Pádraic Maher pictured battling for every inch during the All-Ireland final. Photo: Eamonn McGee
Please read on for a detailed analysis of the contributions made by Michael Ryan’s heroic bunch of hurlers during the 2016 championship.
Séamus Callanan is priced at one-to-eight to win the hurler of the year award, but did Pádraic Maher represent a more significant player for Tipperary in 2016?
Tipperary’s Séamus Callanan is priced at one-to-eight to win the 2016 hurler of the year award. Fair enough, we see your point. Callanan will go down as one of Tipperary’s finest-ever forwards, the county’s greatest-ever goal scorer and to watch the full-forward in action on All-Ireland final day, in particular, was thrilling. From twelve possessions the Drom & Inch man scored nine points, hit one wide, completed one hand pass and lost one ball in the tackle. Some of his shooting was outstanding; this was a bewitching genius at thrilling work who left solid Kilkenny players like Joey Holden and Shane Prendergast like gibbering wrecks in his slipstream.
There is, however, a significant point to be made regarding the Callanan performance. For eight of Séamus Callanan’s points in the All-Ireland final the full-forward benefitted from a quality delivery, had space to work in and the structure of his side engineered a one-on-one scenario against his direct marker in acres of space.
There is no doubting that Séamus Callanan is a more than accomplished player and that his coronation as the hurler of the year would be warmly celebrated in Tipperary, but if you accept the following truism about the game, then your search for a hurler of the year candidate should begin elsewhere: the players positioned between five and twelve win the match, the inside forwards then decide by how much. It helps, of course, when you have players inside who are capable of sinking the knife in, but the point should resonate: without winning the battle in the middle third of the field a performance like Séamus Callanan’s cannot happen.
Hurling supporters (and analysts) need to pay more careful attention to those players who, while there are fireworks going off all around them, just get on with lighting the fuse.
TOP FIVE POSSESSIONS
Pádraic Maher, in championship hurling this year, was on the ball more than any other. The Thurles Sarsfields man enjoyed 100 possessions (Séamus Callanan 60) and scored five points from play (one per game). Those who highlight the fact that Pádraic provided the assist for just three scores during the campaign miss a significant point - the wing-back’s role is to provide the pass before the assist which, more often than not, has a more significant correlation with the quality of the final scoring chance than the assist does. The quality of the initial delivery forward creates the context for the assist and then the shot. It is a critical contribution; this is where games are won and lost - in hurling your team plays the way your half-back line plays.
Here we argue that Pádraic Maher made a more significant contribution to the system employed by Tipperary in 2016 than any other. Indeed, we would also argue that the journey travelled by Pádraic in a Tipperary jersey also best reflects the journey travelled by the entire group - no player has travelled further to arrive here. Maher has been through the mill and come out with a high polish.
Just think about the following. Tipperary won the All-Ireland final 2-29 to 2-20, but the game reached a crucial juncture in the 42nd minute when a Kevin Kelly goal propelled Kilkenny into a 1-14 to 0-15 lead. Michael Ryan’s men found themselves at the wrong end of a broken bottle. Despite breaking even on the turnover count (15-15) and scorching Kilkenny on tackles (64-34) Tipp trailed on possessions (118-125) and, of course, on the scoreboard. Tipperary were making a searing effort, but, as they say, there is no room for explanations on the scoreboard.
The reaction of the Tipperary players to the challenge posed was outstanding. During the ensuing ten minutes Tipperary out-scored Kilkenny 1-4 to 0-1 and led 1-19 to 1-15 by the 52nd minute, but the underlying patterns to the remainder of this contest are even more significant, and telling. For the remainder of this contest Tipperary won the turnover count 19-11, the tackles 51-14 and, as a result, the battle for possession 93-62 (60-40%).
LINE BY LINE
Goalkeeper Darren Gleeson’s use of the ball in 2016 was interesting. Seasoned observers of hurling in the North division will have noted Gleeson’s excellent distribution in the colours of Portroe, but for the Tipperary campaign there was, most obviously, an emphasis on Gleeson forsaking accuracy for distance. Tipperary’s strategy appeared to emphasise that the position of the ball was more important than possession of the ball. Gleeson did reasonably well on deliveries from re-starts with Tipperary winning 54% of their own puck-outs in the championship (68-57), but Darren enjoyed 37 possessions from general play and only managed to find a Tipp player 43% of the time. It was, most obviously, not part of the strategy for Tipperary to work the ball through the lines, but, instead, to go back-to-front as often as possible. Darren provided the assist for 0-2 and the assist for eight shots in total. Gleeson was one of five players (Cathal Barrett, James Barry, John McGrath and Séamus Callanan) to play every championship minute and he saved six shots in all, but, perhaps, this is an area where Tipperary could improve for 2017. Surely the goalkeeper should not be regarded as the last defender, but, instead, as the team’s first attacker.
In all Tipperary played 382 minutes of championship action - Cathal Barrett and James Barry played every second while Michael Cahill missed out on just ten minutes; management were, most obviously, eager to keep this unit together.
Cathal Barrett’s 66 possessions (Barry 56 and Cahill 63) caught the eye as the Holycross-Ballycahill man profited from the work of his forwards and played his man from the front in thrilling fashion. Barrett burst forward to provide the assist for 2-1 and was second only to Dan McCormack in number of frees won with eight (McCormack 11). The fact that the full-back line conceded just 18 frees in five games highlights how hard the half-forward line were working to contaminate opposition deliveries into the Tipperary half of the field. The full-back line did not foul because, more often than not, they did not have to; they enjoyed that split second to get a grip on their men and were afforded an opportunity to contest slow and hanging deliveries. The work of the Tipperary half-forward line reduced the job that the full-back line was required to do. The fact that the full-back line only effected 50 tackles (Barrett 16, Barry 17, Cahill 17) between them and only turned over opposition ball carriers 25 times (Barrett 12, Cahill 8, Barry 5) is not a criticism of the full-back line, but, instead, a compliment to the determination of this Tipperary team to defend from the front.
Time and time and time again the Tipperary full-back line found themselves in a position to attack the ball, intercept deliveries (Barrett 18, Barry 25 and Cahill 21) and then strike coming forward on the front foot.
Isn’t it interesting that the members of the full-back line favoured the stick pass over the hand pass? This is not just down to the predilection of each player - it is down to the scenarios that the players regularly find themselves in.
Look at the numbers: Barrett favoured the stick pass over the hand pass 24-13, Barry 20-11 and Cahill 31-16. Such ratios make a significant difference to the attacking play of a team (you can’t play hurling effectively going backwards and striking off the back foot).
The fact that Michael Cahill finished the championship with an 85% pass completion rate is extraordinary (Barrett 73%, Barry 65%).
Considering that ability to make constructive use of possession it might have been an idea to use short puck-outs more often - in all the full-back line collected just fourteen re-starts from Darren Gleeson.
TOP FIVE OPPOSITION
You could not say enough about what this group - Séamus Kennedy, Ronan Maher and Pádraic Maher - contributed in 2016.
Once more we happen upon a critical paradox associated with the game. Ideally, you do not want your half-backs tackling and trying to win the ball back. No. You want your half-back line coming forward, winning the ball in the air and delivery quality ball to your forwards with the pass before the assist making the critical difference to the quality of the scoring chances created. Here, once again, we happen upon the role played by a hard-tackling attack which reduced the defensive work that the defence needed to do.
Check out the numbers. The uninitiated might be surprised to learn and misinterpret the fact that Pádraic Maher performed just 14 tackles and three turnovers over five games. Such an inference, however, misunderstands Maher’s role. Maher certainly did not neglect his defensive duties. Indeed, without Pádraic’s dedication to the basic skills of defending he would not have recovered in time to hook a raiding Galway player at a more than opportune moment during the All-Ireland semi-final.
In all the half-back line shared 72 tackles (Kennedy 30, Ronan 28 and Pádraic 14) and won 18 turnovers in possession (Kennedy 10, Ronan 5 and Pádraic 3). Once more we argue that these numbers are low within the context of a Tipperary team which defended brilliantly from the front.
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 a multiple of that. As a result of the collective commitment to defending as a unit the half-backs found themselves intercepting ball (Kennedy 13, Ronan 17 and Pádraic 20) instead of having to face their own goal, race back and work to recover possession; a chore which would severely restrict their ability to set up quality attacks.
The half-back line enjoyed 244 possessions (Kennedy 73, Ronan 71 and Pádraic 100), but only had to take the ball away from the opposition 18 times and were only turned over themselves seven times (the Tipperary half-back line conceded just 11 frees between them). Only 0-7 in assists (and 0-7 in scores) emanated as a direct result of that possession, but, again, we highlight the role that this half-back line played in building quality attacks - the delivery of that first ball into the attack is critical to the quality of the final chance created.
The Tipperary half-backs regularly found themselves on the front foot, coming forward and as a result each guy found himself in a position to favour the stick pass over the hand - Séamus Kennedy favoured the stick pass over the hand pass 27-24, Ronan Maher 27-17 and Pádraic Maher 38-15 with the majority of Pádraic’s searching deliveries off the stick catching the eye on a regular basis.
The Tipperary half-back line, of course, had a significant role to play in the disruption of the opposition puck-out in 2016. In all Tipperary won a highly impressive 49% (79-81) of those. The positioning of Brendan Maher (often as a double centre-back) and a deep-lying half-forward line played a huge role in this effort, but so did a half-back line who plucked 44 opposition puck-outs out of the air - spare thought for Ronan Maher who found himself bombarded and tested at every turn especially in the All-Ireland final; in all Ronan won 20 opposition puck-outs during the campaign (Pádraic Maher 14 and Séamus Kennedy 10).
The performance of the Tipperary midfield was interesting or disappointing depending on how you choose to look at it. Once more everything has context - Brendan Maher (defensive) and Michael Breen (attacking) were asked to perform specific roles in the team.
As you look through the numbers the roles of both players in a reasonably structured game plan become clear. Maher enjoyed 95 possessions while Breen accumulated 63. Brendan Maher assisted for 0-4 (Breen 0-0) while the team captain scored 0-2 and the Ballina man notched 3-4. Here is where the clear differentiation between the respective roles emerges; Maher played a defensive role while Breen was committed to making blind side runs while contributing little during the build-up phase of attacks. In all Brendan Maher won 12 turnovers (Breen seven) and was only second to Patrick Maher in tackle count with 34 (Breen 19).
Significantly Brendan often occupied the centre-back corridor and allowed Ronan Maher to drop onto the D which is always a sensible defensive structure to adopt (but don’t anyone mention the word sweeper). Isn’t it interesting to note that when a traditional hurling power like Tipperary adopts such a team structure it is referred to as work rate, but when a team like Waterford play a similarly non-traditional style is it referred to as a system?
Brendan Maher’s key defensive and decision-making role placed the Borris-Ileigh man in the firing line (Maher conceded most frees: nine).
Michael Breen got a lot of attention from analysts for his explosive finishes, but he completed just 23 passes (favoured the stick pass over the hand 12-11) and enjoyed a 58% completion rate. Meanwhile Brendan Maher favoured the stick pass 30-23 and completed intended passes 72% of the time.
In another system you would expect to see a completely different set of numbers from a midfield pairing and for that pairing to play a more significant role in how a team pieces attacks together.
TOP FIVE TIPPERARY
Wing-forward Dan McCormack played a huge role in Tipperary's success. Photo: Eamonn McGee
When your half-forwards are the best defenders on your team you know you are onto something.
For the vast majority of the championship Dan McCormack (338 minutes), Patrick Maher (318) and Noel McGrath (330) occupied the half-forward positions. In terms of possessions Dan McCormack led the unit on 74 (Patrick Maher 68, Noel McGrath 67) while Noel McGrath played a big role in an attacking sense scoring 0-10 and delivery the final pass for 2-2.
The defensive role performed by the half-forward line in 2016 was, however, hugely significant.
Just consider the following: Dan McCormack scored 0-1 and did not opt to take a single shot at goal until the All-Ireland final, Patrick Maher scored 0-3 and between the pair of them they only managed to get on the end of one goal chance which Patrick spurned.
There is a key point to be made here; Patrick Maher and Dan McCormack were not, as a rule, following up attacks - their job was not to get in a position to create or score goals. No, instead they were working back and made sure that Tipperary occupied the field well from a defensive point of view - when Tipperary lost the ball, McCormack, Maher and to a slightly lesser extent McGrath were primed for action. Noel McGrath’s ability on the ball should not be ignored in this area of the field - having forwards who work hard is one thing, but you need guys too who can transform possession into shooting opportunities. That said Kilkenny have taught us that one axiom needs to be respected in this regard: ball winners are game winners.
This trio were not specifically geared to intercept clearances (interceptions: McCormack 5, Maher 3 and McGrath 6). No, their job was to turnover ball and get in the tackles which, at the very least, worked to contaminate the opposition’s efforts to deliver quality ball forward. And, this trio were spectacularly effective in this regard.
Dan McCormack led the team in turnover ball won (16) while Patrick Maher was hot on his heels with 15 (McGrath 10); Maher, who was in full beast mode this season, topped the tackle count with a ridiculous 46 while McCormack trailed other market leaders Brendan Maher (34) and John McGrath (32) with 31 - considering Patrick Maher’s numbers it was more than fitting that the Lorrha-Dorrha man would break through to fire over the final score of the All-Ireland final. And, Noel McGrath wasn’t far off the mark on 29. To be winning turnover ball and tackling so ferociously in a forward area of the field is more than significant.
The reason why players like McCormack and Maher favour the hand pass to a more significant degree than others is because they so often find themselves winning the ball in traffic and then employ the hand pass to get their side moving forward once more - Noel McGrath often benefited from this aspect to their play. McGrath favoured the stick pass over the hand 24-10 and although Maher also marginally preferred the stick pass (23-21) the opposite was true for McCormack (15-29).
When battling in the tight inexperienced (or poorly-coached) players often make the mistake of striking the ball blindly or off the back foot once they win possession. The issue here is that when a player fights to win the ball they sacrifice their view of the field to do so. Therefore ball winners are best advised to deliver a short pass out of the contact zone to a player who enjoys the perspective to do something positive with it - win it, one pass and deliver is a handy rule of thumb to adopt. This aspect to the game is something which was appreciated by all three half-forwards: Patrick Maher saw out the championship with a 90% pass completion rate, Dan McCormack 85% and Noel McGrath 83%.
All three were disciplined in the tackle and only conceded 18 frees (McCormack 7, Maher 6 and McGrath 5) while McCormack’s ability to win frees was significant: McCormack won 11, Maher five and McGrath one.
In terms of puck-outs won Patrick Maher led the line winning 14 of Darren Gleeson’s deliveries, trailed by Dan McCormack and Noel McGrath who both won four apiece.
TOP FIVE PASS COMPLETION
John McGrath's determination to attack the inside shoulder of opposition defender's sets an example for all forwards to follow. Photo: Eamonn McGee
This study has predominantly concerned itself with a core of Tipperary players since there was such little variation in the starting XVs. A variance, however, did occur on the inside line off the back of John O’Dwyer’s red card during the Limerick contest.
Therefore the discussion of the full-forward line revolves around not three, but four players: John McGrath (382 minutes), Séamus Callanan (382), Niall O’Meara (135) and John O’Dwyer (185).
Possessions: John McGrath 82, Séamus Callanan 60, Niall O’Meara 28 and John O’Dwyer 49.
It is interesting to note the points each player notched from open play and their individual shooting percentage: John McGrath scored seven points (50% shooting accuracy), Séamus Callanan 17 points (65% accuracy) and John O’Dwyer nine points (60% accuracy) while Niall O’Meara took on two shots and missed both.
In this context the contribution of John McGrath might seem marginal, but when you add goal scoring to the mix the value of McGrath to the forward line becomes clear. The Loughmore-Castleiney man scored four goals and had another four shots saved - Séamus Callanan scored two and missed two, Niall O’Meara engineered no shot on goal while John O’Dwyer scored two absolute crackers and also saw one saved.
In terms of assists John O’Dwyer created five shooting opportunities for colleagues, Niall O’Meara created 2-3 in terms of shooting chances for others and Séamus Callanan 1-5 while John McGrath provided the telling pass for 3-9 and created another four goal-scoring chances which his teammates managed to miss.
From John McGrath’s perspective these are extraordinary numbers.
Look at it one more time: John McGrath got in for eight shots on goal (scoring four) and also created seven goal-scoring opportunities for others. McGrath is not a fast player so there is a key point here to be made - the minute John McGrath gathers possession he attacks the inside shoulder of the defender. This sounds simple, but just watch how often inter-county forwards collect the ball and head for the sideline (try to run around their marker). In contrast McGrath uses his four steps to take on the defender and take the inside, as opposed to the outside, line.
John McGrath led the turnovers against tally (16) by some distance from John O’Dwyer (10), but McGrath lost the ball in the tackle 16 times season because he was trying so desperately hard to break the back of the opposition defence by charging at that inside shoulder. Indeed, a DVD should be compiled of John McGrath’s attacking play and presented to every young forward in Tipperary.
In terms of passing John McGrath favoured the hand pass over the stick (20-18) and completed intended passes 86% of the time. Séamus Callanan successfully passed the ball 15 times (stick 7, hand 8) with a pass completion rate of 63% and Niall O’Meara favoured the use of the hand (11-8) succeeding 90% of the time while John O’Dwyer completed 74% of his passes, but favoured the use of the stick over the hand 11-6.
Opinions vary between hurling supporters as regards what represents a forward’s responsibility in terms of defending. Some coaches expect their forwards to defend from the front while others do not. Personal preference comes into the frame here; your vision for how the game should be played informs that opinion.
If you expect your inside forwards to defend from the front and harass the opposition to within an inch of their lives then you are going to like the look of John McGrath.
In terms of turnover ball won from opposition ball carriers Séamus Callanan won the ball six times, Niall O’Meara three times and John O’Dwyer twice while John McGrath won the ball back a sensational 14 times (third best on the team behind Patrick Maher and Dan McCormack).
Then there’s the tackling - Séamus Callanan accumulated nine contact tackles of consequence, Niall O’Meara nine and John O’Dwyer seven while John McGrath amassed a whopping 32. Once more you would have to point out that quality shooters like Séamus Callanan and John O’Dwyer are essential should you wish to take on and beat the very best, but just imagine the signal that the relentless defensive efforts of John McGrath sends out to his playing colleagues.
Waterford’s Austin Gleeson, an absolute Godzilla of a player, will probably be named young hurler of the year in 2016, but here in Tipperary we can thank our lucky stars that John McGrath stayed fit this season.
This study of the individual contribution of players to the 2016 All-Ireland success represents just one part of our project. In part one we examine all the numbers that mattered to Tipperary’s success in 2016 - how those numbers compared to the other contenders and how Michael Ryan’s team improved as the year progressed; please click here for much, much more.
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