A lack of defensive fundamentals, rather than opponents’ creativity, often decides a game. Cork must be robust but flexible at the back in Thurles, writes Donal O’Grady.
Tipperary, second favourites for the All-Ireland this year, are hot favourites against Cork tomorrow. This brings its own pressure. Cork are free of this. Over the past two years the league and championship meetings between these two counties have been tame affairs.
Tipp won such open, non-physical encounters comfortably and will want to play an open ‘traditional’ game again, which would be to their advantage.
Cork need to change the dynamic of these contests. Testing Tipp physically, by offering an in-your-face intense challenge all over the field as they did in the Kilkenny league game in March - but with much greater discipline - is a basic requirement for the men in red.
There are numerous questions ahead of tomorrow’s quarter-final in Semple Stadium. There is the perennial ‘can Tipp win tight contests’ poser, even if their supporters may feel this won’t be asked on this occasion.
In Stephen McDonnell’s absence, how will Cork’s makeshift full-back line perform? Has Damien Cahalane enough practice at the dos and don’ts of full-back play? Is he now aware of when to go for possession and when to legitimately play the man? It is the same for Tipp’s full-back James Barry when it comes to these vital attributes in front of the square.
Will Tipp’s traditional pairing of a holding Brendan Maher and a ‘go forward’ Michael Breen hold sway in midfield? Can Breen, Tipp’s major find this year, bring his strong running league form to the championship, or can Cork’s Brian Lawton emulate the defensive feats of Clare’s David Reidy against Waterford recently?
Has Daniel Kearney, Cork’s main midfielder, learned enough in their coaching sessions to be more effective with his deliveries and support running? Will new Tipp wing-back, Seamus Kennedy, have a profitable debut or can Cork exploit his inexperience? If Cork play as they did against Clare recently in Cloyne, will John “Bubbles” O’Dwyer remain composed?
Can Cork get enough supply to Seamus Harnedy and Conor Lehane or will the McGrath brothers use their innate understanding of each other’s play to conjure up the vital scores? All of these questions will be answered tomorrow, with one addition - the importance of the benches.
If I was Michael Ryan, the bulk of my strategy would involve dragging Cork’s Conor O’Sullivan out the field to exploit his lack of half-back pace and permit direct running at the Cork defence to negate the influence of the sweeper.
When opportunities present, half-forwards would make diagonal runs from the wings, releasing passes into space for colleagues crossing the play, in the search for early goals. In this scenario, I would play Seamus Callanan about five metres behind the centre-forward. I would have John McGrath, Tipp’s most impressive forward during the league, in the left corner and ‘Bonnar’ Maher at centre forward with the others rotating their positions.
Callanan is at his most dangerous when he is running onto passes or loose ball. From this position, he could lead the charge as he fastens onto ‘over-the-top’ passes into space. Patrick ‘Bonnar’ Maher would be an important player in this regard. He has tremendous talent and his workrate is vital to his scoring colleagues. He has many strengths - winning ruck ball and direct running being his greatest. However his offloading can be faulty at times, giving passes too early or too late.
Over these last few weeks I would have requested coach Declan Fanning to set up scenarios where Maher constantly practised spinning out of contact and the timing of his offload to support runners. Ryan will be aware Cork’s confidence will be suspect at the beginning. The charge has been levelled at the Premier, particularly from their Leinster neighbours, that (with due regard to Shakespeare), “they lack gall to make oppression bitter”.
Ryan will want them to go for the jugular quickly.
Manager Kieran Kingston is aware Cork had the worst defensive league record, conceding almost 30 points per game. Individually, Cork compare well enough with other defences but they lack organisation and the required unity, where all players are aware of their defensive roles.
Head coach Frank Flannery had a number of uninterrupted weeks to work on this problem. He will be hoping this work was not in vain. Good defence is all about the fundamentals, the small things, like tight marking when danger threatens, protecting possession, disciplined tackling and playing the percentage. It is the lack of these fundamentals, rather than an opponents creativity, that often decides a game. Tipp like to swing the play from the wing forwards to the opposite corner in an effort to create space and unhinge a defence, by pulling players out of position. How Cork deal with this tactic may define tomorrow’s game.
The Leesiders played very defensively against Galway in the relegation win where Rebel forwards tracked back quickly, something that must be repeated ad infinitum against the blue and gold. William Egan was effective that day as an extra defender and will take on this role again in an attempt to limit goal chances for Tipp’s sharpshooters. Defensively the Rebels will need to follow their opponents but with only two experienced inside backs, Damien Cahalane and Conor O’Sullivan and five half backs, the danger is that half backs will find themselves operating in unfamiliar full back positions and lacking the necessary skills to operate there (ref T. Doyle v S Darby, 1982). Tipperary have flexibility in attack. Cork will need similar flexibility in defence.
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