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Anthony Nash: The modern game is like a chess match. There are two key pieces

Cork went away from what suited their key man in the 2021 All-Ireland final. So far this year, the system has worked.

Updated Mar 24th 2022, 8:32 AM

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I WILL ALWAYS remember the first time I set eyes on Kieran Curtin.

Growing up, the best player on every team was the centre back. You had to plan around him. Keep the puckout away from him. When he was on the ball, pressure him. So much went through him. He had to be a Brian Corcoran. Dominant in the air, physical on the ground. And like Brian, he had to be able to hurl anyway you wanted it.

When I was younger, I played out the field as a forward. One day Kanturk were playing a U12 game and as I jogged out, I saw Kieran Curtin from Churchtown. Kieran was a Cork minor; he actually won an All-Ireland Colleges with Colman’s. On his day, he could absolutely lord it over everyone.

An awesome hurler with the look to match. Kieran had the nice hurley, double brace. He had gorgeous boots. He had the coolest helmet going at the time, the Cooper with the Kilkenny guard. I took one look at him and knew I was beat. At half-time, I was told to stand beside him and mark him for the second half. I was the centre-forward!

You wouldn’t do that now. To hurt a centre back in the modern game, you need to go out and get on ball. That conundrum is at the heart of hurling.

paul-kinnerk-and-kyle-hayes-celebrates-after-the-game Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

Paul Kinnerk gets a lot of deserved praise for what he has done for Limerick, but he built that blueprint with Clare. In 2013, Tony Kelly won hurler of the year as a number 11. Before that, the centre forward was just one of six forwards. Kelly gave us a headache mulling over what to do with him.

Clare also had Podge Collins was in the corner. Limerick play a similar game now. Graeme Mulcahy does the Collins role. And they have the ultimate centre forward, last year’s hurler of the year in Cian Lynch. A genius. Swapping him from midfield was a masterstroke.  

I don’t play chess, but I know the king and the queen are the most important pieces. That is your 11 and six in hurling. Six is the guy you need to protect. Your wing-forwards are nearly like pawns, sacrificed to shield him. Like chess, you need to have a plan and you need to think about the endgame. It is about who breaks first.

Because rest assured, Limerick will stick to their gameplan. Other teams are always worrying about Cian Lynch. Cork worried about the Patrickswell man too much in last year’s final and changed their gameplan.

cian-lynch-and-mark-coleman Source: James Crombie/INPHO

I recently looked back at Cork and what they were trying to do. For the entire season, Cork were letting Mark Coleman sit back in the pocket. There he could get on the ball and become the quarterback. There are few better suited to that role in the country.

Limerick are thinking, off you go and do that. Meanwhile, Lynch will cause wreck out around the middle. Firstly, Ger Millerick missing the final was massive. Then Cork broke and sent Coleman after him. They went away completely from their scheme. It was a system failure and a player suffered as a result.

A centre back has an important choice to make now. He can be a typical six and go after their direct opponent everywhere, or he can sit like Declan Hannon. This is the dilemma. Do you stick or twist? With Waterford, Tadhg de Búrca gets an extra midfielder to sit in front of him, and he can play his game.

If a team follows, they inevitably leave space in front of the full-forward line.  


If they stick, the centre back needs protection and the wing-forwards are the pawns working back to close off the space. When Limerick look up, they will find it more difficult to find a target inside. 


A centre back like de Búrca changes everything. In 2015, I played Railway Cup with Munster and Noel Connors was in front of me in the full-back line. It was some eye-opener. I couldn’t get over his style of defending. All day he just played his man, tackling him every time. I got on some amount of ball as a result!

In it would come and Connors would be all over the full-forward, breaking ball. He defended like that because with Waterford de Búrca was always nearby to sweep it up.

Hoggie and I actually flagged it during my final year. We had a new puckout plan and it was effective. Basically, it orientated around giving the ball to the cornerback. He’d run out and deliver it down the wing.

I remember saying, that is fine while it is working. What do we do when we face Tadhg de Búrca? That is where he plays. He has an incredible ability to read the ball and predict where it is going. They will break everything and he’ll clean up.

We tried to tweak it but in the Munster semi-final, he had the highest possessions count in that game and won Man of the Match. He cleaned us out.

tadhg-de-burca Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

That is why 11 is so important. Shane Barrett will play there for Cork. Galway’s 11 should be Cathal Mannion. Lynch for Limerick. Kelly for Clare. Kilkenny are experimenting with Padraig Walsh. You need a guy to make them worry.

In the 2013 final, we decided to follow Tony Kelly everywhere. It left us desperately exposed. They got five goals and ran down our throat. You see it happening when you are standing between the posts in situations like that. You know what is coming. We played Dublin in the league a few years ago and I’d Liam Rushe, his marker and fifty yards of open space in front of me. You can scream all you want at the centre back to drop back, and believe me I tried, but you are in trouble unless you’ve worked on that system in training.

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You learn from past experiences too. After 2013, we decided to let Kelly off and pick him up in midfield. It didn’t matter if he scored 15 points as long as we won the game.

The half-back line has always been vital. You don’t need to remind Cork fans of what they had in John Gardner, Ronan Curran and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín. The holy trinity. They were the launchpad. They won All Irelands for Cork. Other teams went out worrying about how they would stop them. The same way teams worry about stopping Kyle Hayes, Declan Hannon and Diarmuid Byrnes now. Waterford are building similar with Calum Lyons, de Búrca and Iarlaith Daly.

A six like Brian Corcoran had every kind of hurling. He is the dream player. After I retired, I had an almighty collection of gear left around the place. I gave nearly every hurley I ever had away, but I held onto my Brian Corcoran jersey. He gave it to me after the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final and I got him to sign it years later.

brian-corcoran-celebrates-scoring Source: INPHO

He is a monster of a man but in his prime, he could cover the ground. Brian was a cross-generational player. He would be perfect in centre back right now.

This is not a criticism of Mark Coleman in the slightest. What Cork did last year left him exposed. What they have done so far this year has played to his strengths. He is an outrageous talent on the ball. I christened Mark the wizard. He was my old reliable. If he had two yards of space, I’d hit him with a puckout. He would do his little spin and go.

Cork are in a great position going to Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday night. Especially after losing that Championship match against Clare which will be played in Thurles, the place will be hopping. It is good preparation for Limerick. Brian Cody’s Kilkenny are similar in that they are a savagely hardworking team.

Will their gameplan hold up? What did Kilkenny learn from last year’s semi-final about nullifying Cork’s pace? Richie Reid at centre back uses possession really well. Padraig Walsh is in fantastic form. But they can’t bend to them. Cork have their system, now they need to stick to it. When you rip up the script and try fabricate a solution on the fly, it is a desperate psychological blow for the entire team and a huge lift for your opponent.

Just ask Kieran Curtin. 

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