Nothing wrong with Cork pounding the rock

Nothing wrong with Cork pounding the rock
Cork’s Ruairi Deane wins a high ball from Kerry’s Gavin White in Saturday’s Munster SFC final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Picture: Inpho/James Crombie

The expression ‘be careful what you wish for’ was on the mind of many Kerry supporters who made the trip to Páirc Ui Chaoimh on Saturday. 

Long enough, we’ve lamented the lack of a proper Munster test before heading out on the Super 8s highway without checking the oil and water. 

But there can be no such complaints this season; Cork asked more questions than you’d get at a table quiz. 

Unfortunately for Kerry supporters, many went unanswered.

The recurring theme with Kerry teams of the recent past has been a defensive fragility that has led to the concession of far too many goal chances. 

I was looking forward to seeing what fresh thinking the new management group might have dreamed up to try and solidify those lingering defensive issues.

After the second or third gilt-edged goal chance that Ruari Deane or Mark Collins easily created for themselves in the first half, it seemed as though there wasn’t much change of defensive tack. 

Cork were aggressive, energetic, and direct. They were everything they used to be before they dropped off the Gaelic football map in recent times.

Back in 2002, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Superbowl under the direction of head coach Jon Gruden. His philosophy was an old fashioned but effective one. 

In American football, you can either throw the ball or run it to try and gain ground.

Gruden and his players developed the mantra; ‘pound the rock’ meaning ‘run the football’. 

It was seen as conservative play calling at a time when other teams were investing in gunslinger quarterbacks to take long shots down the field. 

Throwing the ball was a lower percentage play and Gruden hung his hat on keeping it simple and effective.

The Bucs were unapologetic for their style of play and were happy to eke out a few yards per carry if it meant they kept moving forward. 

Opposition teams would know what was coming, but struggled to contain it.

Pounding the rock became their team’s unifying identity and it led them all the way to the Vince Lombardi trophy.

Looking at Cork at close quarters Saturday night, they’ve seemingly rediscovered a version of their old selves again. 

Cork's Killian O'Hanlon and Gavin White of Kerry. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Cork's Killian O'Hanlon and Gavin White of Kerry. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

Like the 2002 Bucs, the Rebels pounded the rock, and for most of the game, it was a hugely effective attacking weapon Kerry struggled to cope with.

They don’t have the same quality of inside forward as a David Clifford or a Jamie Brennan, so getting back to their running game and making best use of the athleticism they have all over the pitch allows them to play to their strengths.

While still being a limited squad, finding their personality and the confidence that comes from everybody having clarity from knowing how they want to play is empowering for any group of players. 

Watching Ruari Deane rampaging towards goal evoked memories of Pearse O’Neill doing likewise in a red jersey for years. 

An unapologetic ball carrier with a real dog for the fight in him.

Even in defeat, Cork will take great solace from their performance, especially considering the mauling they suffered in the same venue against the same opponent 12 months ago. 

Harnessing that momentum over the next two weeks is the big challenge for Ronan McCarthy and his management team. 

On the evidence of last weekend, if they keep running the ball with the same single-mindedness, they’ll be an awkward draw for whoever they are paired with in the Round 4 Qualifier and will privately fancy their chances of advancing to the Super 8s.

Despite the victory, I’m not sure we learned much about the game plan of this Kerry team under their new management.

What is their calling card going to be? Twenty scores is a solid offensive output for any team, but we already knew they had that in their locker. 

What about the other side of the ball — that’s where Kerry need to discover a new collective identity and sense of purpose.

Look at the way they responded to going a man down after Paul Geaney was sent off. 

Their sense of composure and game management took over like somebody flicked the autopilot switch. 

They defended deeper, they broke at pace, kicked when they needed to, and controlled the game all the way to the final whistle. 

Never once looking like they were under any serious pressure to hold out.

Stephen O’Brien epitomised all that was admirable in the Kerry performance on the night. 

His GPS numbers must have been astronomical; he was direct, he was a scorer, a facilitator, and a key contributor defensively when the game was in the mix.

The likes of himself, Paul Murphy, and David Moran really went looking for ball in that last quarter. 

Nothing wrong with Cork pounding the rock

They were the ones showing the leadership and desire to go get the ball off their team-mates and make something happen. 

Those are the moments when some players tend to fade out of the game, afraid of making a game-defining mistake, while your big leaders will have the courage to have more possessions than everybody else in those closing minutes.

A relatively young Kerry side showed plenty of nous when it mattered most, and it was enough to see them home with the silverware.

The challenge for them moving forward will be to marry that guile and offensive firepower with a more effective defensive game-plan as well as finding more punch off the bench. 

Last Saturday was the third successive outing that has seen Kerry outscored in the second half by an average of 4.5 points.

Again, the benefit of getting to a league final against Mayo as well as receiving good competitive examinations from Clare and Cork through the provincial championship has highlighted areas where Kerry must improve if they’re to push towards where they want to be. 

They’ll need to be more solid defensively; develop a better sense of team defending which starts a long way from their own full-back line. 

They’ll also need to find greater impact from the bench in the last quarter of these games to match what some of the other top teams are able to call on when the fat is in the fire.

Donegal showed their teeth against Cavan, and Dublin swatted away the anaemic challenge of Meath in their respective provincial deciders on Sunday. 

Neither result was unexpected, but it was the manner of the Donegal performance that marks them out as the most likely challenger Dublin’s crown at this stage.

It’s a good thing that Kerry have glaring issues in June; the journey and challenge for the group will be figuring out how to solve them by July.

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