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Dublin: 21°C Sunday 13 June 2021

Could empty stadiums mean we're in for hurling's highest scoring season of all-time?

Dublin and Laois shared 56 scores last night, eight more than their clash in July 2019.

A CLEAR OCTOBER night at an almost silent Croke Park – barring the calls from the players on the pitch -  was a long way from the scenes in Portlaoise when Dublin and Laois last met in championship fare.

ryan-mullaney-celebrates-after-the-game Laois' Ryan Mullaney celebrates after their win in 2019. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

That scorching afternoon went down as one of the great days of the 2019 season. Underdogs Laois, just days on from their Joe McDonagh Cup victory which they rightly celebrated afterwards, hosted a Dublin outfit that eliminated 2017 All-Ireland champions Galway the previous weekend.

After the final whistle condemned Mattie Kenny’s side to a surprise defeat, the O’Moore Park pitch was flooded with overjoyed Laois supporters who embraced the players and hoisted them into the air.

It may be some time before we witness scenes like that on the inter-county field again but regardless it was good to have the championship back last night. 

“It’s brutal coming out of the tunnel at the start of the match and there’s no reaction from the crowd,” observed Eddie Brennan about playing behind closed doors on Jones’ Road.

“That’s the last little jolt of adrenaline when you come out to the field at Croke Park. It was a surreal atmosphere, a bit unusual, you can hear the lads and probably all the giving out we’re doing. That’s definitely a funny one, I don’t know if we’ll play the crowd noise or whatever (in future).”

On a few occasions since the league was halted in March, the prospect of the All-Ireland taking place looked remote. Even in recent weeks, with the second wave rising, when the GAA halted all club activity public opinion appeared to be swaying against the inter-county competitions taking place.

A number of squads, including Leitrim, Fermanagh and Roscommon in football, plus the Offaly and Wexford hurlers were affected by positive cases to varying degrees.

Then there was the confusion over whether the GAA would continue after the country moved to Level 5 restrictions.

Westmeath’s John Heslin and Louth’s Bevan Duffy voiced their concerns about playing on, while the GPA called for better protocols after polling players.

Despite all the innumerable hurdles and safety fears to overcome, the hurling championship kick-off last night. Thankfully for the GAA hierarchy, things went off without a hitch. 

County squads should be praised for the extent of their preparations in their relentless sanitising, individual travel arrangements and drastically reduced contact in indoor areas.

As the country gets to grips with a second lockdown since March, the return of inter-county fare will provide entertainment and plenty to discuss in the long nights ahead. 

donal-burke-scores-a-free-in-an-empty-croke-park Dublin's Donal Burke scores a free in an empty Croke Park. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

And although Dublin ran out easy winners last night, the standard of score-taking from both sides in Croke Park was notable.

Mattie Kenny made an interesting observation in his post-match media duties when it came to the scoreline.

“I know it’s been referenced with the Premier League in England, playing in an empty Croke Park the emotion of the crowd isn’t there,” he began.

“The game seemed very open, I thought. There were a lot of scores from both sides. Laois ran up a very good score as well.

“Is this going to be a sign of things to come in the championship without the crowds?

“That the emotion the crowd gives…it’s more an open game of hurling are more free scoring (without them). So it will be interesting to see does that pattern maintain as we go along in the championship.”

In England, the soccer stadiums are empty yet the season started with a deluge of goals. Scoring in the Premier League is looking easy – almost too easy. The Telegraph reported yesterday that 17 of 20 Premier League teams are currently outperforming their expected goals tally.

In the NFL too, a similar trend has emerged. NFL teams have been scoring points at an unprecedented level in the opening weeks of the season. The average combined score of games are up 16% over the same period in 2019.

If the scoring rates are sustained, it will rewrite the league’s 100-year-old record book.

Dublin and Laois shared 56 scores last night, eight more than they put up between them during the height of the summer in Portlaoise 15 months earlier.

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eddie-brennan Eddie Brennan's Laois scored 23 points last night but lost by 14. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Many theories have been put forward in England and America as the reason for the rise in scoring averages without the crowds. The most pervasive is the notion that teams are no longer tormented by vocal critics in the stands.

Are attacking players more free without the pressure of a heaving crowd? Do defenders lose concentration without the fans to notify them of danger?

Perhaps the reduction in preparation and contact time has affected how teams defend, but it may become clear in the coming weeks that the absence of supporters from stadiums has improved the quality of finishing. 

Elite-level shooters Donal Burke (1-16) and Ross King (0-10) enjoyed their night in front of the posts.

It will be interesting to see if great forwards like TJ Reid, Patrick Horgan, Joe Canning, Tony Kelly, Aaron Gillane and Jason Forde start putting up ridiculous numbers when they return to action.

Whether the GAA will follow the Premier League and NFL with sharp increases in rates of finishing is something to keep tabs on.

The changing face of hurling in 2020 is brought into further focus today when the action commences in Munster.

Semple Stadium will provide the empty stands and terraces as Clare and Limerick clash in a game that has further curiosity in doubling up as the league final that should have been played last spring.

yellow-sliotars A view of the yellow sliotars which were used in Croke Park last night. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The absence of partisan fans, the presence of the yellow sliotar and the condensed programme that sees the winners rewarding with a tie against the 2019 kingpins Tipperary next Sunday are all relevant factors but the backdrop to this game is all about the missing faces on both sides which ties in with the scoring issue.

The chief concern for Clare is how are they put points on the board? The last time they played a championship match in Thurles was that agonising replay defeat at the hands of Galway in August 2018.

That marked the end of that summer’s adventure but there was some personal consolation in the All-Stars handed out to Peter Duggan and John Conlon at the year’s end for their efforts.

That pair dazzled then but are absent now with Duggan having moved to Australia while Conlon’s cruciate snapped just before lockdown in March.

It robs Clare of two potent scoring weapons while Podge Collins is committed to the county’s football fortunes while further afield Colm Galvin’s range of midfield deliveries will be missing as he is also injured.

Can Clare cope successfully? Will middle general Tony Kelly, the returning David Reidy and focal point Shane O’Donnell ensure they pack enough of a scoring punch? What of the impact off the bench from Aron Shanagher and Aaron Cunningham?

tony-kelly-takes-a-free Tony Kelly takes a free for Clare. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The area of scoring is also relevant to Limerick but in a different fashion. They have lost one of their best marksmen.

Shane Dowling added something unpredictable to the mix with his recent cameos off the bench but his free-taking, big game temperament and capacity to conjure up a goal gave Limerick a valuable option in reserve. His injury-enforced retirement in July leaves a void that is tricky to replace.

And the other question mark facing Limerick is how will they fare in limiting the concession of scores without two-thirds of their All-Ireland winning full-back line?

Kiely has been resigned to the loss of Richie English since February through a cruciate, albeit he is on the mend and in better shape, but then saw the same misfortune befall Mike Casey, the under-rated defensive anchor of his team.

It leaves Sean Finn supported by Dan Morrissey, back in a position he last filled in 2016, and joined by Barry Nash, recast from a previous time as a forward. How Clare and Limerick deal with their respective issues will have a major bearing on the scoring rates around Thurles this afternoon. 

–Additional reporting by Fintan O’Toole

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Kevin O'Brien

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