Is it us or has that Cork performance against Limerick grown better since their Munster semi-final?
Their eight-point defeat was harsher than the five-point reverse Tipperary experienced against Limerick last Sunday in the provincial decider.
Getting into the faces of the vaunted Limerick wing-forwards and full-forward, some of the Cork backs demonstrated a steeliness not usually seen.
Even if there are changes in personnel, that attitude must be retained as Clare, although not at Limerick levels, are no slouches in the physical stakes.
It’s the classic case of the steel fist in the velvet glove - Cork’s forwards will bring the panache but there must also be toughness. To engage Clare in a shoot-out which Kieran Kingston’s side would most likely win, Diarmuid Ryan and Cathal Malone must be matched with men of equal status as Tom Morrissey and Gearóid Hegarty were by Eoin Cadogan and Tim O’Mahony.
Marking John Conlon on the top of the semi-circle should be a consideration too but for a player who can zip away from him in the event he is dispossessed.
Whoever is deployed at full-back, Aron Shanagher has to at least be challenged in the air so that Clare feel their best option is to play rather than puck through Cork.
When Galway beat Waterford in a classic shootout in Salthill in early June, Brian Concannon was central to the win, scoring two goals and assisting two more for Joe Canning and Adrian Tuohy. Concannon finished with 2-2 that afternoon. A week later against Cork, he bagged 0-4 and had assists for 1-3, ending the league in the same position he ended last year’s championship – top of the chart of players involved in the most shots for each team either through a shot from play or an assist. Concannon scored 2-8 from 15 shots but his excellent 2020 season was further underlined by his assists contribution, with 26 assisted shots, an average of 6.5 per game. Concannon was fouled for 14 frees, a huge average of more than three a game.
Concannon looked to be carrying that form with him into this year’s championship but, similar to most of the Galway forwards, he was completely shut down against Dublin. Galway took off three of their starting forwards, but they left on Concannon – who didn’t score and who had minimal involvement in the game – because of the faith management have in Concannon. However, he is unlikely to have two poor games in succession, especially when Concannon has become such a key player for Galway.
When Clare launched their second-half comeback in the Division 2 league promotion semi-final against Mayo in Ennis, their starting point was bombing the Mayo square with high ball in the third quarter.
Darren O’Neill palmed a David Tubridy effort to the net in the 39th minute before O’Neill turned provider for Gavin Cooney six minutes later after Aidan O’Shea had just cleared a palmed high ball from O’Neill off the line. It’s an area Galway will surely target on Sunday, and particularly with Matthew Tierney’s aerial and goal threat from the edge of the square. Galway will start Tierney at midfield, but his productivity has been so high in the full-forward line that he will rotate between both positions, particularly for set plays. If Tierney goes in to full-forward early though to try and negate the early Mayo blitz, how will Mayo adapt? Will they put Aidan O’Shea back there, similar to how Mayo matched O’Shea up with Kieran Donaghy for the drawn and replayed All-Ireland semi-finals in 2017?
Although Cork won their last two league games against Clare and Westmeath, the damage Clare and Westmeath inflicted on their own kickout was worrying for Cork; Clare scored 1-9 off their own restarts, while Westmeath mined 0-12 from the same source. Against Limerick two weeks ago, Cork limited that damage with Limerick mining just 18% of their scores off their own kickout but Kerry is a different challenge; Kerry got 42% of their own scores off their own kickout against Tipperary.
Kickouts will be massive in this game. Cork won 17 of their 18 kickouts against Limerick but 13 of those were short and Cork will mix it up again to keep Kerry guessing, as they have done in the last two Munster finals. In 2019, Cork elected to build their running game from the platform of their short kickout, but last year Micheál Martin went long with 22 of his 23 kickouts as Cork wanted to engage Kerry higher up the pitch by trusting their ball-winners and scavengers around the middle. Kerry did win nine of Martin’s kickouts, but they only sourced two points off that possession, which was a trade-off Cork would have been willing to take beforehand.
Cork won the game with a 57% conversion rate (albeit in horrendous conditions) but Ronan McCarthy’s side have been improving in that category; in their last three games against Clare, Westmeath and Limerick, Cork’s conversion rate has averaged 77%. It will need to be that high – or even higher – though if Cork are to win.