It's a long way from Tipperary but Shane loves the hurly burly

One of the most astute signings of the summer grew up as a hurling specialist and his physical duels are proving a big hit

Alex certainly wasn't expecting it. As the 6ft 3in, bulky Brazilian defender dawdled on the ball at Stamford Bridge last Saturday, a 5ft 11in, pale Irish striker pounced. First, Shane Long barged Chelsea's centre-half away to seize possession. Then he twice shrugged Alex off and even sent the defender to the floor before lashing the ball into the net.

Not only was it a show of force from the West Bromwich Albion striker, but also irreverence. Alex had been embarrassed. And his forlorn face seemed to wonder where the smaller Long had got all that extra strength from.

So much for the questions about Long's ability to cut it at Premier League level. So much, too, for the underwhelming reaction of some supporters to his £6.5m signing. By the end of last weekend, many other clubs were wondering why they didn't take the punt on a bustling forward whose value is only rising.

Had things worked out differently, though, this week Long might have been playing in front of a huge crowd for no money as opposed to a moderate crowd for huge money. And, as he has admitted himself, he would have been as happy doing either.

Today, West Bromwich host Stoke with Long looking for his third goal in three Premier League games. Next Sunday, his old team Tipperary take on Kilkenny in the All Ireland hurling final. But despite playing in front of a raucous 82,000-crowd at Croke Park, the winners will receive only a medal as reward because of their amateur status.

So strong is the unique white-knuckle hold that hurling has over its core counties, friends and team-mates were shocked when Long abandoned the sport in his late teens to properly pursue "the soccer". As he says: "If you're from Tipperary, hurling is in your blood. It was only hurling."

In the Under-18 regional final in 2004, it was only Long. He scored twice against Cork to dominate the game. Afterwards the feeling around Tipperary was that people were waiting for him to grow up in a hurry. Long was the future. Until, that is, he changed his own.

Many presumed he was giving up his destiny of an All Ireland medal for the pipe dream of making it in the Premier League. In truth, though, Long's experience of hurling only ensured he was going to make accelerated leaps from Cork City FC to Reading and, finally, regular football in the English top flight.

A 3,000-year-old sport, hurling has evolved to be described as the world's fastest field game. Whatever the truth of that, it demands the sort of skill with an ash stick and a small ball that must be learned before you hit your teens, as well as bravery, anticipation and physical prowess.

With its man-on-man physical duels providing the foundation of the 15-a-side sport Long would have been used to a battle. It's far less intimidating jumping up against swinging elbows than swinging sticks. One of the primary requirements for any forward in hurling is to win your own ball. And Long has always excelled at that.

"I'm sure hurling has served him well in terms of toughness," says Paddy McCormack, Long's manager in that Under-18 team. "You could see it with [former Manchester United defender] Kevin Moran, too. That extra bit of steel. They'd go for balls that by right wouldn't be theirs. And Shane has that. You'd probably need it most of all as a forward, chasing balls and hoping. A lot of bravery.

"He won't mind the man-to-man in soccer. He never minded it in the toughness of hurling. In Gaelic games, you have to win your own ball a lot of the time. Shane has that attitude. 'Get it up to me and I'll fight for it.' You don't get the ball on a plate. The real good player wins it. Shane is one of those, always ready to pounce."

Long's former Tipperary colleagues – some of whom will feature in next Sunday's All Ireland – have also described him as "fierce brave under a high ball". Certainly, Long wasn't the one showing fear when he bumped David de Gea over on the opening day against Manchester United.

As both of last season's top two have found out, Long's tenacity provides a different kind of challenge for defences – and an intriguing clash of combative attitudes against Stoke today. On his arrival at Reading, the coaching staff were understood to have seen Long as a "breath of fresh air". Although his natural ability had to be refined – and still does – as a result of coming to the game late, the competitiveness derived from hurling more than compensated for that.

The more skilful aspect of hurling comes with the ash stick. And that was always going to be of more benefit to the Irish-born cricketer Eoin Morgan. Although he never got anywhere near the level Long did, the Dubliner has previously admitted that his three years of hurling in school refined his technique. "It was just a coincidence that I played hurling at school when I was younger, and the actual grip is the same as for the reverse sweep."

The more finessed side of the sport has clearly helped take Morgan to the international peak of another discipline. But hurling's physical attributes are beginning to bring Long to a similar level in football. On Friday, Ireland host Slovakia in a qualifier that will go a long way to deciding the Euro 2012 places. Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni has been concerned with Kevin Doyle's fitness and impressed with Long's recent development. At the least, Long will likely come on to stretch Slovakia, who can expect a battle on their hands.

West Bromwich Albion (probable, 4-4-2): Foster; Reid, Tamas, Olsson, Shorey; Brunt, Scharner, Mulumbu, Morrison; Odemwingie, Long.

Stoke City (probable, 4-4-2): Begovic; Huth, Shawcross, Woodgate, Wilson; Pennant, Whelan, Delap, Etherington; Walters, Jones.

West Bromwich Albion v Stoke City is this afternoon, kick-off 3pm

The poacher's game

The 3,000-year-old sport consists of two teams of 15. Each player has an ash stick called a hurley, with which they attempt to force a small ball – or sliothar (prounced 'slitter')– into the net for three points, or over the bar for one. Because of its fast, physical nature, dispossessing the opposition mostly comes from one-on-one duels using intense physical pressure. So core strength and tenacity are crucial.

Man-marking is a huge part of the game – there are rarely free men. Chasing down and 'pressing' are common tactics to claim possession.

The sliothar is often pucked into the air so the ability to time and position a jump is hugely important. Former goalkeeper Pat Jennings put his ability to claim high balls down to his time in the midfield in hurling.

Much of the movement is made up of short sprints, making it perfect preparation for a poacher. Good anticipation is essential.

Miguel Delaney

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