Column: Tommy Walsh on hurling
By Tommy Walsh
"Walshy, you’re not playing minor hurling anymore!"
This was a phrase I would hear many times during my first year in the famed hurling nursery of University College Cork.
It wasn’t meant as any sort of slight on minor hurling, it was a mentor doing his best to drive on his young student to up his game, to raise the bar, to increase the level by which he measured himself against.
Most importantly, it was a message that to survive at this level you must do everything faster, stronger, tougher.
That's why the learning curve you travel during a Fitzgibbon Cup campaign is so important to your development as a hurler.
You realise that while high skill levels were good enough at minor, to make that jump to senior you need to combine these skill levels with intensity, courage and toughness if you want to survive.
You might have been good enough to hurl inter-county minor, but if you’re not lucky enough to meet the right people in the year or two afterwards it could be the last time you pull on those county colours.
That's why I count my lucky stars every day that I spent 4 very important years learning my trade in UCC. They loved their sport. They loved their hurling. They loved training.
We weren't lucky enough to be champions in my four years there, but more importantly we learned how to train like champions.
I will forever remember these great times playing with the best of trainers and the best of players.
That great message from Dr Paddy Crowley – “Walshy, you’re not playing minor hurling anymore!” – is what resonated most and still does.
Dr Paddy and all the management teams at UCC loved the College and loved the game and it wore off on us all.
To me that is the difference between Cork in 2017 and Cork in the last few years.
As individuals they always had the skill. However, this year they are combining those skills with the toughness required to win your own ball and the mental strength to hang in the game when things are not flowing and get yourself back in the game with a hook, a block or a tackle.
The realisation that your defending starts at number 15, not number two.
They are doing everything faster, stronger, tougher. If they hurl with this attitude on Sunday we might have a first Cork v Galway All Ireland Hurling final since 2005.
For Waterford, it's a case of will they live by the sword on Sunday or will they die by the sword?
Against Cork in the Munster semi-final they half-played their defensive system.
They didn't play with an out and out sweeper, they played extra men in the middle third and it didn't work. Since then they have reverted back to their original sweeper system and now look like a team playing with a real cause, a real belief.
Factor in the experience of hurling championship matches every two to three weeks and they should be at their sharpest on Sunday.
However, let's look at this sweeper system and analyse how or if Waterford can beat Cork playing this way. First of all, their shooting radar must be perfectly aligned with the goalposts in Croke Park.
They will be outnumbered in their full-forward line so they must shoot from out the field. If the radar is locked on, they have the players to shoot and will have a great chance.
The second thing that will need to go in their favour is goals.
When Kilkenny hurled Waterford they positioned their spare man in the half back line but that meant he was always running back to the goal when it was sent in to Stephen Bennett and friends.
This meant when a Waterford player picked up a break there was a path to the goal. They took their goals brilliantly and that was the key to winning the game.
However, when Wexford hurled Waterford they positioned their sweeper Shaun Murphy in their full-back line.
That mean he was always facing the runner when he picked up a breaking ball and so could block that route to goal.
That’s why Waterford didn’t create the same amount of goal chances against Wexford as they did against Kilkenny.
The one they did create and finish came from the savage work rate of Stephen Bennett who won back a lost ball and set up Kevin Moran who finished it brilliantly. That goal was the difference for most of the game.
The third box that Waterford must tick on Sunday is to get off to a fast start.
If they do it will put doubts in the Cork minds straight away and give the Waterford players the confidence to play with huge energy and belief.
Cork haven't been put on the backfoot yet this year and it will be something they won't be familiar with at the start of the game.
A few weeks ago we had the war of words between Michael Duignan and Davy Fitzgerald regarding the sweeper system versus the traditional game.
They were just carrying on a debate at national level that has been going on in hurling pitches, family homes, pubs and churches throughout the country this summer.
Gaelic Football had this war only a short time ago. Instead of Waterford and Wexford we had Donegal.
The sweeper system won that argument in football when Donegal were crowned All-Ireland champions in 2012.
Now it’s hurling’s turn to have that argument on the Croke Park stage as Waterford’s sweeper system goes toe to toe with Cork’s more traditional brand of hurling.
Like all arguments, the reason there is an argument in the first place is because both parties believe they are right.
And, like most arguments, the resolution is usually somewhere in the middle.
I don't believe you can consistently beat the top teams playing a sweeper system.
When you are playing around with the ball in the opposition’s scoring zone the margin of error is too high.
With the work rate and tackling skills of the top players at an all-time high now there’s a high percentage of turnovers when you’re playing short passes.
And when you’re turned over in your own half of the field, chances are you’re going to be punished.
Also, you must convert most of your shooting chances from farther out the field, which is more difficult to do, because usually you have only one man in your full-forward line.
I am an out and out traditionalist in the way I believe hurling should be played and have relayed this many times.
The sweeper defendants will point to the big scores that these teams are putting up as an argument for the sweeper system.
I would point to the journey to that score.
Last Sunday's All Ireland Semi-Final did not put up a massive score line however the journey to these scores was magnificent.
It was Man v Man, Your skills v My skills.
That battle between Seamie Callanan and Daithi Burke in the first half.
That inspirational block by Daithi followed by the magical score by Seamie on the rebound.
Gearoid Mcinerney ruling the skies.
Bubbles’ terrific scores in the smallest of spaces.
Joseph Cooney following in his father’s footsteps by winning ball after ball.
Dan McCormack’s reading of the game and ability to come out of the ruck with the ball.
Padraig Mannion’s warrior-like attitude that would even rise the neck-hairs of a neutral.
Brendan Maher’s defiance. He pushed away Bubbles to take that last free. ‘I will take this on my shoulders and I will lead the way’, said his body language.
Joe Canning deciding before half time that this game isn't going my way but I'm going to do something about it.
Next minute he hits Michael Breen with an almighty shoulder over the line, takes the resulting side-line cut for Galway, and nails it.
He would then go on to land as clutch a winning score as you’re ever going to see championship hurling.
What about Padraic Maher’s heroics from the half back line?
Or Conor Whelan wanting that ball, wishing for that ball all game, and then making a game-defining hook on Michael Cahill in the closing stages?
I will finish my argument with John McGrath’s goal. The flick he made to bring the ball over into his path was hurling at its best.
He missed the pick-up and let fly first-time. Goal. Magic. That's my argument for the traditional game.
Sunday’s match will either go some way towards settling this debate or starting a fresh wave of arguments.
Either way, whichever team wins on Sunday it will be a great day for hurling people.
If Cork win we know we will have a fast hurling final with many one on one battles.
If Waterford win hurling people will be delighted for the Waterford management, players, and hurling people in general.
We know how much they put into it, we know the heartbreak they have suffered, and it would be great to see them walking out of Croker on Sunday one step closer to the Holy Grail.