Hurlings half-back evolution: Sky Sports pundits explain how Kyle Hayes and others have changed the position

In the 54th minute of the Munster final, Limerick half-back Kyle Hayes collected possession inside his own 65.

In the past, a number 7 would be expected to open his shoulders and drive a long ball into the full-forward line. But instead, the Kildimo-Pallaskenry man took off on a searing run, and 13 seconds later he had crashed the ball into the Tipperary net.

Hayes’ heroics was just another example of the evolving role of the half-back in hurling.

“When you see what Kyle Hayes did [in the Munster final], that goal where he ran almost 80 metres and stuck the ball in the Tipperary net to effectively end whatever hopes Tipp might have of dethroning the All-Ireland champions,” Jamesie O’Connor said.

“Hayes is a physical specimen. He has that power and ability to get up and down the field. Calum Lyons from Waterford is a very similar player. If you have those guys with the physique, stamina and athleticism, and the hurling skill to get up and down the field all day, managers are using these guys in an attacking sense that might never have been the case in the past.

“I’m not sure how often JJ (Delaney) got past the 65, he concentrated more on defensive duties. But the game is evolving, and that is one of the big changes we’ve seen in recent years. The use of guys with the talents of Kyle Hayes and Calum Lyons. They’re the two guys that stand out in the modern game.”

He feels some wing-backs are crucial to a team’s attack, as seen in the Munster Championship opener between Clare and Waterford.

“We saw the importance of Calum Lyons for Waterford, he was hand-picked to mark Tony Kelly,” continued the two-time All-Ireland winner.

“That was a job in its own right, but what Waterford lost was the go-forward that he gives them, the ability to break tackles, and it was only when he was released out to the half-back line late in the game when Waterford were chasing a lost cause, we saw how valuable he was. He was pivotal in bringing Waterford back into the game and giving them some hope at the end of that match.”

Marking players like Hayes and Lyons piles the pressure on forwards.

“As a forward, if your man has bombed forward to get scores, you’re starting to get worried, rather than concentrating on your own game, I’ve got to now worry about him,” O’Connor said.

“From a forward’s perspective, you have to have a defensive mindset. It can take your mind off your attacking duties.”

Delaney: Different to my playing days

JJ Delaney is regarded as one of the best half-backs to ever pick up a hurl, but the Kilkenny great was not a fan of pushing forward.

“I tried it once in a league final against Dublin. I saw the headlines, straight up along the wing, I got to the 21 and I pulled my hamstring! I didn’t do it again. I came hobbling off past Brian (Cody. Brian gave me a look as if to say ‘don’t ever do that again’! And I didn’t,” he laughed.

“John Kiely moving Kyle Hayes back, there were a few eyebrows raised to see what he was doing, because he was a pivotal player for Limerick up front. He actually has more time on the ball in the half-back line, because he can come up, when the middle of the field is blocked up, he can go around the corner. You saw him against Cork, he took a gamble on a puck-out, Limerick went long and he stuck it in the goal.

“He’s just absolutely fabulous. What really struck me regarding the position and how it has changed a lot, the Waterford and Galway match in the league, Calum Lyons scored five points from half-back, but his team conceded 4-28. His job was going forward, and somebody else had to cover his space. But they obviously didn’t cover it!

“The control they have on the ball itself, the calming influence, the belief the manager has in the position. ‘You’re there, but you bomb forward and you have runners coming from deep’. So yeah, it’s fascinating how it has changed.”

Canning: Attacking half-backs requires a team effort

Ollie Canning noted how it takes a team effort to fill the gaps when a defender makes a burting run forward.

“You go back 10 years ago, it shows you how the game has evolved. We were told in the full-back line, if you saw your half-back line going beyond the 65, there was a sharp communication out to them to get themselves back to cover that space in the backs,” the Galway native explained.

“That’s not the case now, but the whole team has to feed into this. The midfielders, if the likes of Kyle Hayes goes up the field, it’s like an automatic switch with the Limerick players, like the deep-lying midfielders will fall into that position for Kyle, and make sure that they’re not exposed in that position then.”

Sky Sports’ GAA coverages continues on Saturday, with the All-Ireland Hurling Championship quarter-final between Dublin and Cork live on Sky Sports Arena from 7pm.

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