Sport

Kilcar and Slaughtneil show us why nothing beats club football

Slaughtneil's Chrissy McKaigue with Conor Doherty and Ryan McHugh of Kilcar during last weekend's enthralling Ulster semi-final Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

KILCAR and Slaughtneil produced a classic to join the long list of brilliant games served up by the gilded Ulster club competition over the years.

It really is a jewel in the crown of the GAA landscape. Only three weeks ago the main talking point across many GAA outlets was the apparent death knell for our whole game, sounded as it apparently was by a very defensive and poor Donegal county final. Another sensationalist negative response which can go in the bin.

At this rate, the daftness of dramatic statements in the GAA world will be accepted as the third certainty after death and taxes.

Kilcar have shown that the previously lowly position of Donegal clubs in the ‘Ulster Club’ may be at an end. In a breakthrough year in 2013, Glenswilly made it to the Ulster final, losing to Ballinderry, but since then normal service appeared to have resumed.

Kilcar, however, would look to have the ability to go on and become regular entrants and, if they do, then one would assume a serious assault on the title from Kilcar in the next few years.

Slaughtneil, meanwhile, continue to defy logic and hold many neutrals under their spell.

Their story – the small rural club which through an ultra-united community where sport and club comes first – gives everybody the living example of what they aspire for their own clubs.

On the pitch it is no different. It is not that this is a team of star players, nor is it some apparent special tactical system.

Instead, on the surface, this is a team which, although undoubtedly in possession of a few stand-out footballers, is generally viewed as a good team achieving extraordinary levels of consistency and results.

Looking to play 15 on 15 where possible, the mix of traditional football with a fierce competitiveness makes them a traditionalist’s dream.

I have seen and played against teams previously lauded as the definition of traditional purity, the likes of Crossmaglen or Kerry. Of course, such teams know that it takes the full range of attributes to become serial winners.

They know how to dance close to the line in terms of physicality and game management or winning frees.

Slaughtneil still have another big game before winning three Ulster titles in-a-row, but few would bet against them, having already taken out Kilcar and Kilcoo.

I can’t be bothered with the type of commentary that paints them as some sort of GAA saints in a similar vein in the past to Kerry and Cross. For teams as single-minded in their refusal to lose and their pursuit of victory, it’s medals rather than halos they are after.

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THE International Rules moves to its second and deciding Test this weekend in the Subiaco Oval. It is the final game in this famous venue before it is demolished and, going on previous years, there will be a massive Irish support there so a great night it should be.

The Irish team will be hunting down a 10-point deficit – a task which, considering the scoring system, is not as impossible as it may seem. As I mentioned in last week’s column, these types of initiatives always present learning opportunities and the first game presented much food for thought from a tactical point of view.

Much of the talk prior to the game centred on whether Ireland would be able to handle the tackle or have the fitness to keep up with the Aussies, or whether the Australians would be able to master the round ball. It was actually the tactical style of play employed in the native games and the players’ respective ability to deal with it which was most striking.

The Australians used a ‘swarm’ approach around the middle to put massive pressure on and overpower certain areas of the pitch, particularly under the dropping ball.

Ireland won many of the main statistics in terms of marks, attacks-to-shots and the shot conversion percentage.

Their Achilles heel turned out to be the turnover ball they coughed up and a key cause of this was the Australian swarm approach in the middle third.

The pressure round that middle sector in particular left Ireland players often making rushed decisions or rushing skills, leading to poor execution. Sometimes this happened even without actual pressure being present such was the unsettling effect of the general Aussie intensity.

The Aussies, meanwhile, were able to move the ball at lightning speed in small triangles out of the pressure cooker environment where the swarm of players were, to a man in space and they then looked for the longer ball option.

One of the Irish players said to me afterwards: “We like to think in our game we can move the ball by hand fast in tight spaces, but the Aussies are on another level.”

The ‘swarm’ type of play around the middle third is the AFL equivalent of the blanket defence as the dominant tactical approach.

Looking at it on Sunday, it was surprisingly effective against our top players and could well be a good consideration for teams on this side of the world.

High pressure in the middle does increase the risk as the backline is less protected. This was the reason the one-on-one battles, which allowed Michael Murphy and Conor McManus to shine, occurred.

As our turnover stats tell us, it worked very well for the Aussies and could likely transfer well to our own game.

I think the high-pressure presses in the middle third is a tactical direction teams might try to take on. Going by the AFL players, lightning hands and clear heads under pressure are going to be the key skills in dealing with this. This is where Ireland can make most improvement tomorrow.

Many of the players were debutants. They will gain massively from the first day and I think the Irish team will be much better prepared mentally and skill-wise for that battle in the middle third. Either way, another chance to see Michael Murphy, Conor McManus and co operate without a blanket is not one to be missed.

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