Expectations around ‘De Republic’ have risen steeply since their last outing. Expectation brings pressure and for the first time since their league game against Dublin, Cork go in as favourites.
Clare did what they had to against Limerick. There were lots of areas highlighted in that encounter that needed improvement and rumours abound that adjustments to their defence will see the introduction of tight marking Oisín O’Brien to corner back and Séadna Morey moving to the half line.
There is no doubt Clare will be a sharper, more hungry animal tomorrow than they were on June 4. We have heard more about the Clare footballers over the past few weeks than their hurlers. Things are quiet in Clare and contestants should always be wary of quiet opponents.
Clare and Cork are tactically similar. Each possesses dangerous attackers. Clare have players in their inside attack, particularly Shane O’Donnell, who can hurt an opposition quickly. Tony Kelly, particularly if placed at centre-forward or midfield, Podge Collins, and Colm Galvin form a highly effective triumvirate in the middle third and are difficult to shut down.
The Rebels have Seamus Harnedy, Conor Lehane, and Patrick Horgan in good scoring form. This game could be an intriguing tactical battle. Cork can’t afford any injuries in their inside defence. Clare are a little better off in this regard. For both teams, maintaining good tackling discipline and keeping mistakes to the minimum will be vital to their cause.
Canny Clare coach, Cloyne’s Dónal Óg Cusack, and co-managers Donal Maloney and Gerry O’Connor will have looked at Rebel areas of influence. They will have scrutinised Cork half-back play and the twin threat up front of Lehane and Harnedy. Unlike Tipperary and Waterford, Clare will have plans to negate these spheres of Rebel influence, while playing to their own strengths.
The astute Cork management team, led impressively by Kieran Kingston, will have similar plans to force Andrew Fahy to strike 50/50 puckouts while minimising the considerable threat of a ‘drifting’ Tony Kelly, who has the capacity to win a game from long range.
Clare will hope to force Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash, in great form, to go long from general play and restarts. The obvious starting points for this tactic begin with Mark Coleman and Mark Ellis, in Cork’s half-back line.
I’m expecting John Conlon or Cathal Malone to push up on Coleman for Cork puckouts and the physically strong Clare wing forwards may forego some attacking duties in general play, to restrict the highly influential young wing back. The full forward Aron Shanagher would drift back on Ellis while Tony Kelly or Podge Collins, operating at centre forward, would drop deep into central midfield, covering off the supply line to Daragh Fitzgibbon.
Cork full back Damien Cahalane would be free to receive directly from Anthony Nash, with the option of carrying the ball and working it through the lines, a high-risk strategy, or returning it to Nash, breaking forward to the 20m line.
Cutting the supply line to Conor McGrath and Shane O’Donnell is crucial for the Rebels while stopping Conor Lehane and Seamie Harnedy will be highest on Clare’s agenda. Both management teams are aware that if they can curb these in-form attackers, half the job is done.
Attackers seldom generate their own ball, unless they win the ball in a tackle or in a ruck. They depend on the players outside them to provide a quality supply. Pressurising those delivering the ball from half-back and midfield will ensure those tasked with depriving the main scorers of possession will have an easier afternoon.
I expect a ‘crowded’ middle third, with attackers and midfielders helping the defensive units by tackling back quickly, effectively, and cutting down the attacking space, which was available to both attacks in their previous games.
Long deliveries from defence can lack accuracy, and are easily cut out, so are beloved by opposing defenders. Short, sharp 30m/35m stick passes into a full- forward line are a nightmare for defenders. ‘Line breaks’ is a term from rugby, not usually used in hurling parlance, but they may be in vogue tomorrow. When the midfield/half forwards funnel back to supplement the half-back line, the number of bodies to bypass ensures lots of turnovers, establishing a counter-attacking platform for the opposition.
Carrying the ball in hand, in a ‘line break’, is the best way to ensure quality possession for the inside attack. Establishing a good supply line through or around the crowded area is essential for both attacks. Bypassing Cork centre back Mark Ellis, who retreats quickly to cover in front of his full backs, is a requirement for the Banner supply line. Colm Galvin operates in an ‘inside left’ channel. By transferring the ball quickly, between the advancing wing back David Fitzgerald, Podge Collins and Galvin they can make ground at pace to a delivery point that negates the defensive influence of Ellis.
This tactic creates a good angle of attack giving O’Donnell or McGrath the advantage over their markers close to the Cork goal. These deliveries could ask awkward questions of the Rebels’ inside defence. Cork’s best chance of breaking through this crowded area would be to supply Conor Lehane in the centre and for him to link up with the speedy Shane Kingston, on the loop around from the left wing or a backward pop pass to Darragh Fitzgibbon, running a direct line from midfield.
Both teams will want to keep the forward channels open. Clare have more experience of shutting down the game than Cork, given their experience of a ‘hard or soft’ sweeper system through U21, with this management. Championship hurling is about playing percentages and driving home one’s advantage, when opportunities arrive.
In the Waterford game, during the second half, when the Rebels needed to keep their foot on their opponents’ throat, the Cork keeper received three times from his defence, drove forward, and launched long, high balls deep into his attack. These were swallowed up by the Déise defence. Clare will want Nash to hit similar deliveries, while the Rebels need him to hit his midfielders with flat, ‘head-high’ ball down the channel, through which he advances, to open up the play.
This could be a tight, tense, tactical encounter until it opens up in the last 20 minutes. Whoever minimises their mistakes and maximises their matchwinners’ time in possession should win the day.