There is no level of hurling in Ireland that hasn’t been impacted by the rise of the sweeper system. Devised to add a spare body to defensive structure and hoover up incoming ball, the tactical tweak has been used to great effect from the lowest depths of club level to the very highest demands of inter-county hurling.
What teams may lose in attacking fervour, they gain in defensive fortitude and, in that sense, the presence of a sweeper has often been seen as the trademark for anti-hurling. Most commonly deployed by sides who may not have the offensive firepower of their opponents, it can be deeply effective in quelling high ball attacks and, if operated effectively in tandem with those up the field, offers a strong base in which to launch counter-attacks.
It has often been a point of disdain and critique on The Sunday Game, the Sunday back pages and the bar counter, but there is no denying that it is a tactical evolution that is here to stay in the game, albeit perhaps a little less common at the highest level as teams of inter-county calibre evolve to better work around it. But certainly, it will be in the back pocket of coaching staffs around the country for when the situation best necessitates it.
The system has also often been misconstrued. It doesn’t necessarily require the addition of a seventh back in the final third, rather one single player from being freed from his man-marking duties to concentrate solely on incoming ball. Many teams and managers have been maligned over the years for such a strategy, appearing to be more negative than what initially meets the eye. There have been instances whereby a wrinkle in attacking formations, such as a forward being brought into the midfield area, would suggest the defence have purposefully added an extra man, when in reality there are six men marking five forwards, or even four.
Three-men full forward lines are becoming scarcer, as teams bring players into the midfield battle and to try and create space for their most advanced forwards. That’s why classifying the sweeper as simply an addition to the six backs is a misconception, and it can have varying descriptions depending on how both the defence and attack shift tactically throughout the game.
When people discuss the sweeper system, the installers of the strategy usually comes to mind before anyone else. Derek McGrath was one of its biggest proponents and used it to tremendous effect during his time with the Déise. McGrath was blue in the face from having to justify the system to the wider public, and although it delivered a lot of success for Waterford including the 2015 league title, it wasn’t without its bugs and didn’t materialize into All-Ireland silverware. Therein laid the main jibe of the sweeper role – although it enhanced defensive solidarity and made teams harder to beat, it restricted attacking potential and hadn’t delivered the major honours.
Davy Fitzgerald has had a lot of success in varying ways with the system. In 2013, he led Clare to the All-Ireland title with a system which, maligned once again at the time, wasn’t nearly as defensive as some of the later editions. With Wexford he has successfully implemented the system that has gotten the best out of the players that he has at his disposal, with willing runners from deep and an overarching high yield work rate. That culminated in their 2019 Leinster title win against Kilkenny. Even then, Davy had to justify his tactical decision making after the game despite having one of the players of the position, Kevin Foley, at his disposal.
To argue that the system is bad for hurling would be misplaced. Nobody can say Wexford aren’t an entertaining side to watch, and Waterford before them were regularly one of the highest scoring teams in the country under Derek McGrath.
Under McGrath, the sweeper system gained extra notoriety. With each passing game the role was placed under the microscope and it felt like an episode of The Sunday Game couldn’t pass by without an opinion one way or another on its pros and cons.
It was Clashmore-Kinsalebeg man Tadhg de Búrca who McGrath saw as tailor made for the role. Having been promoted into the senior ranks in 2014, he had all the attributes required in a player suited to McGrath’s vision – teak tough, solid in the air, a sticky man-marker, but most importantly a comfortable ball carrier who could find players in advanced positions with accuracy.
The league was his blooding ground, before making his championship debut in the drawn game against Cork where he was excellent in a wing back role, notching a point on the day. The signs were there early on that he was an All-Star calibre player, and looked very much at home in the half-back line, but clearly McGrath had other ideas in mind.
The son of a Limerick father and Kerry mother, de Búrca grew up in Clashmore, a village in the west of the county that had never raised too many eyebrows as a hurling hotbed. In fact, it wasn’t until his later years that he began to emerge. Selected in the Dungarvan Colleges Harty Cup panel, the side then known as Coláiste na nDéise, he won back-to-back Harty titles ahead of local rivals and heavily fancied De La Salle. Switching between backs and forwards it was clear he was an immensely talented hurler, but the question laid in where exactly he was best positioned.
In 2013, the year Dungarvan won the All-Ireland title, they were pitted against the famed St Flannan’s, in the Harty Cup quarter-final. The Clare side boasted a certain Shane O’Donnell in its full forward line and Dungarvan, realising the prolific scorer de Búrca also happened to be their best marker, switched the Clashmore-Kinsalebeg man to corner back where it’s fair to say he excelled. His hurling talent and penchant for sticky marking placed him very much on the county’s radar as a youngster of major potential.
It wasn’t until 2015 that McGrath’s sweeper system began to come to the fore. With a raft of fresh faces in the team, de Búrca began to establish himself as the sweeper, and never failed to stand out as Waterford secured their first national league title since 2007. Named at corner back in the final but operating at centre back sweeper role, they ran out 1-24 to 0-17 point winners against Cork.
Waterford and de Búrca reaffirmed that form against Cork in June with a really impressive victory in the Munster semi-final, with him once again operating in the number six sweeper position.
In the final, de Búrca was immense against Tipperary but it wasn’t enough to lift Waterford over the line, as the Premier beat them by five points. From this point de Búrca had been firmly established as the sweeper, amongst fans and pundits, and was already on the longlist for an All-Star award – even if his role in the team didn’t exactly equate to the old-fashioned format of the All-Star fifteen.
Indeed, another fine performance in the qualifiers against Dublin followed by a decent showing against Kilkenny in a devastating Croke Park semi-final defeat saw de Búrca awarded his first All-Star at centre-back – once again stoking the blames of the sweeper debate – as well as a Young Hurler of the Year award. In only his second year in the Waterford set-up he had individual accolades to his name and, whether he liked it or not, had firmly established himself as the original poster boy for the sweeper role.
More impressive seasons have passed for de Búrca, including two All-Star nominated years in 2016 and 2017, and as he moves around positionally the lines between sweeper, half-back and midfielder become even more blurred as Waterford and the game continue to evolve. But when you look up the dictionary of hurling, the man from Clashmore will always be the sweeper.