Risk and reward – the fundamentals by which virtually every conscious decision we make is based upon, writes Aidan Kielthy.
At some stage over the last few years John Kiely must have pondered as much.
The Limerick Hurling Manager guided his team to their second All Ireland title in three years in late 2020. In reclaiming the Liam McCarthy Cup his charges found the net only thrice in their five championship games, all in the same match, a 3-23 to 2-17 defeat of Tipperary in Pairc Ui Chaoimh on 1st November. They failed to grab a major in any of their four other games representing an average of 0.6 goals per game.
The only county with a lower goal per game average was Wexford who failed to raise a green flag in either of their two unsuccessful outings.
Interestingly it was two of the so called traditional counties, Kilkenny and Tipperary that were most abundant in this discipline being the only ones to average more than two goals per game.
It is highly unlikely that this statistic will have caused Kiely and his backroom team much distress though when you consider the point scoring abilities of all the counties. Limerick averaged 28.2 points per game, registering north of 30 white flags on two occasions. Dublin were their nearest rivals on 25 points per game, themselves surpassing the 30 mark against Laois.
Limerick’s strategy appeared deliberate as they simply picked their opponents off one point at a time and even when a goal opportunity present itself they seemed satisfied to take the safer route and tap the yellow sliothar over the bar.
Put it in the onion basket
The declining prevalence of goals in the Hurling Championship has become very noticeable over the last few years. The sixteen-match Covid Championship of 2020 yielded just 2.56 goals per game just shading the 2019 season (2.55).
A decade ago in 2010, the year Tipperary derailed Kilkenny’s ‘drive for 5’ crowds were treated to 2.83 goals during the average championship match.
In 1990 when Teddy McCarthy and Cork were on their way to an historic hurling and football double the net rattled 4.5 times per game.
Joe Connolly, in 1980 captained Galway to a first All Ireland win since 1923. Joe MacDonagh’s version of The West’s Awake brought the curtain down on a season which saw 4.72 goals being scored in an average match.
And 50 years ago in 1970, in no small way helped by an All Ireland Final which saw Wexford and Cork share 11 goals, the green flag umpires had busier afternoons with 5.07 goals per game.
Contrast this depreciating goals tally with an inflationary Points count which has more than doubled from 21.92 per game in 1970 up to last years grand average total of 46.13.
The Times They Are a-Changin’
Fifty years is a long time and a lot has changed, helmets, compulsory face guards, hurley design, red and yellow cards, crowds on pitches for cup presentations, the number of substitutions allowed, the Anthony Nash rule, water breaks, to name but a few. However the basics have remained constant, the number of players on each team, the pitch and goal size, the duration of matches (granted in 1970-1974 the games were 80 minutes in length). So why have we seen such a reduction in the number of goals per game over the period.
There are some reasons which instantly come to mind.
The game itself and panel preparation has changed, particularly in the 21st century. All county teams are now in peak physical condition and background teams include highly skilled specialist coaches, sport scientists, psychologists, statisticians, nutritionists and medical staff.
The game is faster as a result. Teams are highly organised. Tactics and defensive strategies are commonplace.
At the recent GAA congress a motion was passed in an attempt to reduce cynical play in hurling whereby a penalty will be awarded if a goal scoring opportunity is foiled by cynical means within the 20 meter line and the arc, and the perpetrator will spend 10 minutes in the Sin Bin for his misdemeanour.
No doubt the new rule should go some way towards enticing the forward to take on more goal opportunities as they arise and a by-product perhaps could be the return of the ‘true art of pure defending’ in the danger area.
Is this enough however?
Cynical play is certainly not a new phenomenon. A sport suspended Summer season has allowed re-runs of games from the 70’s 80’s and 90’s to be shown on TG4. Forwards have always been dragged to the ground and in some cases blatantly assaulted as they bore down on goal. In many instances the referee simply waved play on.
The truth probably lies deeper in the fact that it was more rewarding back then to rattle the net than it is in today’s game. True, a goal is worth three points. The same now as it was back in the 70s, however when you measure the goals to points ratio the justifications of risk assessment become a little clearer. In last years championship for every goal scored there were 18 points put on the board. Compare that to 1970 when in between goals there were 4.32 points scored. In effect this means that in 1970 you were more likely to take aim beneath the crossbar when the smallest opportunity arose.
Consider a super fit forward today, 30 meters out with a clear sight on goal, ball in hand. Consciously or subconsciously he makes a split second calculation. He can take on the goal chance and risk missing or worse still having it saved, or he can pop it over the black spot safe in the knowledge that in the next 90 seconds or so there is a strong possibility that his team will get two further opportunities at points and the eventual outcome will be identical.
It is often said that a goal is worth more than 3 points in the lift that it gives the attacking team and indeed the supporters (Remember crowds?). However the same is true when a goalkeeper makes a worldly save, the defending team is buoyed up and the goalie is virtually unbeatable for the rest of the match.
Point scoring is undoubtedly beautiful to witness, I’m thinking Joe Canning’s 74th minute pressure strike from the sideline a few years ago to take Galway into the All-Ireland Final at the expense of Tipperary, The Rock O’Sullivan leaving Limerick men prone on the floor before launching an effort between the posts from 100 yards in 2001, The Dodger himself, DJ Carey pointing straight off the hurley in 2002 as Ollie Baker gazed from his grassy sofa in Croke Park.
But let’s be honest, nobody grows up dreaming of scoring the winning point in an All-Ireland Final.
John Fenton’s rocket from the ground. Jimmy Barry Murphy’s precision overhead double, Canning’s pirouette and strike. These are what dreams are made of. Points may win matches but Goals win our hearts.
What can be done?
So is there anything further that can be done before Goals suffer the same nostalgic fate as telephone boxes and glass milk bottles?
The obvious solution would be to revalue the currency of the Goal to make it a more attractive proposition to the aforementioned advancing forward. Increasing its value to 4 or even 5 points might make the human algorithm recalibrate its options. Make the Reward worth the Risk.
There’s precedent also in other Multi-method scoring sports. In Rugby a try was valued at three points prior to 1971 when it increased to four points. A generation later in 1992 the value was elevated to the current five points. Furthermore in an effort to increase the amount of Tries scored World rugby have introduced the Bonus point system whereby a bonus point is award if a team regardless of winning or losing, scores four or more tries per game.
In the late nineteenth century a Touchdown in American Football was worth initially 4 points later increasing to 5 points before settling in 1912 at 6 points where it remains today.
Indeed the GAA has form here too. In the early days of the Association a goal was worth an unlimited number of points. It was later devalued to 5 points and then stalled henceforth at 3 points in 1896.
Traditionalists will baulk at the idea but there is no denying the goal curve is steadily in decline.
Sin Bins and penalties are sure to cause much debate with regard to referee’s subjective interpretation. Increasing the value of the goal is clean, no such headaches for match officials.
Writing the Hurling obituary may be a little premature and while Hurling may not be broken it seems to be showing signs of cracking.
It could be argued that increasing the value of goals will turn teams to even more defensive strategies but therein you have the Gladiatorial contest that makes Hurling the magnificent game it really is.
Forward versus Defender, the shield of cynical play removed from the defender, the bounty for the attacker increased. Survival of the bravest and most skilful. Hurling is the winner.
So is it worth the risk?
The ball is in the hands of the Rule-makers and Hurling fraternity.
Are they courageous enough to take it on or simply tap it safely over the bar?