The rule of thumb in the Allianz League is to win your home games, if possible, and hope to pick up a draw or lucky win on the road. Five years ago, the ambition was to make the final. In modern times, the first requirement is to avoid relegation.
Despite both having three home games, Cork — in transition — and Dublin — minus their Cuala contingent — are favourites to be in a relegation battle. However, higher levels of physical conditioning can compensate for skill in early springtime.
Video analysis provides valuable insights. The Cork management will have seriously looked at the strengths, but particularly the weaknesses, on view last year and have developed plans for improvement. Kieran Kingston’s management team have revamped the panel, giving youth its fling, but initially inexperience can be a heavy burden.
Rebel management will target the first two games, both at home, as potential victories and hope Tipp are satisfied with their points total by the final game. Clare come to town tonight minus experienced defender Pat O’Connor and marquee attacker Conor McGrath but they have named a strong team, including Jack Browne and Tony Kelly from Ballyea, which clearly signals their intent.
The Banner will be well up for this contest and will want to get their campaign off on a positive note, impressing their new joint managers as well as head coach Dónal Óg Cusack. To win, the Cork players need to be hungrier and more determined, as this game has huge implications for their year.
They are hit by Conor Lehane’s absence through injury, along with experienced inside defenders Damien Cahalane and Stephen McDonnell. Top level full-back replacements looked thin on the ground in the People’s Republic last season. Mark Ellis, with little experience of the position, ended up there and it will be interesting to see if Cork have found the required calibre of replacements.
The full-back-line is a vital defensive obstruction in preventing goals. Replacing two in this line is less than ideal for the Rebels. Solid defence always sets the tone. Stopping opposition attacks completely or keeping goals to a minimum gives a huge boost to the team as a whole. Anyone who saw last weekend’s Super Bowl witnessed the influence of good defence.
The modern game dictates that defence begins once the ball is in the hands of the opposition. Cork have found it difficult to adapt to the modern phenomenon of funnelling back quickly from forward positions to close down space with purpose in midfield.
Some Rebel forwards previously neglected this side of their responsibilities. But this is surely an area that Cork have worked on over the winter. Cork would do well to remember it was Donal Maloney and Gerry O’Connor’s innovation that spearheaded Clare’s system that won them the 2013 All-Ireland as well as the many U21 players. It will be interesting to see how Cork close down Clare’s ‘midfield liberos’ Tony Kelly, Podge Collins, and David Reidy; a must if they hope to prevail.
As they seek improvements, the first priority for Cork’s management is building a cohesive defensive unit from numbers one to seven. Each player must be aware of his role when the ball is lost and work in unison to prevent easy scores. Crisp, disciplined tackling, good communication from the defensive leaders, eradication of avoidable scoreable frees, and eventually, good deliveries forward, when possession is regained, are basic requirements.
In these early games, Cork need to bring defensive heat to their game, playing the percentages and forcing an acknowledgement from opponents that the Rebels of 2017 are growing into a different defensive animal. A constant, disciplined pressure must be applied to opponents, preventing penetration for goals or easy point-scoring chances.
I am not expecting a telephone box transformation where players shed their old habits like street clothes and emerge in the red of Cork with defensive superpowers. It takes time but can be speeded up with keen discipline and regular little successes.
The Clare attack is not renowned as a goalscoring unit but Shane O’Donnell and John Conlon need careful attention. Keeping them goalless must be one of Cork’s main objectives, while limiting the Banner’s point-scoring from midfield.
Cork need to sneak a win of any kind. If that can be achieved it will do wonders for the team’s confidence, always the best basis for progress.