Last July’s Munster football final in Killarney resulted in a fifth provincial title in a row for the hosts and the bookies have again installed Kerry as firm favourites to take the spoils tomorrow night in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. The starting 15 Cork has named shows nine survivors from the 2017 decider. The big question is: Have the Rebels improved enough to bridge an 11-point deficit from just 12 months ago?
The semi-final performance in Thurles against Tipperary a month ago has given hope to Cork football supporters that this year will see an improvement in fortunes. Kerry responded with a comprehensive victory of their own in Killarney against Clare but how much can be read into the manner of both victories? The opposition provided by both Tipperary and Clare fell far short of the expected challenge so it is difficult to assess exactly where both teams are.
Cork must start tomorrow night’s game on the front foot. Last year in Killarney, Kerry began like a house on fire, kicking the first four points of the game. They killed the game off at the start of the second half by adding the next five scores. This Cork team is full of pace and power and they must bring all that athleticism to the field from the beginning tomorrow. Cork need to play with an aggression and energy that the young Kerry tyros have not experienced at this level. The feeble test against Clare may have given them a false impression of the intensity to be expected in the white heat of senior championship action. Cork must use every bit of their experience and physical prowess to rattle these young and inexperienced starlets. The hope is that an encouraging start which puts Kerry on the back foot can create an intimidating atmosphere that may unsettle the visitors.
Individual battles will be intriguing but the most critical area of the game will be which team gains the upper hand around the middle third. Kerry’s midfield duo of David Moran and Jack Barry are superior fielders of the ball to their Cork counterparts but Aidan Walsh and Ian Maguire are well capable of spoiling and hoovering up the breaking ball.
Together with the likes of Seán White, Ruairí Deane, and Kevin O’Driscoll, Cork will look to break quickly and test this new-look Kerry rear-guard by running at them.
With the emergence of Donegal at the turn of the last decade, blanket defences became all the rage. The knock-on effect was that teams quickly realised that to overcome such revolutionary tactics, they essentially had to ape these setups. Kerry’s setup in the 2014 decider was a prime example of this.
Kerry had learned from 2012, when, like ourselves, they had been caught trying to push up man for man on Donegal only to be hit repeatedly on the counter. As a result the 2014 final became one of the most tactical games in football history with Kerry doing what was required to get over the line. It wasn’t pretty but Éamonn Fitzmaurice isn’t judged on the aesthetics of Kerry’s football.
The most damaging effect these changes had on our game was the diminishing importance of kick-outs. We lost the spectacle of long kick-outs, high fielding, and big collisions for breaking ball and instead were offered retreating forward lines, recycling the ball, multiple phases, and other terms more suited to the rugby pitch.
In recent years, however, that trend has reversed and teams are again seeing the benefit of putting a squeeze on opposition kick-outs. Dublin, Kerry, and Mayo have all shown this to great effect and I expect Fitzmaurice to do the same tonight. The high press they put on the Clare kickout in Killarney was one of the most interesting features of an otherwise straightforward win. If they do, it will suit Cork down to the ground. It will give Cork a huge opportunity to go long, win breaking ball, and attack the open spaces in the Kerry defence.
At the opposite end, the same question applies.
Judging by the named team, I expect Cork to be operating with only two or three permanent forwards relying on support runners from deep. My fear is that, as in the second half of the Tipperary game, the Cork forwards will be unable to push up quickly enough to stop Kerry’s Shane Murphy picking out a corner-back at will.
Allowing a team of Kerry’s footballing ability a constant supply of possession is inviting trouble. Paul Murphy and Gavin White would like nothing better than having the freedom to dictate play and burst forward at their ease. The Cork team is full of athletes and they will require every ounce of their energy to push up and force Kerry to go long to a contest at midfield. Whether they’ll be instructed to remains to be seen.
Trying to predict the Cork setup tonight based on the named 15 is guesswork. I expect Seán White to drop from 11 to centre-back, allowing Stephen Cronin to once again sweep in front of the full back line. John O’Rourke or Mark Collins will then likely drop from the full-forward line to centre-forward, leaving the other and Luke Connolly inside as a two-man full forward line. With Ruairi Deane and Kevin O’Driscoll filtering back when not in possession, Cork will often end up with as many as 11 outfield players behind the ball.
This set-up was successful against Tipperary and therefore it is understandable that Cork would continue with this formation. The danger is that Cork will get sucked into a defensive mindset and struggle to threaten at the other end.
While not equating this clash to a David versus Goliath contest, it is hard not to draw comparisons with the Fermanagh-Monaghan game a few weeks ago. Cork, like Fermanagh, will hope they can be defensively solid and within touching distance of Kerry midway through the second half before unleashing heavy hitters from the bench.
With Paul Kerrigan, Brian and Michael Hurley, and Colm O’Neill lying in wait, Cork could conceivably finish with a more potent attacking force than will start.
For Cork to keep this game alive, their defensive unit will have to perform exceptionally well. Given that Kerry’s strongest line is their full forwards, Cork’s match-ups will be vital. Jamie O’Sullivan will pick up Paul Geaney while novices Kevin Flahive and Sam Ryan will have the onerous task of marking James O’Donoghue and David Clifford. The necessity of a full-time sweeper becomes fairly apparent when considering the daunting task these three face. No full-back line in the country will completely stifle this dynamic trio, which is why limiting the supply is key. The importance of that midfield battle cannot be underestimated.
Cork’s biggest strength and Kerry’s major weakness are the main reasons for Cork optimism. The running power of Cork’s middle eight and, in particular, Ian Maguire, has the potential to trouble any team. In last year’s Munster final, Cork wasted a number of good goalscoring opportunities created by strong runs through the middle.
The soft centre accusation throw at Kerry is not without justification. The Kerry defence isn’t blessed with massive physical presence. With a natural half-back, Peter Crowley, filling the full-back position and two novices of their own in the corners, this Kerry defence has questions of its own to answer. But will Cork commit enough men to attack to expose any frailties remains to be seen?
It is only a month ago that Cork were largely written off having stuttered through Division 2 of the league. Ronan McCarthy has been keen to stress that he won’t be getting too carried away by the highs or lows that come their way.
Whether Cork reclaim a first Munster title since 2012 remains to be seen but if the wait does goes on, Cork must show enough to convince themselves they are making steady progress.
It would be naive to adopt an all-out attack approach tonight but an ultra-defensive mindset will merely be damage limitation. Cork will hope to find a happy medium and produce a display that convinces us, but more importantly themselves, that they have turned the corner.
Given the gameplan will be a relatively simple one, the Cork players can go out and focus on leaving everything on the pitch. If they do, they will give themselves a fighting chance.