In this year’s league Kilkenny used their A game against Tipperary in round one, against Galway in round 5 but crucially they didn’t use it in Cork for their round 4 encounter.
They certainly brought it with them to Thurles last Sunday.
I’ve written previously that Kilkenny play to a system that has been developed over a number of years and this current Cork management encountered it for the first time on Sunday.
It’s only when you play against Kilkenny at their best and study their organisation and movement that you can begin to plan to beat them — but then of course, one has to have the troops to put the plans into effect.
Cork expected conventional 15 v 15 warfare in the League final. What they got in Thurles is what we saw in Croke Park last September.
No matter what Cork did last Sunday they wouldn’t have won this game. It came too early for them in their development but it could be a watershed in their development when they look back in three years’ time.
Cork can learn an awful lot from this defeat. In 2003 Kilkenny beat Cork well in the League but the video of that game informed Cork’s hurling for the next two years.
Kilkenny base their system on two basic principles — they deny the opposing forwards space and therefore time on the ball while creating it up front for themselves.
Eoin Larkin was superb in the first-half but there was a huge contrast between the space he had and that available to Cork’s inside forwards.
When I looked down towards Larkin, the dominant colour around him was green as Kilkenny’s half forwards played deep, covered back and were the outlet men in their own half when their defenders needed that.
Corner-forward Mattew Ruth also came out deep, making it easy for Kilkenny’s outside men to pick out Larkin and others in one-on-one scenarios with their markers — always a huge advantage for a forward.
Kilkenny’s goals illustrate the point. Left half-back Richie Doyle broke on to a ball in left midfield and found Larkin 30 metres from goal. His physical strength, pace and skill level did the rest.
For the second goal, Brian Hogan found Larkin with a long ball, Colin Fennelly made a great angled run across goal and Larkin’s pass on the run was perfect.
The third goal came from a directed high ball to Colin Fennelly from Cillian Buckley, who picked up the ball inside his own 65, and eventually the ball got to TJ Reid, who goaled.
Those goals were scored because of the space created: Kilkenny’s half forwards, who pulled out in the hope that their markers would follow, which duly happened.
Cork also made basic mistakes for those goals but without the space, the goals might have been stopped at source.
At no stage would Kilkenny have conceded goals like these in the first-half as Cork’s tightly-marked forwards kept to their positions. In that first half, Kilkenny’s left half-forward Cillian Buckley dropped deep for Cork puck-outs and intercepted three balls meant for Pa Cronin.
This could have been negated by using shorter more varied puck-outs but it was a tactic unused by Cork.
Contrast this with Cork’s attempts to open up Kilkenny. Early in the game Patrick Horgan delivered a crossfield pass to Pa Cronin on the left, 50 metres from goal.
He was tackled immediately by Richie Hogan — the right half-forward — and Cronin’s marker Brian Hogan never moved from his centre-back position, knowing full well that Cronin would be pressurised by midfielders and half-forwards before ever threatening him.
Cork’s full-forwards and half-forwards never tackled back with concentrated numbers to allow their defence to remain as tight a unit as Kilkenny’s; in contrast, several times Cork defenders were bottled up quickly by Kilkenny forwards.
This is a system perfected by Kilkenny over the years and Cork haven’t been together long enough to develop their own system under Jimmy Barry Murphy’s management team.
Darren Sweetnam made some telling second-half runs which augurs well for the future and when they add in all the basic errors which led to Kilkenny scores, they may see enough positives to preserve a high enough level of confidence for a worthwhile championship campaign.
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