All-Ireland Analysis

Blueprint: all the numbers that mattered in the making of an All-Ireland for Tipperary

Brian McDonnell

Reporter:

Brian McDonnell

Email:

bmcdonnell@tipperarystar.ie

Blueprint: all the numbers that mattered in the making of an All-Ireland for Tipperary

If you want to know all the numbers that mattered in the making of an All-Ireland, how Tipperary’s performances compared with the very best and what the modern games tells us about what an excellent performance looks like then, please, read on.

Following a summer spent studying the inter-county championship in general and Tipperary in particular the numbers are mind-numbing; they undulate towards you in wave after wave of monotonous brilliance.

On their own the statistics are imposing and a little remote; you need to determine some key insights which will breathe life into the figures and help the reader to understand what the best teams are telling us about hurling excellence.

That was/is the aim of this project: to reverse engineer an All-Ireland success and hold up those numbers for all to see. Indeed, the following is intended to develop a picture in the mind of the reader of what an excellent performance looks like and what is required from a team collectively and the players on an individual basis in order to deliver such a performance.

Want to know what the 2016 hurling championship told us about the game? Want to understand how teams win? Want to know what are the key ingredients of a great team? What the key ingredients of a great performance are? Or if you simply want to develop your understanding of the game then, please, read on.

GAELIC GAMES ANALYSIS

The key aspect to the use of statistical analysis in Gaelic games is that they help you to get beyond perception and to analyse performances properly - there is no room for excuses on the scoreboard, but statistics do help to shine a light on what lies beneath. Essentially, data tells the truth.

Hurling people love a scapegoat - someone to blame for a defeat. Here the player in question is vilified and, happily, everybody can stop thinking about the other (real) reasons for failure. Watching a game can present us with some information, but preconceived notions, biases and a physical inability to capture everything which happens in a given contest make the eye test an imperfect means of evaluating performance. Therefore there needs to be an objective layer and analytics can provide that objective layer.

Statistical analysis of performance represents a key weapon in the armoury of GAA teams up and down the country. Some of the more eye-catching work in the area has been completed by Damien Young (Tipperary), Paudie McCarthy (Kerry), Shane Martin (Dublin hurlers), Richie Ford (Monaghan), Seaghan Kearney (Dublin footballers) and, of course, the dynamic trio with the Tipperary footballers (Tommy Toomey, Brian Lacey and Michael Byrnes). Outside of the GAA the input of figures like Brian McCarthy (FAI), Mervyn Murphy (IRFU) and George Murray (Munster rugby) to their respective sports suggest that analytics, as an area of expertise, is not going away any time soon.

Before I began to study games in an analytic sense I (wrongly) thought that the only interesting parts of the game revolved around the highlights; the great goals, points, saves, fouls, mistakes and controversial refereeing judgements. I have learned, however, that most of these events are completely and utterly overrated. Those highlights attract attention, but that which is more significant are the systems that teams adopt in order to test one another.

The system delivers the players to the ball (in attack and defence) and the understanding of same helps observers to interpret where the damage is being done.

The highlights of a game represent the mere tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding the wholeness of the thing and the evanescence of how the contribution of one player, at one end of the field can reduce or magnify the job that his colleague needs to perform at the opposite.

I hope people will find the following of value.

GAMES STUDIED

In all, between RTÉ’s The Sunday Game Live and Sky Sports, 17 games in the All-Ireland senior hurling championship and associated provincial campaigns were televised live in 2016. All of those contests were studied as were, for the sake of developing context, Tipperary’s six games in the Allianz National League (screened by TG4) and the knock-out stages of the league.

KEY LEARNINGS

In the All-Ireland final the Tipperary full-forward line contributed 2-15 from play. As a result glowing tributes were paid to John McGrath, Séamus Callanan and John O’Dwyer for their exploits. The platform, however, for these players to work their magic was created in the middle third of the field.

For the remainder of this study we request the reader to adopt the following axiom: in hurling the players positioned from right wing-back to left wing-forward win the game and the inside forwards then decide by how much. The teams who lock the middle third of the field down like a vice succeed.

You can trace the history right back to 2008 and realise that Tipperary have always had inside forwards capable of winning All-Irelands, but many of those Tipp teams floundered on their ability to erect a solid platform in the middle third of the field, especially against Kilkenny whose entire identity is based on winning that very battle. It always helps when you have players capable of sinking the knife in, but ball winners are game winners. It has reasonably often been the case that Tipperary have attempted to hurl their way around teams rather than through them; it’s as if Tipperary wanted to win games without actually winning them.

From the moment Michael Ryan took over as manager he has highlighted the need for his players to apply themselves, especially to the tackle. And, Ryan was prepared to back up this rhetoric with structural and personnel changes to the team.

Michael Ryan emphasised the blue collar values which might be found in the lyric sheets of Bruce Springsteen and insisted that his forwards must work. "There's nothing revolutionary about forwards working hard," Michael Ryan remarked to the Irish Independent’s Vincent Hogan and that’s true. What is often misunderstood, however, is the effect a hard-tackling forward unit can have on a given team’s ability to attack.

Essentially, you do not want your defenders tackling. No. You want your forwards doing the tackling for you, turning over the ball carrier or, at the very least, contaminating deliveries into your half of the field. In a healthy game cycle this pattern allows defenders to attack the ball, win it via an interception, come forward and strike off the front foot.

Now, every observer of hurling worth his salt knows how effective this game cycle is, but it is ridiculous to note how often that very game cycle is conspicuous by its absence.

WINNING POSSESSION

The numbers rarely lie - if you create more scoring opportunities than the opposition your shooting has to let you down in order for your side to lose; if you struggle to win possession and deliver quality ball into your attack then an elite defence will not allow you the room to create quality chances.

There are two ways to win possession - off your own puck-outs or by taking it away from the opposition and then counter-attack. Since teams are so well organised on re-starts and so difficult to penetrate even if you do win possession it makes sense to target turnovers and to try to force the intercept; here you are presented with an opportunity to counter-attack and catch the opposition with their pants down, so to speak, in a broken field.

So, clever managers work to shift the structure of their team by placing some of their best attackers in their defence and, critically, some of their best defenders in their forward line.

By doing so you place your team in the position to hit the opposition twice - hard tackling forwards restrict the quality of deliveries which your defence needs to deal with; defending effectively from the front reduces the job that defenders need to do, but it also has a telling impact on your attack. The circumstances are then created for your defenders and midfield players to deliver a far better quality of ball into your attack - a critical double whammy.

Here we identify the evanescence of the game - your corner-forward is connected to your corner-back with a metaphorical elastic band; the work of the forward informs the job that the defender needs to do and the work of the defender to reciprocate with a quality delivery places the forward in a position to benefit.

DAN MCCORMACK

Outside of appreciating this aspect to the game Michael Ryan still had to structure his side and populate his team with players who would ensure that such a game cycle materialised.

Besides playing Brendan Maher in a defensive midfield role which allowed centre-back Ronan Maher to drop off depending on the position of the ball Michael Ryan still needed to identify a player who would concern himself with the defensive effort alongside Patrick Maher in the half-forward line. He found that player in Borris-lleigh’s Dan McCormack.

What made McCormack’s year all the more remarkable and made him utterly fascinating was the players’ distinct lack of conceit.

Few subjects excite the imagination of the sports fan quite like the excellence of the young. Typically, however, the problem with young players is that they are more interested in tricks and flashes of skill rather than in winning through structured play. It’s a common problem with gifted youngsters; there’s always that layer of schoolboy conceit which needs to be peeled away.

No trace of such conceit could be detected in Dan McCormack during the 2016 campaign. Dan sacrificed his game utterly on behalf of his teammates; everything he did was for the benefit of the team - nothing more, nothing less.

He had his tricks to call on, but he only called upon this repertoire when the circumstances demanded it. McCormack was tirelessly energetic, operated without thought of personal reward and was prepared to do the unbeautiful stuff because he knew (like Patrick Maher has known for years) that a strong melody carried by a powerful rhythm is worth a thousand grace notes.

The efforts of McCormack, when added to that of Patrick Maher (in full beast mode), made all the difference to Michael Ryan’s Tipperary team.

Just look at the top performers for Tipperary during the 2016 championship in terms of turnover ball won: number one was Dan McCormack (16), two Patrick Maher (15) and three John McGrath (14). The pattern persists once the subject of tackles is discussed where three of the top five tacklers were forwards: number one was Patrick Maher with 46, third was John McGrath on 32 and fourth was Dan McCormack on 31 while the third man in the half-forward line, Noel McGrath, finished with a credible 29.

TOP FIVE TURNOVERS WON

  • 16 Dan McCormack
  • 15 Patrick Maher
  • 14 John McGrath
  • 12 Brendan Maher
  • 12 Cathal Barrett

TOP FIVE TACKLERS

  • 46 Patrick Maher
  • 34 Brendan Maher
  • 32 John McGrath
  • 31 Dan McCormack
  • 30 Séamus Kennedy

If you take another look at the All-Ireland final against Kilkenny you will notice the crushing pressure that players like Dan McCormack and Patrick Maher placed on the opposition backs. Conversely the half-backs, especially, found themselves challenging for the ball in the air or simply intercepting hanging deliveries on a regular basis as opposed to having to turn, face their own goal, chase down the opposition and build attacks from there - similarly to rugby, you can’t play hurling effectively going backwards.

Those men could then busy themselves by placing ball to the forward’s advantage. A team plays the way its half-back line plays and the quality of ball emerging from that area has a direct and proportional correlation with the shooting chance which is ultimately created.

In 2016 without the ball everyone on the Tipperary team was expected to be a defender while in possession of the ball each player had a responsibility to deliver a quality ball forward - when forwards and backs compliment one another in this way you are on to something in this tightly-strung ecosystem.

Captain Brendan Maher pictured lifting the Liam MacCarthy Cup on behalf of his delighted teammates. Photo: Eamonn McGee

MANAGEMENT TEAM

Whatever about having a well-developed team strategy and the players required to realise the roles within that framework you then need a management team who have the ability to develop the squad.

The strength and conditioning programme develops the physical ability of the players to get to the tackle area and deliver the hit while the motivation of the players impacts on the desire to actually do that work.

Those involved in the strength and conditioning of the squad, a project led by Lukasz Kirszenstein and Gary Ryan, deserve significant credit; the ability of the Tipperary players to get to the tackle area, deliver the hit and accelerate away out of contact was something to behold, especially in the All-Ireland final.

And, to further dissuade the somewhat one-dimensional caricature of Michael Ryan it should be noted that Ryan did not neglect the mental side of team preparation - ex-Munster star Denis Leamy became a chaplain, of sorts, to the players while performance psychologists Tony Óg Regan and Gerry Hussey did invaluable work.

Critically, all the bases were covered: the players were motivated to do the work required, they could lean on a system of play which delivered those players to the ball (in defence and in attack) and, finally, the players were conditioned to get through the games.

Just consider the results of this multi-layered effort - in 2016 Tipperary conceded a highly impressive average of just eight points from play per game. Then, at the opposite end of the field, Tipperary did untold damage. Of the 41 balls played into the Tipperary forward line in the All-Ireland final the Premier forwards won 25 and converted those possessions into 1-14 from play. Indeed, nine different Tipperary players picked out full-forward Séamus Callanan with tailored deliveries.

TIPPERARY CAMPAIGN

Prior to launching their championship campaign Tipperary endured some mixed performances in the Allianz National Hurling League, but subsequently won the All-Ireland from the first round in Munster; a feat achieved for the first time since 1966 when Kerry were not part of the equation.

Tipperary’s 2016 results:-

Allianz National Hurling League

  • Tipperary 0-18 Clare 2-13
  • Tipperary 2-27 Cork 2-15
  • Tipperary 1-22 Galway 2-19
  • Tipperary 1-17 Waterford 1-18
  • Tipperary 0-18 Kilkenny 2-17
  • Tipperary 1-23 Dublin 0-12

Championship

  • Tipperary 2-29 Kilkenny 2-20
  • Tipperary 2-19 Galway 2-18
  • Tipperary 5-19 Waterford 0-13
  • Tipperary 3-12 Limerick 1-16
  • Tipperary 0-22 Cork 0-13

POSSESSION

Does possession matter? To an extent - statistics related to possession indicate how a team played, but not how well that team played. Ultimately, what matters is which team scores the most, not the team who enjoys the majority of possession. There can be a stark difference between possession dominance and tactical dominance.

Outside of the contests that Tipperary were involved in during the 2016 championship the team which enjoyed the superior percentage of possession only won the game six times. Waterford, for instance, won the possession battle twice against Kilkenny (56% in the drawn game and 52% in the replay) and did not win either contest. Another interesting aside is the travails of Wexford: Liam Dunne’s team enjoyed 42% possession against Cork and won by three and then won 41% of possession against Waterford, but lost by ten points.

In the championship Tipperary won the possession battle against their opponents on all five occasions - 53% v Kilkenny (possessions 211-187), 54% v Galway (227-197), 54% v Waterford (213-181), 52% v Limerick (208-195) and 54% v Cork (238-203).

Tipperary’s league campaign, perhaps, best illustrates the issue. In the league Tipperary won the possession battle by some distance against Galway (54% - 231-195), but drew the game. Tipperary beat Cork by 12 points at Semple Stadium, Thurles while winning the possession battle 54-46% (230-209) while they split the possession battle (210-207) against Dublin, but won with fourteen points to spare.

Tipperary suffered three defeats in the league against Waterford, Kilkenny and Clare - Tipp lost the possession battle against Waterford 49-51% (214-223) and Kilkenny 48-52% (187-205), but won it well against Clare in the quarter-finals 54-46% (200-168) and still managed to lose.

Here we argue that the constructive use of possession is a significant factor. Indeed, it has been reported that a meeting took place between members of the playing squad and the management team with specific regard to the team’s playing style following the defeat, albeit narrow, suffered at the hands of Clare.

Considering the following: Tipperary’s approach play during the league was often defined by a wild back-to-front approach; in the contest with Kilkenny at Nowlan Park Tipp deliveries were intercepted 57 times; against Galway 48 times and against Waterford 47 times. The issue, however, was addressed and by the time the All-Ireland final rolled around Tipperary had improved their approach play to a significant degree. In the decider Tipperary coughed up the ball in this regard an acceptable 36 in the most pressurised and intense environment of them all. Impressive.

TOP FIVE INTERCEPTIONS

  • 25 James Barry
  • 21 Michael Cahill
  • 20 Pádraic Maher
  • 19 Darren Gleeson
  • 18 Cathal Barrett

PUCK-OUTS

Does dominating on your own puck-out matter or the opposition’s for that matter?

In the 12 matches televised, which did not involve Tipperary, only five teams won more of their puck-outs than they lost and still survived. In the replay against Kilkenny, for example, Waterford won 81% of their own puck-outs (and 57% of Kilkenny's), but still lost.

Similarly during the qualifiers Cork won 72% of their own puck-outs and 53% of Wexford's, but still lost. Clare won 74% of their own puck-outs against Galway and won the overall puck-out battle 37-25, but still lost.

Again, constructive use of possession has a greater correlation with success than the respective volume of possession enjoyed.

During the championship Tipperary did reasonably well on deliveries from re-starts winning 54% of their own puck-outs (68-57). Against Kilkenny Tipp won 56% of Darren Gleeson’s puck-outs, against Galway 54%, Waterford 64%, Limerick 39% and Cork 52%.

Defending the opposition puck-out Tipperary did terrifically well against Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final winning 55% of Eoin Murphy’s re-starts, but that figure collapsed to 33% against Galway. Tipp won 49% of the opposition’s puck-outs against Waterford, 48% against Limerick and 58% against Cork.

During the league Tipperary won 59% of their own puck-outs against Clare, but lost the game; won 72% against Cork and won, 42% versus Galway and drew, 45% against Waterford and lost, 42% against Kilkenny and lost and won just 35% on their own re-starts against Dublin (won). Tipperary regularly struggled to disrupt the opposition puck-outs: Clare 39%, Cork 40%, Galway 63%, Waterford 33%, Kilkenny 46% and Dublin 39%. The contest with Dublin was particularly interesting. Tipperary only won 35% of their own puck-outs and 39% of Dublin’s, but still won the game by 14 points.

TACKLES AND TURNOVERS

This is, perhaps, the most interesting area of all and the area most open to interpretation.

Every analyst, for instance, has their own interpretation of what an effective tackle is - most of the time that interpretation is related to what the individual analyst wants their respective team to do to the opposition in a systematic way.

A good general rule of thumb to describe an effective tackle is the following: to stop or significantly delay the forward progress of the ball carrier. Issues then arise when analysts work to interpret what would accurately represent the “delay” factor.

Following the All-Ireland final, for instance, the RTÉ Sunday Game reported a tackle count of 56-34 in favour of Tipperary. This analyst, however, has a very different interpretation of how best to describe the tackle. Here a player collects a “tackle” (a contact tackle if you like) when that player makes contact with the ball carrier and succeeds in taking the first decision away from the opposition player. It is a far more forgiving system for assessing a player’s ability to tackle effectively, but, at the same time, it helps to better develop an understanding of the evanescence of the game; that the work of a forward, especially, can transform the predicament faced by their defence.

The RTÉ Sunday Game reported that Tipperary won the tackle count in the All-Ireland final 56-34, but under this analyst’s interpretation of the tackle Tipperary won this area of the contest by a stunning 115-48. Once this interpretation is applied to the remainder of the championship the patterns become clearer.

The tackle count, of course, is directly related to turnovers - a turnover occurs when a player dispossesses an opposition ball carrier. In this study turnovers are not included in the tackle count.

In the 12 televised inter-county championship games, which did not involve Tipperary, five teams who won the tackle count won the game, but ten teams who won the turnover count won the respective contest.

What is, however, more difficult to count is what impact a team’s determination to tackle hard had on the quality of the possession enjoyed by their opposition.

Incidentally, Galway lost the Leinster final by seven points to Kilkenny and were roundly criticised for the defeat. One commentator described the Galway lads as “gutless”. In that contest, however, Galway won the tackle count 64-43 and the turnover count 28-15. Galway were beaten by a better hurling team on the day, but there is no shame in that kind of work rate; there is only shame to be found in not trying.

Considering Tipperary’s history with Kilkenny it is interesting to note how their tackle rate developed during the year. Tipp got off the mark against Dublin in the league winning the category 66-48. Michael Ryan’s men then won the tackle count 64-46 against Kilkenny in the league, but lost the game. They, again, won the tackle count against Waterford in the league 71-54, but lost the game before, ironically, losing the count against Galway 40-61 while earning a share of the points. Next up was a bloodless game against Cork (44-43) before Tipperary won the tackle count against Clare 62-59 and lost.

Time and time again in the league Tipperary were working hard, but not making sufficiently constructive use of hard-won possession.

During the championship Tipperary were solid throughout in terms of the tackle count - won the area 59-55 against Cork, won it 60-41 against Waterford, lost it narrowly against Limerick 64-69 (with 14 men) before losing it significantly against Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final 61-91. Tipp could have easily lost that contest, but survived and exploded in Kilkenny’s faces in the final winning the tackle count by an extraordinary 115-48.

Hurling is not a game of possession, it is a game of constantly managing turnovers in possession; manage those turnovers and you win.

The turnover is the most informative performance-related statistic in the game. And, that assertion has important implications for how we think about hurling. And, it is the key to understanding Tipperary’s approach.

Just think about it. When a team has possession of the ball they are organised and the opponent is organised - each player knows, more or less, what they are supposed to be doing. But in transition the opposition are not organised in a defensive sense. That’s the moment when you can do most damage and this is where Tipperary were at their most devastating during the 2016 campaign. Imagine: the opposition were actually in most danger against Tipperary when they had possession of the ball.

Although Tipperary required work on their use of possession during the National Hurling League it was encouraging that Michael Ryan’s men won the turnover count in all six games - you can fix certain things in a team, but it is difficult to fix a poor attitude. Indeed, right throughout the year Tipperary fought hard and won the turnover battle in all 11 of their competitive games.

Against Dublin in the league Tipp won the turnover battle 33-20, against Kilkenny 22-15, against Waterford 33-19, Galway 24-15, Cork 18-14 and Clare 18-13.

During the opening round of the championship against Cork Tipperary won the turnover count 21-12 and despite playing for a large tract of the game against Limerick with 14 men following John O’Dwyer’s dismissal still won the turnover count 23-19. In the Munster final Tipperary won the count 24-16 and won it again against Galway 27-22 before seeing off Kilkenny with an impressive 34-26.

TOP FIVE STICK PASSERS

  • 38 Pádraic Maher
  • 31 Michael Cahill
  • 30 Brendan Maher
  • 27 Séamus Kennedy
  • 27 Ronan Maher

TOP FIVE HAND PASSERS

  • 29 Dan McCormack
  • 24 Séamus Kennedy
  • 23 Brendan Maher
  • 21 Patrick Maher
  • 20 John McGrath

The McGrath family pictured celebrating a famous day in the blue and gold. Photo: Eamonn McGee

PASSING EFFICIENCY

The issue with assessing passing efficiency and the ability of the members of a given team to connect with one another on a consistent basis is dependent on context. If you concede that the ability of an inter-county player to complete a pass to a playing colleague is proportionally related to the time and space that player enjoys to do so then the efforts of the opposition to restrict that time and space is a significant factor in any discussion on passing efficiency.

What many observers fail to realise, however, is that the ability of the player in possession to complete a pass is also related to the work rate of his playing colleagues.

If a group of forwards, for example, work to contaminate the type of delivery entering their half then their defenders will be in a position to attack the ball, win it coming forward and then strike off the front foot. Although this could be interpreted as an over-simplification the game cycle discussed works to add a layer to the discussion - in hurling everything is related; how hard players work reduces (or multiplies) the job that their playing colleagues have to do on and off the ball.

In the 12 inter-county championship games analysed, which did not involve Tipperary, eight of the twelve teams who enjoyed a more efficient passing percentage than the opposition won the game.

The highest passing percentage recorded in those contests was attributed to Cork (83%) against Dublin. And, here is where the context of that game comes into play - the All-Ireland qualifier between Cork and Dublin featured the lowest tackle rate in the championship. Therefore players had the room to swing a cat should the mood have taken them. In that contest Cork registered 36 tackles and Dublin 28 which was reasonably pathetic.

The lowest pass percentage of the championship was recorded by Galway (66%) in the Leinster final against Kilkenny - it is fair to say that the environment the Galway players were exposed to in that game was very different to that of Cork at Páirc Uí Rinn; the Rebels also achieved that pass percentage against a Dublin team which was reduced to 14 men for a significant portion of the game. Next day Cork, who had all the appearance of a poorly-organised team, ran into 15-man Wexford enjoyed 58% of the possession and lost by three against a team who out tackled them 48-40 and hammered them on turnovers 30-15.

Essentially, in order for a team to win the members of that team must be able to connect with one another on a reasonably regular basis, but a key factor in that effort is the pressure exacted by the opposition and by your playing colleagues in order to create the circumstances where a good ball can be played forward.

Another issue here is the type of ball that a player, with time on his hands, elects to play forward. There is a big difference between a delivery which is tailored to the advantage of a playing colleague and that which is blazed forward.

Why would you go to the trouble, for example, of winning a 50-50 ball only to make a 40-60 ball or, at best, a 50-50 ball in another area of the field by lamping the ball wildly into the air?

Indeed, this was an issue with Tipperary during the 2016 campaign; an issue which, to be fair, was successfully addressed. From the start manager Michael Ryan publicly stated that he wanted his side to play a direct back-to-front style of hurling (forwards would be expected to win their own ball). After the Allianz National Hurling League quarter-final loss suffered at the hands of Clare it has been reported that two senior members of Ryan’s playing squad approached the manager and requested that the playing style be adjusted.

During the league campaign Tipperary, in games of reasonably low intensity, generally performed well in the pass completion stakes - against Clare it was 72%, Cork 75%, Galway 71%, Waterford 71% and Dublin 72%. The crucial issue here rose its head against Kilkenny at Nowlan Park when Tipperary’s approach play was exposed under the microscope of a high-intensity contest - during that clash Tipp’s pass completion percentage dropped to 61%.

Tipperary needed to address their style of play and, to be fair, did so as the summer progressed with the forward unit benefitting no end. Tipperary were determined to favour the early delivery to their inside forwards via the stick pass and the side became progressively more efficient at achieving that feat even though they faced into contests which grew progressively more intense.

In the first round Tipperary favoured the stick pass over the hand 80-58 against a tame Cork team and completed their passes 78% of the time. Next up came the clash with Limerick - Tipperary played the majority of that game in wet conditions with fourteen men and favoured the stick pass over the hand pass 62-46 (pass completion rate 69%) - the drop in standard here was understandable in the circumstances.

In the Munster final against Waterford, again in horrible conditions, Tipperary favoured the stick pass 63-48 and completed 75% of their passing attempts. In the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway Tipperary were out-tackled 61-91 and even though Michael Ryan’s players found themselves in a ferocious contest they still managed a 73% pass completion rate, but, this time, only favoured the stick pass over the hand pass marginally (65-59).

For the All-Ireland final against Kilkenny, however, Tipperary put it all together. In the most pressurised environment of all Tipperary, having worked intensely on their delivery to the inside forwards, completed 68 stick passes, 38 hand passes and managed a pass completion rate of 75%. Ironically enough Kilkenny enjoyed a completion rate of 78%, but many of those passes were of the tame variety while Tipperary asked real questions of their opponent’s defence at every opportunity and were rewarded for it. On the day the Tipperary inside forward line scored 2-16 from play.

TOP FIVE SCORE ASSISTS

  • 3-9 John McGrath
  • 2-2 Noel McGrath
  • 2-1 Cathal Barrett
  • 1-4 Séamus Callanan
  • 1-3 Niall O’Meara

TOP FIVE SHOT ASSISTS

  • 7-9 John McGrath
  • 2-8 Noel McGrath
  • 3-3 Niall O’Meara
  • 1-8 Brendan Maher
  • 0-10 Patrick Maher

SHOT CREATION

Being a genuine team and working hard is just one factor in success. Ball winners are game winners, but once you get on the ball you have to have the ability to do something positive with that possession. You have to do a level of work to get in a position to win, then it becomes about what you do with the ball i.e. turn possession into shots at the target.

Of the 12 games analysed, which did not involve Tipperary, on ten occasions the side which created the most shooting opportunities won the contest - in their drawn All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny Waterford won the shot count 25-16 while Cork won the shot count against Wexford 24-19 and still managed to lose the game.

Eight of the 12 games were won by the team with the more efficient shooting percentage success rate. The drawn All-Ireland semi-final between Waterford and Kilkenny enters the conversation at this point. Waterford won the possession battle 56-44%, enjoyed a superior pass completion rate (87-76%), won the tackle count (82-76), won the turnover count (23-13) and created a superior number of shots (25-16), but only managed to draw the game. In that contest Waterford converted just 56% of their chances. For the replay Kilkenny upped their intensity significantly winning the tackle count 86-76 and the turnover count 25-21. Waterford still enjoyed more possession (52-48%), but lost the pass completion battle (74-78%), created less shots (19-24) and has a shot success rate of 53% (Kilkenny 55%).

As a general rule of thumb if your team is shooting anything less than 50% from open play at inter-county level your county is in bother and you need to look at your approach play.

As previously noted Tipperary’s approach play during the league required a little work.

Despite walloping Dublin first day out Tipperary managed a 58% success rate from 31 shots. Against Kilkenny they created just 16 shots at the target and converted 63% of those opportunities. In the contest with Waterford Tipp created 16 shots again, but the shooting success rate dropped to 50% at Semple Stadium, Thurles. Tipperary amassed 32 shots against Galway, but only converted 53% of those opportunities while in their final group game against Cork, a bloodless affair, they created 34 shots (highest tally of the year) and despite a defensively weak Rebel team Tipp converted just 53% of those opportunities. Tipperary lost the league quarter-final by a point to Clare despite creating 28 shooting opportunities (Clare 17); the issue here was a poor 50% conversion rate.

You would have to concede that Tipperary’s back-to-front style in the league had a direct impact on the quality of chance created and from where the shooter, ultimately, ended up taking aim from and in what circumstances.

By the time the championship rolled around Tipperary were sharper and against Cork created 27 shooting opportunities (Cork 19) converting at a rate of 56% (Cork 42%). Against Limerick, in poor conditions and with 14 men, Tipp’s shots dropped to 16 (Limerick 14) of which they converted 44% into scores from play (Limerick 57%). Once again the Munster final against Waterford featured horrible conditions with Tipperary creating 24 shooting opportunities (Waterford 20) and converting 46% of those (Waterford 30%). That afternoon Tipperary also created seven goal-scoring opportunities in comparison to Waterford’s none.

Against a hard-tackling Galway team Tipperary’s shot conversion rate dropped to 40% (Galway 45%) while Michael Ryan’s men created 25 shots in all. During that contest Tipperary led the goal-scoring chances 5-4 and were more than relieved when John O’Dwyer fired home from an impossible angle to propel the side into the All-Ireland final.

Tipperary saved their best attacking performance for the All-Ireland final. The team scored 2-24 from play from 33 shots and converted 73% of the opportunities created (nine wides, no shots dropped short). In contrast Kilkenny managed 2-8 from play, 17 shots and a shot completion rate of just 47% from open play (Tipperary led the goal-scoring chances created 6-5). The fact that Kilkenny converted 12 frees (Tipperary five) put a shine, of sorts, on the final score for the defending champions.

TOP FIVE SCORERS FROM PLAY

  • 2-17 Séamus Callanan
  • 4-7 John McGrath
  • 2-9 John O’Dwyer
  • 3-4 Michael Breen
  • 0-10 Noel McGrath

WHAT NEXT FOR TIPPERARY

In terms of predicting what this group of Tipperary players will achieve in 2017 the cat in the kitchen has a fifty-fifty chance of answering that one. And, anyone who says they know definitively what will happen is bluffing.

In April 2005 novelist Neil Gaiman gave a speech in which he quoted some advice from the fantasy writer Gene Wolfe. In response to an assertion that Gaiman, with his latest book, had “finally figured out how to write a novel” Gaiman replied: “you never learn how to write a novel. You merely learn how to write the novel you’re on”.

The same thought process could be applied to winning All-Ireland titles; every championship is unique in its own right and presents its own particular challenges. All will be changed in 2017 and Tipperary must be ready to change too.

PART TWO

This study of all the numbers which mattered to Tipperary in 2016 represents just one part of our project. In part two we examine the contribution made by individual players as the year progressed; please click here for much, much more.