Over the past week, we’ve seen a recognisable pattern repeating itself. Despite all logic and reason, some pundits (mainly from across the border) have begun to muddy logic’s waters over the outcome of tonight’s Munster football final at Páirc Ui Chaoimh.
Let’s tease out some facts: Kerry, beaten finalists in the Allianz League Division 1 final, having won six out of seven during the league stage. Cork, relegated to Division 3 having won just two from seven, and losing all three home games. The average margin in the two most recent Munster finals has been a staggering 14 points. if those statistics don’t undermine Kerry plámásing, I am not sure if anything will.
From a Cork point of view it is nigh impossible to predict what lies ahead. A dismal league campaign was followed up by an impressive victory over Limerick in the Munster semi-final. The manner of victory will have given the group a smidgen of confidence and self-belief ahead of what is a daunting task.
The 21-point semi-final mauling of Limerick was as one-sided as the scoreline suggests. The Cork players would be the first to recognise Limerick’s inadequacies set against what the face tonight. Night and day. Recent reports of positive displays and results in challenge games add weight to the narrative that Cork are motoring well.
Talk of an under-par Kerry performance against Clare ignores the reality that after 50 minutes of play Kerry led on a scoreline of 1-13 to 0-4 before tapering off to a comfortable six-point victory. The disheartening reality is that most Cork football people would quite readily take the handicap spread of a six-point loss in advance of the throw-in.
Following last year’s annihilation by Tyrone in Portlaoise, Ronan McCarthy was faced with the unenviable task of rebuilding a team who had lost their previous two championship games by a staggering combined total of 33 points. Changes in personnel were hinted at but just as important, an improvement in tactical structure and an effective game plan were required.
Work began in earnest as the new-look panel were put through a gruelling winter schedule in an attempt to bridge the gap in terms of physicality and athleticism. Attitude and application cannot be questioned from the group as a prolonged buy-in and dedication to training was the response from the large panel of players.
The league offered Cork the first opportunity at redemption, even if the response was far from impressive. Tactically the league campaign can be broken into two distinct parts; the first four games where Cork garnered one point, and the final three games which yielded two victories.
Having attended all three home games and watched the Clare game on TG4, there was a clear change in approach after the fourth league game against Clare. The opening four games saw Cork adopt at least one sweeper on all occasions with the Kildare home game being particularly defensive with both wing-forwards immediately dropping back to sweep behind the half-back line.
This defensive approach was a clear and understandable response to the previous summer’s hammerings but despite months of preparation and planning Cork looked inept and unsure of themselves. Cork were defensively passive and offensively blunt with slow and ponderous build-ups being frustratingly common.
Whatever happened in the hours and days following the defeat to Clare, Cork decided to change tack and place a greater emphasis on committing numbers to attack. This resulted in two away victories and a commendable performance at home against the division’s best team, Donegal.
What was clear in those games and since is that Cork began to operate with six natural forwards, generally instructed to play as forwards, and began to apply pressure higher up the pitch against the opposition. This continued to the championship as Limerick were put to the sword from minute one.
In a game so one-sided there was little to learn although Cork’s more positive approach was obvious. From midfield up, Cork worked tirelessly and tackled aggressively to force turnovers while the extra bodies in defence came from spare defenders as opposed to retreating forwards. The big question tonight is: will Cork be brave and trust their defenders enough to apply a high press against Kerry?
Looking back on last year’s articles for the Irish Examiner, this was one of the main pre-match questions and post-match reasons why Kerry were so dominant. Last year Cork tried to free up Stephen Cronin from his marking duties at centre-back, with players filtering back to cover his man.
The knock-on effect was a lack of pressure when Kerry had possession around the middle and an invitation to run at a porous and disjointed Cork defence. If Cork are brave and adopt a man-to-man approach then their defenders are in for one hell of a 70 minutes.
Kevin Flahive is likely the sole survivor from last year’s starting sextet with newcomers Nathan Walsh, Liam O’Donovan and Mattie Taylor in for an individual test as difficult as they have faced.
At the opposite end Cork certainly have the forwards to give Kerry pause for thought. The Castlehaven duo of Brian Hurley and Mark Collins looked razor sharp against Limerick while the powerful running of Ruairí Deane and the clever and creative skills of Eoghan McSweeney were other bright points.
The dilemma for Cork’s management is with the likes of Geaney, O’Donoghue, O’Shea and Clifford operating at the other end of the field, can they afford not to offer their defence some additional protection? Defenders left isolated tend to foul more often than with the crutch of sweepers covering, so expect Seán O’Shea to be busy from placed balls.
From a Cork point of view the omission of Luke Connolly from the starting 15 leaves them somewhat short of a reliable long-range free taker although rumblings of injuries in the Cork camp may change that situation.
The prominent feature of Cork’s attacking play is their running power from deep. Mattie Taylor, Ian Maguire, Killian O’Hanlon and Ruairí Deane are four key figures in this regard. All four players have ball-carrying ability and therefore a tendency to take ball into contact and look to create breaks.
Against Limerick this worked to spectacular effect as time after time Cork burst through the middle, drew on-rushing defenders before popping off a pass for easy scores. Unfortunately for Cork, tonight’s opposition won’t be as benevolent. Maguire, in particular, was targeted last year, which was crucial in denying Cork any momentum going forward.
Speaking of Cork’s talisman, midfield’s battle as always will be critical. Last year Mark White attempted to go short on a few occasions early but Kerry’s aggressive zonal split troubled him. The Cork half-back line made tentative moves for possession but this left Cork out of position and disjointed on breaks out the field.
Stephen O’Brien’s goal was a case in point. I expect Kerry to again push up on Cork’s kickouts forcing Mark White long which worked to great effect last year. David Moran ruled the skies that night. For Cork to have even a glimmer of hope, skipper Maguire and the dogged O’Hanlon need to break even around the middle. I hope Cork keep it simple and go long while flooding breaks for possession.
Kerry may pull a surprise in an attempt to expose the lack of height and a physical presence in the Cork full-back line. The returning Tommy Walsh, who featured prominently in the league but only saw 20 minutes of action against Clare, could be thrown in to offer another way of playing up top.
At the opposite end Cork may look to again position Ruairí Deane close to goal early on in a move that reaped dividends in last year’s decider. Kerry are unlikely to be as naive as to detail Paul Murphy to track him into the uncomfortable surrounds of the Kerry full-back line for a second year running.
As defeatist as it sounds, the reality is that Cork need to come out of this Munster final with a degree of optimism heading into the Round 4 qualifier. Following last year’s Munster final defeat there were six changes in personnel which in such a short period of time is drastic surgery and the consequent disjointed performance against Tyrone was no surprise.
Ronan McCarthy will hope that even in defeat his side show enough to ensure a fairly settled team takes to the field for a do-or-die clash in July. The semi-final mauling of Limerick was as one-sided as the scoreline suggests. The players would be the first to recognise Limerick’s inadequacies set against what they face tonight