Last July a pall of gloom hung over inter-county hurling. The spectre of sweepers and massed defences supposedly threatened the very future of the sport. The entire championship to that point felt like a series of formalities before Kilkenny’s inevitable victory over Tipperary (or if we were lucky, Galway) in the All-Ireland final.
Of course events didn’t transpire that way as a late surge restored the championship and left supporters satisfied.
No such worries this year, so far. Three of the semi-finalists from the last two championships have already been defeated in their provincial competitions. Furthermore, this change has been brought about by some spectacular hurling, in particular Cork’s win over Tipp.
But amid the excited hubbub, dissenting voices can be heard. Brendan O’Brien suggested in the Examiner that it might now be too easy to score in inter-county hurling, noting a fairly steady increase in the average scores in inter-county matches in the last two decades.
While the trend is undeniable, its significance is not as clear. Granted that scorelines in inter-county games typically look different to those of 20 or 30 years ago, but why do people think this is a problem?
The scorelines back then looked very different to those posted in, say, the 1920s and 1930s. In itself this tells us little other than the obvious fact that the way hurling is played has changed over time. In order for this to be a problem, we would need some idea of how the game should be played, such that we should expect a certain average number of scores per game. (Put another way: would it be better if the average number of scores had decreased over the past two decades?)
Furthermore, the average number of scores per match disguises an interesting discrepancy. The following chart illustrates a fairly steady increase in the number of points per championship match from the mid-1990s to 2011:
Conversely, the number of goals per match has declined since the 1980s:
These trends have continued in recent seasons. In 2015, a total of 80-1063 was scored in 28 championship matches, meaning that while the number of points per match averaged 38 (very high by historical standards), the average number of goals per match was fewer than three (from 1980 to 2011, the average fell below three in only five seasons, all since 1998). The equivalent figures for 2016 are 67-1043 in 28 games, for an average of fewer than 2.4 goals per match.
So the broad trend over the past couple of decades has been that, at least at the inter-county level, hurling has involved more points and fewer goals. One or the other of these trends might be thought to indicate a problem, or they might cancel each other out. Either way, the trends alone tell us little.
It might be though that huge scores such as those in the Cork-Tipp match indicate a decline in the standard of defending – a point suggested by Pat Nolan in the Mirror.
It is difficult to assess this suggestion, in part because so many relevant factors (including the standard of pitches and what players could get away with in terms of foul play) have changed over the years.
That said, there are reasons to think that the increase in scores is probably not down to lower standards in defensive play. The first is the evidence of our own eyes: nowadays teams defend much better as units, and when matches involve very high scoring (especially from both teams, as in the Cork-Tipp match) this is in large part because excellent attacking play.
The second is a general observation: a practice or activity to which enough people devote time and resources will usually improve over time. This is best seen by considering examples where we have a relatively objective measure of how well a particular activity is pursued. The best chess players of today (not all of them human) would in all likelihood pulverize even the greatest players of the past. Increasing numbers of classical musicians can play pieces which used to be considered impossible for all but the greatest virtuosos.
Assuming that natural talent does not significantly alter over time, better training and increased use of technology and other scientific resources will tend to improve performance levels. With this in mind, it would be odd if defenders in hurling were in general less capable than their counterparts in the past.
This is not to say that there is no problem with the increasing numbers of points scored. Maybe there will come a time when shoot-outs like Cork-Tipp become humdrum. But the enthusiasm with which this year’s championship has been greeted suggests that we have not yet reached that point.
Donnchadh O’Conaill, Pundit Arena