them through a gruelling half-hour run through reeds and bushes.

That might have been an extreme example, but there remains a significant proportion of gulpins who insist on 'running the s**** out of them' in the next training session if he feels his team did not perform as he desired.

It's the next thing McNulty says that really nails it.

"There's a lot of talk about how much Gaelic games has tactically evolved over the last five or 10 years. I would say it has been far too slow, that it is virtually prehistoric.

"To look at the attention to detail the likes of Joe (Schmidt, not Kernan) go into, it's a 100 years advance on what Armagh were doing in 2002. In Gaelic games, we think someone's a genius if they bring two men back into the hole to protect their full-back line."

He's right of course, but then the comparison doesn't stand up when you consider that one code is played by amateurs, the other by minted professionals, backed up with a team of highly-accomplished sports scientists.

If you look, you can detect subtle changes, but every sport evolves at its own pace.

And it's not as if the playing style of rugby spent the 150 years between the drawing up of the first set of rules to becoming professional in 1995, in a constant state of flux.

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