Forget the attack, let’s praise the Kerry defence

There was a weird atmosphere walking away from Páirc Uí Caoimh last Saturday evening, writes Mike Quirke.

Forget the attack, let’s praise the Kerry defence

Or even that the Cork supporters would have been vocal in their displeasure for what they had just been subjected to.

But there was nothing.

Scarcely any atmosphere at all.

It was like apathy and acceptance had long set in and people had already filed it away under ‘non-event’.

It was the second game in a row for supporters of the Kingdom to be left feeling unfulfilled by the meek examination their team received in what turned out to be a summer stroll to another provincial title.

That was hardly Kerry’s fault, though. They’ve produced more than enough to secure safe passage through June and into the Super 8s showpiece.

Cork started this one with fire and brimstone. They brought pace and fury to the opening 10 minutes that saw wing-forward Ruairi Deane wreak havoc on a tentative looking Kerry.

Firstly, he found himself being picked up by Paul Murphy and pitched himself at the edge of the square. His teammates spotted the mismatch and were quick enough to float a beautiful diagonal in his direction.

He won it high over his head and made a great read to slip it across to his full-back to tap into an unguarded net. It was sharp, attacking football.

Cork’s Ruairi Deane is shown a black card by referee Ciaran Brannigan
Cork’s Ruairi Deane is shown a black card by referee Ciaran Brannigan

Kerry settled down and organised themselves, but this time Deane put the shoe down, ran past Peter Crowley and drove at the Kerry defence from distance. Again, he made a good decision at the edge of the square and threw it across for his full-forward Mark Collins to palm in.

Luke Connolly followed it up shortly after with a miraculous stinger with the outside of his left boot that was a beautiful piece of skill and as fine as score as we got in the game.

The new stadium was rocking. Jenny Greene and her crew in the Marquee next door couldn’t hear themselves think.

Cork were up for this, you felt, and were going to make a right battle of it.

Unfortunately, that blistering opening 10 minutes was as good as it got for the home side. Perhaps, the Kerry youngsters needed a minute to acclimatise to their new environment and the pace with which their hosts had started the game.

Whatever it was that powered Cork’s quick opening or slowed Kerry early on, it didn’t take long for it to settle into a pattern, with the Kingdom’s physicality and tackling dictating the game.

Fitzmaurice rejigged their defensive match-ups; young Gavin White was switched onto the dangerous Deane and he quickly nullified the threat he posed up until his dismissal on a black card for what looked like a deliberate body check just before halftime.

If you’ve not seen or heard much about White before last weekend, he’s an attacking half-back who looks like being one of the most important pieces of this new-look Kerry jigsaw.

Sure, Sean O’Shea and David Clifford will get the TV interviews and column inches as key parts of the offensive juggernaut that are putting up huge numbers, but the dynamism of Kerry’s new defensive parts are just as crucial an addition to the Munster champion’s chances of regaining September spoils.

The presence of White, Jason Foley along with Brian Ó Beaglaoich in that Kerry defence has injected genuine top-end running speed into a defensive unit that has been lacking that A+ athleticism for a few years.

Brian Ó Beaglaoich
Brian Ó Beaglaoich

White reminds me so much of what Jack McCaffrey brought to Dublin when he first burst on the scene. His presence is also providing the likes of Paul Murphy with increased freedom to push forward and dictate proceedings further up the field.

On Saturday night, as well as all the attacking runs that caught the eye, he was also like a free-safety in American football. There were a couple of occasions where he left his own marker and used his wheels to get back and tackle somebody else’s man who had broken through the line towards the Kerry goal. He turned them back or delayed them long enough for the cavalry to arrive and another attack was snuffed out.

That stuff isn’t sexy or glamorous and won’t show up on a stat sheet, but it’s infectious. Also, it’s a sign of the energetic, unselfish, and organised team defending that Kerry have brought to this year’s championship.

Add to that the rapidness of the likes of Foley and Ó Beaglaoich that has been inserted into the full-back line and you start to get a picture of why Cork only managed six scores over the course of nearly 80 minutes of football. Clare before them fared better, but still only managed 10 scores in the Munster semi-final a few weeks earlier.

Crucially, the key to their increased protection is starting much higher up the pitch.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Ronan McCarthy shake hands after Saturday’s one-sided Munster final
Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Ronan McCarthy shake hands after Saturday’s one-sided Munster final

Last Saturday, we saw the Kerry forwards and midfield harassing the Cork ball-carriers coming out with the ball and forcing them into a trap where they stripped them of possession, or at least slowed them down if they failed to win the ball.

For example, the early goal opportunity, where Sean O’Shea rattled the underside of the crossbar, came directly from a David Clifford tackle and turnover high up the pitch.

If they weren’t stealing the ball back, they were forcing the Cork players in the middle third to deliver ball towards their forwards under a lot of pressure and thereby giving the Kerry backs a better chance of competing

for it.

Again, much of that comes from having the energetic legs to be able to get after guys and press high up the pitch.

However, it also takes solid defensive principles to be in good help positions to be able to double team the ball carrier when the opportunity presents itself.

It’ll be fascinating to see how their defensive game develops, particularly as they come up against better forwards with more intelligent and elusive movement, but for now at least, after only two championship games, Kerry are defending with much more purpose and pace than we have seen in recent times.

Of course, we can only base it on what we’ve seen, which is that Kerry have faced two division two teams to this point.

Much sterner tests lie ahead, obviously, but the case for this new Kerry defence is one worth making.

They look the real deal and built for Croke Park.

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