JOHN McINTOSH: Back to basics

THE Westmeath hurlers pulled off a stunning upset against Westmeath last weekend, and what caught my eye were comments made by victorious manager Joe Fortune on The Smaller Fish podcast.

They came from 17 points down to claim a remarkable 4-18 to 2-22 victory, and their manager said something that I found really interesting, and actually quite brave.

He said the message to the players at half-time was basically to go out and forget everything they’d been told – forget about the puck-out strategy, sweepers all the rest of it, just go out and play hurling.

It worked a treat and I worry sometimes that hurling has become far too systematic. Coaches are coming in (and let’s be honest, a lot of them are on big money) and it’s almost like they feel compelled to over-coach. They’re being paid by session, monthly or yearly and they think they have to do something different to justify themselves.

The irony is that we don’t really want our hurlers to do anything different per se – personally I just want them to get the basics right. The problem is that takes time and it can be difficult for a coach to make his mark on the team.

If you look back at the great Kilkenny teams under Brian Cody, they didn’t transform themselves in a year or two.

He developed them gradually and then brought in a whole new system. They never really changed the way they played, bar a few tweaks here and there in the last couple of years.

Obviously people take their lead from the All-Ireland champions and you can’t fault Limerick in the sense they have some incredible hurlers – some of the best players in Ireland by a country mile – I sometimes wonder whether it’s the system that makes them play well, or would they play well no matter what?

They’re winning All-Irelands so people will point to the system, but I’m not convinced and think that good hurlers will win the big titles anyway. Possibly players excel when they have belief in their system and think it’s completely necessary, but I think one of the reasons other teams are catching up with a Limerick team that looked nigh on invincible is that maybe the system is evolving too much.

It’s obviously filtered down to club level – you have club managers who are severely overcoaching their teams and working on things that they don’t have the resources or personnel to do so. It’s the same in football – the top inter-county teams are flooding men back who subsequently break on the counter, but they have the athleticism to do so unlike club teams at intermediate level or whatever.

It’s hard to be critical of Limerick but they couldn’t shake off Tipperary and there was a lot of over-elaboration on the ball, the sliotar passing through four or five hands to get the ball to midfield. Tipperary clumped the middle third so Limerick couldn’t get the ball through to their forwards, and I don’t understand the necessity of playing it out to the middle when they just end up lamping it into the inside forwards anyway.

Another issue is how watchable the games are.

While the quality at the highest levels is quality, and the games are still good, I think it almost feels computerised.

Antrim played in an extremely high-scoring game at the weekend as they usually do but I’ve heard that their recent matches have actually been quite dull and at times the fans have been talking among themselves.

You have to give credit to Tipperary therefore for the way they approached their match with Limerick, making it more of an old school championship clash with their incredible hooking and blocking. That’s what I’d love to see more of in the remainder of the championship.

While Tipperary only managed a draw, at least it came close to an upset which is something that has been sorely lacking in hurling in recent years, and that brings me back to Westmeath’s incredible comeback against Wexford. Wexford are a temperamental sort of team and now run the risk of relegation to the Joe McDonagh Cup, but you can’t diminish Westmeath’s achievement and it was so refreshing to have heard Joe Fortune’s comments on Monday morning.

Hopefully coaches and managers from other counties have taken note.

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