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Shane Elliott

Shane Elliott: NHL half-term report

IT’S half-term report time for hurling management teams as we reach the midway stages of the National Leagues. As with such reports, it is a time to reflect on performances to date and set goals for improvement as teams head towards the final exam of championship.

I think it is fair to say nobody has set the world alight with their performances at this stage. I don’t think I am alone in thinking that the standard of entertainment from the games to date has been average at best.

So far the league has failed to produce the swashbuckling action we have become accustomed to in the last few years. Perhaps that is to be expected given the reduced collective preparation and the impact of no spectators. Hurling in particular suffers from the latter as spectators undoubtedly contribute to the intensity of the games and when that drops in hurling even by a fraction it can affect the entertainment value.

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Football doesn’t seem to have suffered in the same way, indeed it could well be argued that in terms of entertainment roles have reversed and football is being lauded for a less defensive approach to the game which does seem to be creeping into hurling.

Many of the top teams now operate with sweeper systems and have adopted a possession-based style that is less direct. Whilst the number of scores continues to rise, many of them are from further out the field with scores from your own half not uncommon. The lighter ball allows that to happen and that ability to score from distance mitigates the use of the sweeper, but it also reduces the number of goals in the game as teams are content to keep the scoreboard ticking with points from distance.

The changing styles in hurling and football is evidenced when you look at the goal scoring averages per game in Division One for both games on the weekend of May 22 and 23. Football averaged 4.25 goals per game whilst hurling averaged just two. Admittedly I did remove the seven goals Cork put past Westmeath but I hope you get the point.

Now of course this is far from scientific evidence but the style of the game is definitely changing and it remains to be seen whether it will be for the better of the game as a spectacle.

Coaching, team preparation and analysis continues to go to another level with every element of the game broken down to the tiniest detail so it is inevitable that different styles will develop and that is not a new thing.

Newtonshandrum of Cork, with the O’Connor brothers to the fore, were playing the short possession based game back in 2003 when they beat my own club in the All-Ireland Club final. Tactics evolve and will continue to, and I think what we have seen in the leagues to date are teams trying things out, working to find a system that could bring them championship success.

Consequently I think it is way too early to be lamenting the standard of the game. The return of crowds and championship intensity will ultimately see the game being a bit more direct as it is much harder to get your head up and play the perfect pass to keep possession. The best teams work hardest and a mix of styles will be required to ultimately be successful.

In Division One Limerick have struggled by their standards and they have clearly been frustrated by the stricter refereeing you often see early in the league. Their game is based on playing on the edge and with championship referees more willing to let the game flow, I still see them as the team to beat as the summer progresses.

Their main contenders include Cork who have been impressive in how they use the ball and have really focussed on the possession-based approach I have just referenced. However, an overemphasis on such a style can dismantle in the heat of championship battle.

I am intrigued by Kilkenny who are clearly changing their style and their performances to date against Dublin, Antrim and Wexford suggest they are starting to work it out. I witnessed them first-hand against Antrim and at times was blown away by their movement, pace and support play all over the field and am convinced they will be a real threat come championship time.

Tipperary and Galway will also have a say as they have the size, mobility and hurling ability to be champions. Any other winner, outside of those mentioned would be a huge surprise for me.

Of the Ulster teams, Antrim and Down have things to be positive about as they have demonstrated progress with some of their performances. That has not been the case for Derry or Donegal who have not had the greatest of starts and play each other to steer clear of relegation this weekend. Armagh and Tyrone are towards the right end of the table in 3A and as anticipated their meeting on the June 19 could determine promotion.

In truth, it is really a bit of a mixed bag in terms of progress reports and although there has not been too much to get excited about just yet, as the gates open and the atmosphere returns I fully expect sparks to fly. Only then will we truly see who the A grade students are.

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16 May 2021; Daithi Sands of Down on his way to scoring his side’s second goal during the Allianz Hurling League Division 2A Round 2 match between Down and Carlow at McKenna Park in Ballycran, Down. Photo by Eóin NoonanSportsfile

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