Midfield battle will be decisive

James Ryan: Sweeps up a lot of breaking ground ball.

Limerick have had four weeks to prepare for this final with no injuries and no distractions.

Full control for four weeks, enough time to improve on skills, physical and mental preparation, nutrition, hydration and crucially enough rest time built in. Basically a manager’s dream.

Since the Clare win a number of Cork players have been involved in club championship, others had football commitments and there are some injuries. Not an ideal run-in to the game for Cork manager Jimmy Barry- Murphy.

Preparation time makes a big difference. That also gives us the pertinent question hanging over this game: how will Cork’s dual players perform?

Football has been a priority for them of late and they will have had only two light training sessions this week. As the players prepare for the game the length and intensity of the sessions decreases. An important confidence builder for any hurler is his first touch and timing. It is built and honed by practice at high intensity in competitive training, replicating match conditions. If it is off in any way it leads to simple ball control errors. These errors sap player morale and are pounced on enthusiastically by a hungry opposition like an alpha predator on wounded prey.

Damien Cahalane has been troubled by a foot injury since Sunday. Aidan Walsh is short on hurling practice. Mark Ellis may not play. All confidence boosters for Limerick.

One of the main battlegrounds tomorrow will be midfield. Limerick’s pairing of James Ryan and Paul Browne were their most consistent performers throughout the league. They dominated in the semi-final while Cork’s Daniel Kearney and Aidan Walsh gave a tour de force against Clare.

Modern midfield play has changed. Midfielders today spend as much time back in defence or up supporting forward colleagues as they do in midfield. Deliveries from midfield have changed also. It’s now about retaining possession using shorter stick or hand passes. Ryan, man of the match against Tipp, handpassed off 11 of his 21 possessions while 1-7 of the 1-9 Limerick scored from play came directly from hand passes or short stick passes. Only a goal from a free and a point from play resulted from long balls out of defence.

Both pairings are similar — very skilful and mobile. Aidan Walsh is best in the air. James Ryan sweeps up a lot of breaking ground ball. Browne likes to support forwards as does Kearney but Browne has a psychological advantage in that he ruled midfield in the League against the Cork pair of Kearney and Lorcán McLoughlin. Cork have changed their style since last year, moving to a possession-based shorter game so evident against the wins over Waterford and Clare. Correct use of the ball from this sector will be significant.

Jimmy Barry-Murphy will be anxious to get wing forwards Conor Lehane and Seamus Harnedy into the play as often as possible. Driving cross-field balls or long deliveries to the half forwards from defence are easily dealt with by experienced wing backs. The cleverest ball to the wings are fast 20m/30m short passes angled out to the wings from midfield or half back. This forces the defenders wide as they police their men and opens gaps to the inside line. If defenders don’t follow their men, remaining in a zonal defence the forwards can hurt them by striking over long range points. The only way to seriously counter these tactics is for the opposing half forwards to drop deep, pressurising midfielders and forcing them into deliveries that are more advantageous to opposing defenders.

That’s also why Limerick manager TJ Ryan will be looking for more scores from play from his half-forward line.

Central to this will be captain Donal O’Grady. He has the capacity to score from long range. He moves into good scoring positions by dropping off his marker at the required time. He sent over two huge inspirational points against Tipperary having received short stick passes from his midfielders.

O’Grady will require close watching but if he is closely man marked by the centre back it will leave gaps in front of a dangerous full-forward line of Kevin Downes, Shane Dowling and the speedy Graeme Mulcahy who will need tight policing.

David Breen comes into the Limerick team and will play at wing forward. Declan Hannon is on the other wing. Both players are tall and good in the air. Winning four or five puck outs on the bounce always provides a good platform. Blocking the ball to ground or batting it away rather than attempting to catch it under pressure may be the percentage option for Cork’s wing backs. Winning the battle in the middle third usually wins the war.

Cork captain Pa Cronin is likely to line out at full forward. He has been unlucky in the goalscoring stakes this season and will be opposed by Limerick All Star Richie McCarthy. This tussle will be crucial. McCarthy is deceptively quick and a great reader of the game, enabling him to make vital game-saving interceptions.

He has an innate defender’s intelligence of when to commit himself and when to stand off. An excellent tackler it is difficult to make progress against him. Cronin will have a height advantage and if he manages to win some ball in the air running at the ‘keeper and batting in rather than striking himself or offloading to Patrick Horgan might be a better course of action, as Horgan is a much crisper striker in tight situations.

Of course it is the quality of the ball sent in to the edge of the square that will make the difference for both full forwards. More often than not a full back will deal comfortably with long high balls struck from the centre of midfield. Angled high centres from right or left half forward create far more difficulties as a full back doesn’t get time to set in a favoured position and it is more difficult to jockey his man legitimately from the side. Both managers will hope to get the match ups correct in the full back lines.

The tight-marking, abrasive Tom Condon could be delegated to man mark Cork’s dangerman Patrick Horgan while the flexible and experienced Seamus Hickey, more of a sweeper than man marker, operates in the left corner on the dangerous Alan Cadogan. At the other end the Cork defence will have to be at it’s sharpest to negate the threat of the well balanced treaty full-forward line.

There’s not much between these teams. With free takers of the calibre of Pat Horgan and Shane Dowling good collective discipline is a must. The bench always plays a part in a tight game.

However, as always, determination and attitude as well as taking the right option, particularly around the goalmouth, the bit of luck and the 50/50 calls by the referee will decide the issue.

Cork v Limerick: Three key battles

James Ryan (Limerick) and Aidan Walsh (Cork), Paul Browne (Limerick) and Daniel Kearney (Cork)

They both dominated in their respective semi-final wins against Clare (Cork) and Tipperary (Limerick), and were instrumental in providing the link between defence and attack, while also doing the basics under puck outs. Ryan and Walsh are the two-handed broadsword, Browne and Kearney the rapiers, but all have that cutting edge, capable of scoring.

Seamus Hickey and Tom Condon (Limerick) on Patrick Horgan and Alan Cadogan (Cork)

Who will pick up who? Hickey’s power and trickery to neutralise the same qualities in Horgan, Condon’s pace and competitiveness to counter Cadogan’s? The returning and rejuvenated Hickey certainly has the hurling to match the silk of the Glen’s latest maestro and of course he’s a supreme athlete. Condon is more a traditional style corner-back, a warrior who plays with gritted teeth but he too is meeting a real tartar. The problem for the defenders, they can win five of six balls but that sixth – one slip and Horgan or Cadogan will punish you.

Kevin Downes (Limerick) on Stephen McDonnell (Cork)

This is presuming Stephen starts where he did so well against Clare in the semi-final, with Damien Cahalane again moving to the wing. Either way, whether it’s Stephen or Damien he’s going to have his hands full because Kevin looks like a man possessed this year, back to the menacing, marauding best. He is one of those whose first instinct is goal, just what you want in your full-forward.

- by Diarmuid O’Flynn


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