The statistics associated with Tipperary's defeat to Cork were disappointing. Photo: Eamonn McGee
When a death occurs under suspicious circumstances it is standard practice to hold an inquest - such a procedure assists with the grieving process. The same goes for unexpected championship defeats. And, since the surprise reversal suffered at the hands of Cork in the quarter-final of the Munster Senior Hurling Championship the air in Tipperary has been thick with sulphur. But rather than search for heads to mount on pikes we decided to take a measured look at the statistical performance of the Tipperary team and thereby assess how far Michael Ryan’s hurlers need to travel in order to re-discover the hard-working identity associated with the team in 2016.
LOOSE HURLING IS LOSING HURLING
Tipperary lost the recent Munster Senior Hurling Championship quarter-final to Cork by four points (1-26 to 2-27). Those are the bare bones of the matter, but any analyst will tell you that the scoreboard hides a world of information.
In all Cork scored 2-22 from play (Tipperary 1-21). Cork generated 35 shots while Tipperary managed 27 with the respective teams batting 63% and 78% in terms of shot success rate - these rates are very high. Essentially, the contest between Tipperary and Cork was too loose. By the 64th minute, for example, the sides were level (1-23 apiece) for the 15th time while the game concluded with fifty-six scores and saw eighteen different players get on the scoresheet. The game was heralded in error as a classic. It was not - defending is hurling too.
Essentially, Tipperary attempted to win a championship contest without doing the work necessary to lock down the middle third of the field in the first instance - Tipp attempted to win a match from a platform which was burning down around their ears.
It is probably fair to say that Tipperary did not get this game right in a tactical sense while Cork managed their resources more efficiently. The Rebel wing-forwards worked out the field, Conor Lehane was threatening as a roving centre-forward, Bill Cooper formed a terrific partnership with centre-back Mark Ellis and then the Cork defenders had the moral courage to win the ball, come forward and, when possible, deliver a tailored ball toward to a pair of inside forwards who worked from inside to out to devastating effect; Pat Horgan’s positioning in behind Tipperary centre-back Ronan Maher and his third man runs also proved a potent weapon.
Similarly to Galway’s performance in the league final Cork were set-up to stop Tipperary. The Tipp half-back line were tackled ferociously and as a result the inside forwards were starved of quality possession. Like Galway, Cork brought huge energy to the game plan, did the work required to win the ball and were then structured in such a way that they could deliver quality ball to their inside forwards who had room in which to operate. And, they did not make the mistake of dropping the ball down on top of Pádraic and Ronan Maher.
Cork, like Galway, successfully built a bridge between how they wished to defend and how they hoped to attack. The structure of the Cork side worked to deliver their players to the ball in both attack and defence - the Rebels took away a key Tipp attacking platform and then created the room in the Tipperary half, got in behind the Tipp half-backs and forced them to run towards their own goal. Essentially Cork hit Tipperary with a critical double whammy - Kieran Kingston’s men restricted space in their own half and created it in the opposition’s.
Noel McGrath pictured in action against Cork. Photo: Eamonn McGee
The plan worked a treat - by the 31st minute Cork had matched their 2016 tally (0-13) for the entire game against Tipperary. Indeed, the general effect that such tactics had on the contest was startling - in 2016 Tipperary won the battle for possession 54-46% (238-203), but in 2017 the Rebels reversed the trend to win the category 55-45% (253-203).
Experienced analysts are, however, suspicious of possession stats with specific relation to hurling contests - possession statistics in hurling illustrate how you played, but not how well you played (it does not take into account sterile possession).
Take the recent Leinster quarter-final between Galway and Dublin - Galway beat Dublin 2-28 to 1-17 scoring 2-23 from play (Dublin 1-10). Galway generated 38 shots at the posts and creating five goal-scoring opportunities, but Dublin enjoyed marginally more possession 222-221 (50-50%) and only managed 20 shots. Dublin (119) also completed more passes than Galway (111) and registered a higher passing success rate (78-77%), but still lost by 14 points. A similar pattern emerged in the recent Munster Senior Hurling Championship semi-final between Cork and Waterford. Cork won the contest, but lost the battle for possession (48-52% - 198-212). In that game both sides had an identical passing success rate (76%).
Against Cork the Tipperary team successfully completed their passes 73% (Cork 78%) of the time and trailed in the passes completed category 92-134. However, once you dig a little deeper into the figures you will soon identify significant patterns associated with the approach play of both teams.
Cork, for example, found key forwards Conor Lehane and Séamus Harnedy very effectively - Lehane was on the ball 25 times and Harnedy 24 times while, in contrast, Tipperary’s key man Séamus Callanan was on the ball just 12 times. From 24 possessions Séamus Harnedy scored 0-2 and provided the assist for 2-6. Meanwhile Tipperary were fortunate that Conor Lehane did not do more damage - the Midleton star scored 0-5 from play, but also fired five wides and dropped one shot short (shooting percentage: 45%).
And, when you take a closer look at the prevailing patterns of the encounter you will soon identify another issue with Tipperary’s approach play. Cork hurled their way past the Tipperary half-back line and restricted the number of possessions enjoyed by Séamus Kennedy (6), Ronan Maher (18) and Pádraic Maher (13). Meanwhile the Cork half-back line gobbled up Tipperary deliveries - Christopher Joyce was on the ball 17 times, Mark Ellis 29 times and Mark Coleman 24 times.
Tipperary’s direct back-to-front style suited the Cork half-back line, especially Mark Ellis, in general play and on re-starts. Ellis made 42 plays in all, was in possession of the ball 29 times, intercepted eight Tipperary deliveries and won nine Tipperary puck-outs. Indeed, Cork won 61% of Darren Gleeson’s puck-outs and dominated the overall puck-out battle (43-30). That said puck-out success rates do not always correlate with winning elite hurling matches - against Cork, for instance, Waterford won 74% of their re-starts (Cork 61%) and still lost.
Since Michael Ryan’s appointment as manager the Upperchurch-Drombane man has emphasized his intention to build a hard-working identity for the Tipperary senior hurling team. And, true to his word in 2016 the Tipp players established a significant reputation for themselves in that regard. However, there is no getting away from the fact that the work rate of the Tipperary team has become a concern this season.
Irrespective of what anyone may argue about tactics or the significance of player talent the main thing is still the main thing - if your team does not set the terms and conditions of the game in a physical sense you are asking for trouble. And, this especially applies to forwards who determine the quality of ball that is permitted to enter your half of the field.
In 2016 Tipperary won the turnover-in-the-tackle battle in every competitive game (34-26, for example, in the All-Ireland final). In 2017, however, Tipperary lost the turnover battle in their last three competitive games - versus Wexford, Galway and Cork (18-21). And, Tipperary lost the turnover battle (19-31) to Cork in the league meeting between the sides.
WORK RATE RATIO
Against Cork in the recent provincial quarter-final Tipperary lost the hook-block-tackle count 66-77 and also lost the highly-significant work rate ratio 3.83 to 2.64.
Essentially, work rate ratio indicates how a given team has performed in terms of their determination to tackle the opposition with relation to the actual possession enjoyed by the opposition - the work rate of a team can only be interpreted fairly once measured in proportion to the possession enjoyed by the opponent. As a rule of thumb if a team registers a work rate ratio of two or less (the lower the better) the team is doing very well i.e. the opposition enjoys two possessions of the ball on average before they get tackled, hooked, blocked or turned over.
If, for example, you look at Cuala’s performance in the 2017 All-Ireland club series you will find that the Dubliners managed a score of 1.83 against Slaughtneil (semi-final) and one of 2.15 against Ballyea (in the final) which is outstanding - Cuala made sure that they were a hard team to play against and then had a plan developed for how they intended to use the ball once in possession.
In 2016 Tipperary’s work rate ratio was sensational. Indeed, Tipperary registered an extraordinary score of less than two against Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final. Therefore almost every time that a Kilkenny player had possession of the ball he was turned over, tackled, hooked or blocked. As you can imagine in that environment the opposition’s good decisions soon start to run out.
In 2016 against Cork Tipp won the category 2.28 to 3.17 while in the 2017 league final Tipperary managed a work rate ratio of 2.89 while Galway hit 2.58. Galway then backed up that performance in their win over Dublin when edging the turnover battle 20-19 and the hook-block-tackle count 81-65. The Tribesmen also dominated the ruck ball (11-5) and registered a respectable work rate ratio of 2.74 (Dublin 3.4).
And, while Tipperary’s work rate ratio is dis-improving the Cork team find themselves on an utterly different trajectory. In the their 2016 championship meeting with Tipp the Cork team were a mile off an acceptable standard with a score of 3.17. This year, however, Cork have improved. In the recent league meeting between the teams Cork registered 2.33 (Tipperary 3.32). In the championship meeting Cork’s work rate ratio dropped to 2.64, but it was still vastly superior to Tipperary’s 3.83 (i.e. Tipperary allowed Cork to possess the ball on average 3.83 times before they got a tackle in). This tackle rate contrasts starkly with 2016 when the team’s cruising speed in this regard was close to two.
Then, to make matters worse, the work rate of the Tipperary forwards is well off the mark - after the league final corner-backs Michael Cahill and Cathal Barrett were roundly criticized, but they were under ferocious pressure due to a work rate deficit further up the field.
In 2016 the defining characteristic of the team was the forwards’ determination to contaminate the quality of possession that the opposition enjoyed. The ferocity of the Tipperary tackling, for example, in the 2016 All-Ireland final affected Kilkenny’s shots and their shot percentage success rate - Tipperary won the shot tally 33-17 and the shot percentage success rate 73% to 47%. Similarly in the championship clash with Cork last year Tipp created 27 shots and restricted Cork to 19.
During their All-Ireland club campaign Cuala’s work rate had a similar effect on the opposition when they restricted Slaughtneil and Ballyea to less than 20 shots, but when you look at this year Tipp lost the point shot battle to Cork 21-31 in the league and 16-34 to Galway in the league final. And, both of those defeats could have been more significant - Cork had a shot success rate of just 45% (13 wides, four shots dropped short) and Galway’s shot success rate was just 44% (16 wides, three shots dropped short).
This was down to taking poor options as opposed to pressure exerted by the Tipperary team. And, just look at how the work rate of the opposition effects how well your players are able to find one another in terms of passing success rate. In the league final, for example, Galway intercepted Tipperary deliveries 48 times and restricted Tipp to a passing percentage of just 58%.
Galway did not use their inside line well enough in the opening half of the league final - Galway led 0-11 0-5 at the interval, but had already fired ten wides and dropped three shots short. But Galway cleaned up their approach play in the second half, scored 3-10, hit five wides and dropped one shot short.
In their last two competitive games Tipperary have conceded 5-48 and although the finger has been pointed at the full-back line the more significant problem can be located further out the field - the forwards are simply not working hard enough to contaminate the quality of the opposition ball. If you look at the encounter with Cork, for instance, Dan McCormack won four turnovers and accumulated ten hooks, blocks and tackles - narrowly less than the accumulated defensive efforts of Michael Breen, John O'Dwyer, Noel McGrath and Séamus Callanan put together.
And, you can quite easily identify the effect this deficiency in a performance can have. The pressure that the Tipperary half-back line was placed under was significant while the pressure exerted on the Cork half-back line was less so. Ronan and Pádraic Maher represented a key attacking platform for Tipperary in 2016, but against Cork they were restricted to a passing success rate of just 54% and 56% respectively. Meanwhile the Cork half-back line of Christopher Joyce, Mark Ellis and Mark Coleman succeeded in finding their teammates 79%, 75% and 80% of the time. Imagine: Christopher Joyce was allowed to nail nine stick passes, Mark Ellis sixteen and Mark Coleman twelve.
There is no getting away from the fact that Tipperary have some distance to travel in order to re-discover the team’s hard-working identity. But the encouraging news is that the problems associated with the recent performances are fixable - against both Galway and Cork the displays were tragically reminiscent of a boxer who had left his hardest punches in the gym with the assumption being that the above statistics are not indicative of something deeper and more disturbing.