By Kevin Regan
The current state of play with most Senior Inter County Hurling teams is to operate with what is now commonly known as a sweeper, third midfielder or seventh defender.
Essentially it means that Senior teams are not going out to hurl 15 on 15 like we would have seen up to the late 90’s and early 00’s.
Most of the top Senior teams are now going out with just five forwards, with Waterford and Clare just some of the teams who are currently mastering the sweeper system.
Last week however we saw how this system can be ineffective, with Cork going in nine points down to Tipperary at half time having played a sweeper for the opening 35 minutes.
The one bright shining light in this current Hurling revolution though is the All Ireland under 21 Hurling Championship, which for the most part is out and out Hurling at it’s finest.
On Wednesday night I witnessed one of the best open games of Hurling for a long time at Netwatch Cullen Park, with 4/1 outsiders Carlow upsetting the odds to defeat Laois in the Leinster u21 Championship.
The game finished 1-17 to 1-15 in 60 minutes of top quality Hurling and some of the scores taken by both teams were absolutely out of this world, with Carlow’s James Doyle and Laois forward Mark Kavanagh the two stand out players on the night.
Neither Carlow or Laois operated with extra defenders and what we got was a real spectacle as both sides went hell for leather with a place in the semi final at stake.
And yet still some of the defending on show was top class by both teams with many timely interventions made at both sides of the field.
The under 21 championship itself in my opinion is the purist form of Hurling if you look at it in recent years and the speed in which the game is played at is actually frightening.
Last year’s Leinster Championship winners and All Ireland Finalists Wexford were singled out for playing ‘Samba Hurling’ such was the array of skill they portrayed throughout the campaign.
Ironically the Clare team that won a three in a row from 2012 onwards didn’t play a sweeper at that stage with Tony Kelly, Colm Galvin and Shane O Donnell just some of the squad that has prospered since then.
I also think the fact that the u21 championship is straight knockout means teams are going out with a sense of freedom to express themselves, knowing full well that it’s a one off game.
It also gives the minnows a greater sense of joy when a surprise result occurs as we seen with Westmeath’s over Kilkenny this week.
The reason I say this is because if Kilkenny or any of the big guns suffered defeat in the early stages and a qualifier system was in place, then there is a good chance that they would still win their province and maybe even an All Ireland title.
Another refreshing sight is that Carlow, Offaly and Westmeath are all in the provincial semi final, despite the fact that they operated in the Leinster Round Robin Series.
It proves that the work going in at underage level, particularly in Carlow and Westmeath is finally starting to bear fruit, with Carlow now set to contest their 4th Semi Final in five years.
So in essence, the u21 grade is most definitely serving it’s purpose and long may it last.