WE have the two longest-serving, and the most influential, goalkeepers in hurling at Semple Stadium tomorrow.
I’ll start with the Cork custodian. Donal Óg Cusack has changed the way custodians operate. He has revolutionised the position. Take his clearances alone; time was when the goalkeeper just leathered the ball as far as he could. But you look at this man and everything is done very deliberately. Even under the most intense pressure, he’ll find his man and the flight he puts on the ball — low and hard — means it gets there fast. He’s been caught out a few times because of the ploy, for which he’s criticised, but what of all the scores that might have resulted against Cork if he were to just take the easy option every time and let rip? I like his coolness, the way he stays on his feet and doesn’t sell himself. He is very intelligent, alert and brave, has great positional sense and stands up well to an oncoming forward.
He’s also very vocal which I like in a goalkeeper, organising his defence very well and is constantly communicating.
To Brendan Cummins. The Tipperary legend is very similar to Cusack though his clearances aren’t as accurate or as pointed. But against that he has a huge puckout, a massive belt of a ball, and who will forget his point against Kilkenny in last year’s All-Ireland final?
He tends to go off his feet when it’s not needed at times and is a more spectacular keeper than Cusack while his size makes him more intimidating than his Cork counterpart.
Those two could have a huge bearing on tomorrow’s outcome.
THE team sheets have Shane McGrath and Gearoid Ryan facing off against Lorcan McLoughlin and Pa Cronin. However McGrath is an injury doubt and if he’s ruled out then Tipperary are in some trouble.
He’s probably the best hurler of all four here while with Brendan Maher out with an broken ankle, this would mean the hosts would have to go with an entirely new midfield pairing.
Midfield is a crucial area, more so now than ever. Apart from their defensive duties, midfielders nowadays have become auxiliary forwards, coming in with a few points in every game. They have to be superb all-rounders, both as hurlers and as athletes. They must be able to defend, to attack, go shoulder to shoulder, and crucially distribute good ball.
In all those qualities Brendan Maher is superb, and his loss will be felt tomorrow.
Cork have gone with Cronin in midfield — I think that’s a good choice.
He’s a big man, a good athlete, and having that freedom will suit him. I’m not as convinced of McLoughlin. This is his first championship start and he’s going to be in to some cauldron.
A good start is crucial to him so the advice is to do the simple things from the start, keep the ball moving, get a feel for the game before trying anything fancy. Remember, he’s not with a very experienced player either, he doesn’t have Jerry O’Connor alongside him so the objective is to support Cronin and stop the Tipperary pairing.
Gearoid Ryan is a fine hurler and though he was nominally a half-forward last year, he played much of his hurling out around midfield. He’s a strong player for his size, has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years — a good man to be able to call on in the absence of Brendan Maher.
I expect a good few scores from this sector on Sunday but the pressure is really on the Cork pairing.
THE Tipp full-back line was their best line last year.
Stapleton/Curran/Cahill were exceptional, and they’re there again this year. Now too we have Padraic Maher in what I say is his best position, centre-back, and alongside him you have a new boy, John O’Keeffe, along with David Young who came on as a sub in last year’s All-Ireland final. Against those two you have two very experienced Cork players, Ben O’Connor and Niall McCarthy, and these could produce crucial battles. I’m sure Donal Óg will be targeting a lot of ball down the wings here but expect too that a few high balls will be put down between Cian McCarthy and Padraic Maher — two powerful young men.
That Cork full-forward line, however, is going to be under massive pressure. We all know they’re good ball-players, very skilful, so don’t expect to see too much high ball being sent in here. Consistency is their problem. Patrick Horgan can be brilliant one day and can be taken off the next. The same applies for Paudie O’Sullivan while Luke O’Farrell is only a youngster.
They’re up against a very consistent line in Thurles and if this trio are off their game, Cork will lose. There are goals in them, we know that.
Expect a wide game from Cork, a conventional three-man line but with the corner-forwards spread to the corners. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Horgan going to full-forward or even if he saw some time at centre-forward. He’s a guy who likes to be in the action, who needs to be in the action, and I think actually that could be the problem with his inconsistency — if he’s not in the action, he loses concentration.
If these three fire Cork could fire. If they don’t then it’s all over.