DONAL O'GRADY: How can Cork counter Kelly in the six-and-a-half zone?

Cork have struggled in this championship with their delivery of short puckouts to their corner-backs on the sidelines. There has been a disconnection between the man in possession and defensive colleagues, hindering the link-up and transitioning of possession to the Rebel attack.

It is always a major play when opponents shut down defenders in possession or force them into errors and there is always a huge response from supporters, who know the value of such plays. In contrast to their tactics in last year’s final, I expect Clare’s midfield and forwards to push up on their opponents on Rebel restarts.

Anthony Nash needs to play a ‘quarterback’ role to ensure that Cork benefit as much as possible from his puckouts. If a corner- or full-back receives from Nash, the Clare attacker on that side will move to cut off any advancement. The keeper must then make himself available to take the return and drive out through the channel between the full-back and his corner colleague.

Nash favours his left side so linking up with his No. 4 is the best option for Cork’s netminder. When this channel opens up, opportunities for offloads present themselves. Delivering possession to his centre-back, who has been named as Eoin Cadogan, or to Mark Coleman, or Daragh Fitzgibbon, as one of them moves through midfield, should be the first aim of the exercise.

How can Cork counter Kelly in the six-and-a-half zone?

Getting accurate, quality ball to the inside attackers in dangerous areas is always the main objective, so Nash must mix up long Hail Mary deliveries with short accurate 30m stick passes.

Most importantly, each potential supporting receiver should take the ball from a position behind the play and at pace. Clare forwards and midfielders will have to push up on their men to disrupt this strategy. And in doing so they will allow space in front of their half-back line which all teams try to avoid.

However the Rebel half-forwards are not renowned for plucking puckouts from the air and the Banner may fancy going head to head under high balls on an individual basis. If Clare do push up then Cork defenders need to retreat towards their own goal and their half-forwards should congregate on one wing with Nash delivering into the space left vacant by a wing-forward for an outcoming corner-forward or an advancing midfielder with a height advantage.

Tony Kelly looked near his best against Tipp and Limerick, reprising the role that made him so effective at U21 level and in the run to the 2013 All-Ireland title. Kelly drifts back from centre-half forward to what I termed, in my former coaching life, as the six-and-a-half position — the triangle between the centre-back, the left-half back and left midfield. This is a clever tactic. He operated this strategy very effectively against Tipp (some uncharacteristic wayward shooting aside) and against Limerick.

Cork centre-backs invariably play a zonal role. They patrol the centre, 50m or so from their goal. This affords the dangerous Kelly carte blanche to move unmarked into an open area and on his favoured left side to shoot points or to pick out John Conlon.

Wing-forward David Reidy, constantly on the move, also drifts back to this area and picks up a lot of loose breaks. He offloads effectively or runs at the opposing defence, drawing frees. Furthermore, Jamie Shanahan plays on the left wing of defence, is very comfortable going forward and links up well with those in advanced positions.

Midfielder Colm Galvin likes to operate in this sector as well. Clare combination play and neat ‘one-twos’ allow runners to advance down this corridor. This area is a launch site for many Banner attacks and needs careful monitoring by the Rebels on the field and by the management.

Furthermore, Podge Collins drifts out the field and takes up stations in the central
corridor of the pitch offering support by running parallel to the inside left corridor.

The Rebels don’t have a man-marker per se to stay with Kelly. Luke Meade may be the nearest they have to fulfil this role and he may be tasked to police Kelly’s runs from Clare’s half-back line. However, Clare will still have an extra man in this area and very high work-rate will be required by Cork’s midfielders, centre-forward, and corner-forward in this area of the field. It will make life much easier for their defence if they can shut down Kelly’s possession at source.

John Conlon has been to the fore up front for the Banner in this championship. Supplying the in-form Clonlara powerhouse with quality deliveries must form part of Clare’s gameplan. Conlon favours turning to his right when gaining possession and once advancing at pace, his physical presence makes him very difficult to subdue. The ideal delivery for Conlon is a diagonal ball from the left side across the defence towards the right corner.

Accurate diagonal ball is difficult to deal with for defenders as they cannot afford to attack these as they would a long straight delivery because of the body position of the forward. Knocking the ball away from Conlon’s hand by sliding the stick diagonally over his left shoulder in front of his hand rather than going for a 50/50 catching contest should be the order of the day for his marker. If Conlon gets possession from the air once or twice it will be big boost in confidence for the rest of the team. Getting the ball to ground will be a major plus for the Cork defence.

In Clare’s last three games, Peter Duggan has averaged 12 points from frees. In their first game against the Rebels, Clare scored six and were beaten by five. This is the first challenge for Cork today. Keeping the scoreable free count low is a given. Innocuous frees for tugs of the jersey or shorts must be avoided at all costs — frees should be conceded only as a last resort.

Some finals are decided by a stroke of genius while others are won by the team that keeps composure and commits fewer errors. Today’s game may fall into the latter category.


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