St Vincent’s vs Craobh Chiaráin – Analysis Report
St.Vincent’s 2-14 – 1-1- Craobh Chiaráin
For three group games and two thirds of their quarter-final against Vincent’s on Sunday, Craobh had looked like as though they might buck the trend of recent dominance of the championship by five southside clubs – Cuala, Croke’s, Ballyboden, Jude’s and Lucan.
Looking at patterns over the last couple of years, and a twelve point quarter-final defeat last year being their best championship performance since 2013, all evidence suggested that they were a long way off the pitch of where previous Craobh championship winning sides had been.
Before the championship had begun, with a pretty horrible opening three league games, pretty much everybody outside of Donnycarney had written them off, particularly against the up and coming talents of Na Fianna.
And like that, they put Na Fianna and all of their doubters in their place, with a five point victory. When they thoroughly dismantled O’Toole’s two weeks ago, you began to wonder if, maybe, all of a sudden, we were seeing evidence of a sixth side to add to a group who you could seriously consider as senior championship contenders.
And after forty minutes in Parnell Park on Sunday, against a Vincent’s side about which there has been a lot of talk this season, it appeared as though we had our answer. Just as they had done in the group stages, they had given an exhibition of possession hurling, zonal defending as a unit and applying pressure on the opposition all around the field.
They were good value for their 1-10 to 1-7 lead after forty minutes.
And then, just like that, in what could only be describe as a horrid twenty minutes for Craobh, all of those question marks resurfaced. Yes, with a newfound structure and impeccable discipline they had been as methodical a side as their had been in the championship. But in that last twenty minutes when they were outscored by 1-7 to no score, you couldn’t help but wonder again, do they have enough young players coming through to replace the quality of senior championship winners who have been retiring over the last number of years.
They simply didn’t have the legs to stay with Vincent’s, who kept possession at will in the latter stages of the game and started to score for fun.
To that end, playing Vincent’s may well have been the worst possible opposition for a side who must surely have the highest age average of any side in the quarter-finals.
There’s no doubting the fact that common opinion would tell us that Vincent’s have come to join that top five/six of serious championship contenders. In fact, we have to say that they’ve displaced one of them, St Jude’s, who they beat comprehensively in the group stages. Have Jude’s gone off the boil or have Vincent’s just reached a new level? To some extent, it still remains to be seen.
Their opening half endeavours surely wouldn’t have inspired confidence, as they severely struggled against Craobh’s tight system. Even when they eventually began to get ball to John Hetherenton at full forward, he constantly found himself with defenders converging.
The key element, however, running against the side with a significantly older average age, was just how quickly Vincent’s were getting their puck-outs off.
Yes, it’s an element that has become more prevalent in hurling, but in recent years it has been something we’ve come to associate significantly more with football.
In truth, in cases where a hurling side has faith in their own ability to outrun and outlast the opposition, I have wondered why it hasn’t become more en vogue in hurling. Two of the three key principles are shared with football – it can give you uncontested primary possession, and if you’re the fitter side, it can run the opposition into the ground before it runs your side into the ground. In the end, that’s exactly what happened on Sunday.
Mind you, as is all too often the case in the modern club game, the man in the middle didn’t share an appreciation for this tactical element, not allowing Vincent’s to play the quick puck-out on two occasions, for no apparent reason.
Vincent’s had set up with a standard 6-2-6 or 3-3-2-3-3 formation while Craobh had set up with a 7-2-5 or a 3-1-3-2-3-2. Stephen Kirwan, probably no longer with the legs to play a man-on-man game against this younger, more athletic side, played as sweeper, and did a damn fine job of it, at least as long as the Craobh machine was functioning at full throttle.
That left them with a front two of Francis Usanga and Paul Kelly, with Vincent’s opting for the physically daunting figure of Mark O’Farrell to deal with the threat of Usanga, which he did successfully for the most part.
That left Seán McCaw on Mark McGuirk, and James Cooke on Keith Ryan in the half forward line, while Mark O’Keefe had the unenviable task of trying to keep tabs on Alan McCrabbe, who along with midfielder Conor Ryan were the two dominant players of the first half.
The flipside of Craobh’s sweeper was that Vincent’s had veteran Dublin hurler, Rúairí Trainor, sitting as sweeper as he had nobody to mark. With his guile experience and hurling quality, he was the perfect man for the job and was equally significant as Kirwan at the other end, if not more so as the game wore on.
That meant that, in theory at least, each side should have been able to get off short puck-outs, and for the most part they did.
Vincent’s, just as their footballers do, had men hugging each corner back spot, as well as the wings on some occasions, and were perfectly happy for Damien Russel to get the ball out quickly to the corners, in under five seconds on some occasions.
Where that option wasn’t on, he looked to hit men in the half backline.
The idea was fine, and would pay long-term dividends, but the problem was that while they were gaining primary possession, they couldn’t turn these first half puck-outs directly into scores.
In fact, Craobh’s seventh point epitomised the problems they were having, as Vincent’s hit the half back line on the puck-out, only to be turned over for Alan McCrabbe to score.
It was a most interesting tactic from Craobh, because, in theory, playing a sweeper and pressing the opposition’s half back line, shouldn’t really work. As effectively as you press, you still require an element of disfunction from the opposition’s defence to turn them over, as they have an extra player in that part of the field.
To that end, it’s a policy that has all but ended at inter-county football. If a side have even one spare man at the back, you can expect to see their forwards drop off en-masse to the half way line. Otherwise they’ll be “piggy in the middled”.
Of course, in hurling, where the maintenance of possession in close quarters requires multiple times more finesse, scope to run into trouble while weaving the the ball through the outnumbered opposition attack is much greater.
It really does require superb hurling to weave through, when the pressing, albeit with a man less in that area, is as efficient as Craobh’s was. And it was the successful application of this style of play which brought them to top their group, and appeared to have the in a commanding position after forty minutes.
In the end, however, a combination of Vincent’s getting into their rhythm regarding weaving through this area of the field and Craobh not having the legs to maintain this pressing, is what flipped the game so radically on its head by the final quarter.
Croabh also went with some short puck-outs from the off, but with Vincent’s splitting the extra man in Craobh’s defence more efficiently, Stephen Chester didn’t have as many options as Vincent’s did for the short puck-outs. He sent more long where Craobh won a couple of frees straight off the puck-out.
In fact, this alluded to one area where Vincent’s are simply going to have to improve radically if they’re to seriously take on Cuala. The amount of and nature of the frees they conceded would be simply unsustainable against the All-Ireland champions in the next round.
At least twice, directly under long puck-outs, they gifted frees to Craobh by fouling a Craobh man from behind as he contested for the ball in the air.
Their worst excess regarding unnecessary free concession occurred when Francis Usanga was almost literally cornered, close to the corner flag, with the ball at his feet and two men up his proverbial – one of them simply ran through his back and gave Craobh a 21 yard free from a position which would have required something excellent from Usanga in order for him to have gotten out of trouble.
They had conceded seven frees by the fortieth minute, at least four of which came where no direct threat had existed.
With Tom Connolly in the half back line, Rian McBride around midfield and Alan Moore in the half forward line, to the fore, Vincent’s had grown into the game by the quarter hour mark, from which point they would score 1-4 to Craobh’s 1-3 up to half time.
Each sides’ goals had a touch of class about them. Vincents’ Conor Burke showed huge composure to avoid the temptation to try to take the leather off the sliotar when it rebounded off the upper, instead placing it deftly into the far corner, needing to lean back slightly to gain leverage on the strike.
In hindsight, the Craobh defence would presumably have been unhappy at the manner in which a key player or two made no provisions for the possibility of the ball coming back off the upper post, and were literally caught on the hop!
Kelly’s goal the far end was even more special, somehow managing to not just connect with the ball mid-air in competition with defenders, but managing to steer the ball back across his body.
Craobh were value for their three point half time lead. In fact, had it not been for a bizarre decision to throw in a forty yard free for time wasting, while McCrabbe waited for the referees whistle, and another uncharacteristic missed free from an otherwise unflinching McCrabbe, it could have been five.
The second half was appearing to follow the same patterns as the second quarter, in a tit-for-tat low scoring game, but Vincent’s quick puck-out was beginning to look more menacing.
Most notably, Diarmuid Connolly, whose touch and striking had been off colour in the first half, began to get on more ball, looking every bit the inter-county hurler, he presumably could be. He would score two points in quick succession, one better than the other.
In hindsight, the moment which might have granted Craobh salvation came on the fortieth minute. McCrabbe was fouled near the 21 where a goal threat looked imminent.
From almost a central position, on the “21”, I couldn’t believe my eyes as Vincent’s only left three men on the line to defend the free – with a wet ball, facing one of the best dead ball strikers in the country. McCrabbe shared my thoughts on the opportunity which presented itself before him.
Two points up, even with the final twenty minute onslaught that we would witness, the goal would surely have given Craobh a big enough lead to at least have made a fight of it going into the latter stages.
McCrabbe, however, didn’t catch it cleanly, and the strike went into the ground, making for a relatively straight forward stop, even dealing with a wet ball.
From this point on it would be all Vincent’s. Their policy of the quick puck-out had taken its toll on Croabh’s older legs. Trainor began to conduct the orchestra with ease at the back and Cian McBride in particular, up front, started terrorising Craobh.
Six points on the trot saw them three points to the good with as many minutes remaining, and Craobh looking like their race was run, before McBride cut in from the left and struck beautifully to the bottom left-hand corner of the net.
Croabh were so out on their feet in the remaining minutes that Vincents’ possession game would barely have qualified as warm up pace.
The final insult was presumably reserved for the most bitter of rivals, as seven points up, two minutes into injury time, Keith Connolly went for a goal from a 21 yard free. That it was tipped around the post merely avoided salt being rubbed into the wound.
After a season that had had looked so promising for Craobh, the final score-line still left us with the harsh reality that for all of the improvements made over the last twelve months, this seven point loss at the quarter-final stage still represents their best championship outing since they reached the semis in 2013.
Vincent’s on the other hand, continue to blaze a trail that has tongues wagging about the prospect of a football and hurling double. With it unclear how much their victory over Jude’s was a reflection of how well they’re going compared to possibly Jude’s hitting a slump, we still don’t really know if this talk is justified.
The long and the short of it regarding this game was that over the course of sixty minutes, they got their tactics spot on, running Craobh into the ground.
Not that I’d read too much into their loss to Croke’s, with both sides already qualified, and no real prize for coming first (the opposite group was undecided at that point), the fact remains that they still haven’t been tested against a current top four opposition.
With All-Ireland champions Cuala awaiting in the semis, the acid test lies ahead.
St Vincent’s : Damien Russell, James Cooke, Mark O’Farrell, Mark O’Keefe, Seán McCaw, Rúairí Trainor, Tom Connolly, Diarmuid Connolly, Rian McBride, Cian McBride, Alan Moore, Graeme Giblin, Conor Burke, John Hetherenton, Keith Connolly Subs : Ronan Fallon (38 mins) Ciarán Billings (38 mins), Willy Lowry (45 mins), Franklin O’Sullivan (61 minutes)
Craobh Chiaréin : Stephen Chester, Seán Finnegan, Eugene Farrell, James Ryan, Kevin Hetherenton, Kevin Hetherenton, Stephen Kelly, Darren Kelly, Stephen Kirwan (sweeper), Conor Ryan, Robbie Mahon, Mark McGuirk, Keith Ryan Alan McCrabbe, Paul Kelly, Francis Usanga Subs : Damien O’Reilly (28 mins), Ciarán McGowan (50 mins), Mark Hayes (52 mins), Derek O’Reilly 58
SCORERS – St Vincent’s: C McBride 1-1, C Burke 1-1, D Connolly 0-3, R McBride 0-2 (1 free), K Connolly 0-2, T Connolly 0-1, G Giblin 0-1, J Hetherton 0-1 (1 free), C Bllings 0-1, R Fallon 0-1. Craobh Chiaráin: A McCrabbe 0-7 ( 6 frees), P Kelly 1-2, C Ryan 0-1.
By Stephen O’Meara