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Defensive Organisation In Hurling – The Death Of The Sweeper: Adrian O’Sullivan column

On the 9th of June 2019 a famous old hurling warrior went to his final resting place. Winner of an All-Ireland in 2013 with Clare, ultimately a failure in Waterford and the bane of many a ditch perched stick expert.

The sweeper. The scubadóir. Final resting place the Gaelic Grounds, Limerick. RIP.

How It Worked

For most teams who played with a sweeper it was simply a case of playing with seven defenders and five forwards. Pick a player who was mobile enough to cover across behind the half back line / in front of the full back line and skilful enough to be comfortable on the ball, be the out ball and launch attacks.

Tadhg de Burca was an excellent example of this and played the role very effectively in the 2017 championship winning an All-Star in the process. Derek McGrath would have seen this role as a necessity due to the heavy concession of scores pre his tenure.

Clare 2013

Clare had a more attacking feel to their sweeper system in 2013, Pat Donnellan finishing the season as a quasi third midfielder who dropped deep without the ball and got involved in attacks when Clare had possession. This is quite an effective way of implementing the system, giving defensive stability but without taking from your own attacking edge at the same time.


Whichever way you go about implementing this system it was heavily reliant on one uncontrollable factor, that the opposing team would continue to play a ‘traditional’ style of hurling (win ball in defence and launch it!) and be under prepared to use the extra player that you have now conceded to them in their own defence.

But adaptation comes. Video analysis is a huge part of preparation now and slowly but surely teams have started to figure out how to play against the sweeper system.

Galway 2017

Galway did their homework on Waterford in 2017 and tactically tied them up in knots. Firstly they placed the aerial threat of Johnny Glynn on the edge of the square and launched early ball down on top of him forcing Tadhg de Burca to double up with Barry Coughlan in a 2 v 1 on the edge of the square.

They then proceeded to play the rest of the game in front of their half forward line, using their extra defender to create an overlap and work shooting opportunities from distance without ever engaging the sweeper who was obsolete in front of his own goal. Absolute tactical masterclass. 0-26 and Liam headed Shannonside.


For the last two seasons Limerick have been top of the class for creating space. This is done by pulling the half forward line deep into the middle third where they act as an outball for their defence and using that numerical advantage to throw the ball around until they feel that they can deliver the best pass to inflict most damage on the defence.

Inside the forwards usually line up in a straight line leaving huge pockets of space either side of the goal for the ball to be delivered into.

Last week in the Gaelic Grounds Clare went with the sweeper option and as mentioned before, sat him on the edge of the D to cover across the Limerick full forward line. Except there wasn’t any line to cover ‘across’. Limerick lined up in the straight line formation and with Declan Hannon now playing a completely free role, dominated possession in their own half and had all the time in the world to pick out pin point passes to forwards breaking either side of the sweeper.

Limerick finished with 1-28 and Clare finished wondering where their season goes from here. RIP the sweeper, killed by Paul Kinnerk, the man who helped create him!

Next Week

Next week we will look at how to set up a defence in hurling, the shape, organisation and communication needed to create a solid back unit.

For now check out our video on the slow death of the sweeper and how Limerick put the nail in the coffin.



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