Part two of my chat with Derek McGrath began with a contention that’s sure to be debated vigorously over the winter in Deise hurling circles.
“My argument, and I’ve actually been frightened to say it to the national media, is that we never played with a sweeper all year,” the Waterford manager stated.
“Not in one game did we actually play with a sweeper There’s a big difference between playing Tadhg (de Búrca) deep, with a screen in front of him than doing what Clare did in 2013, with Pat Donnellan in between (numbers) 3 and 6, and the 6 marking the opposing 11 – and that, to me, is a sweeper: when you play six conventional backs and one extra back.”
McGrath continued: “We just played Tadhg deep, and if that means Tadhg conceding a few scores off Richie Hogan, which he did, and Pa Cronin, which he did, off Gavin O’Mahony in the first round of the League, which he did, well we’re entitled to do that.
“Now if we had our time back (in the All-Ireland semi-final), we probably would have man-marked Richie and gone with the Clare approach, which is to have a sweeper. To me now, it’s almost gone like a fad now, it’s a word that’s become dominant in hurling circles over the past year. To me, it’s all about everyone working together – when the ball goes back into the full-back line, you go back and help.”
The De La Salle clubman continued: “Against the most dangerous forward lines, by which I mean ‘Bubbles’ Dwyer, Seamie Callanan, ‘Bonner’ Maher, Noel McGrath, Brendan Maher and Niall O’Meara, and a forward line that included TJ Reid, Eoin Larkin, Richie Hogan, Colin Fennelly and Ger Aylward, I felt, and we felt as a management team, and as players, that if we went fairly conventional and just followed them all over the place, that we’d be opened up, and that’s being extremely honest and that was our feeling as a team.”
I wasn’t inclined to interrupt Derek, so I didn’t. “To the people who said we didn’t go for it in the end of those two matches, well they’re probably right when they’re talking about the last 10 to 15 minutes. But there’s a feeling that when you push up, and we did near the end – and if Colin Fennelly had looked up and seen Eoin Larkin with six or seven minutes to go, well, Eoin Larkin was in lots of space – and if Kilkenny had used the ball a bit better near the end, they could have two or three more goals.”
Then I did interrupt, suggesting you might as well lose a match by 10 points or 12 points, let alone seven: the end product is still the same, after all?
“Without a doubt, but there’s another element that has to be borne in mind. When a game is slipping and when it’s slipped beyond repair, there’s different things you have to consider in terms of confidence in terms of things going forward,” McGrath replied.
“For example, the harrowing nature of defeats the previous year (to Clare and Kilkenny) was there in the background. And looking at the Tipp match in particular, if we had taken our chances after half-time, we’d have been in a winning position in that game and that shouldn’t be forgotten.
“Now I couldn’t argue with the Kilkenny game in the same context didn’t apply in terms of how we played, but what disappointed me about that game was the eight or nine balls we hit into Eoin Murphy’s hand when the ball was on to be worked in, in a more efficient way…
“The amount of analysis we’ve engaged in since that match, the amount of self-analysis, has been considerable. And it’s been pretty tiring. I’d a definite idea of where we were going this time last year, and I’ve a fairly good idea about where I’d like us to be next year, and added to that, you’re listening, let’s face it, to everyone else telling you what you should do.”
He continued: “But I’ll look at it like this, and I know it might sound a bit boastful: but I’ll only listen to advice from people who know more about this group of players than I do.”
But is it still difficult to ignore the views of GAA blowhards – including myself – given how passionate a great many of us are about our senior hurlers?
“Ah, not really! But sure that’s the beauty of the GAA: the big argument in the build-up to a match and then the big argument afterwards. I mean I went to The Big Tree for a few pints before the All-Ireland Final and for every man I met complimenting us on the year we had, I’d a fella telling me how defensive we were against Kilkenny, and how we should have pushed on and all that. I was out for the day, just enjoying a few pints, having not really been out all year, but that’s the beauty of the GAA and that’s what comes with managing an inter-county team. That’s the beauty of the discussions so many of us have about hurling.
“And it’s very interesting to watch other matches when you’re not involved yourself – be it the All-Ireland, or a few local junior and senior matches, and in terms of those local games, I’d say in all bar one of the games I’ve seen the last few weeks, there were lads playing deep and systems being deployed, but that’s not because of us: the game has evolved. Hurling has evolved.”
Derek added: “The ironic thing is that if you go back to that League match in Ennis the previous year, a lot of the coverage the following day was suggesting we ought to have employed a sweeper, and fast forward 16, 17 months and I’ve more than one person suggesting to me that we shouldn’t be playing a sweeper, when, as far as I’m concerned, we didn’t play a sweeper per se this year.
“But look, we all have opinions on hurling, and that’s the beauty of it, as I said. It’s been an interesting debate, but it’s certainly not the sort of discussion you have while your team is still involved in the Championship.”
* See ‘Inside Back’ on Sport 19, in which I write about a Deise fan’s letter to our sports desk which presents an altogether different take on a undoubted year of progression for our senior hurlers.