Can Cork find the way to win?

Cork must find a different game plan for Mayo

Can Cork find the way to win?

Half-time. The Division 1 League final of 2012. The score: Mayo 0-9 Cork 0-5. Mayo had already beaten an injury-ravaged Cork team in the previous year’s championship. Cork had to find a way to win this game.

In the dressing room, it was slowly dawning on the Cork players that Mayo were trying to put down a physical marker. In the first half, Mayo puffed their chest. Big hits were going in along with mouthy exchanges. Mayo’s Donal Vaughan, in particular, was throwing his new found weight around.

The pre-game interviews with the Mayo players had contained references to their previous failings with physical teams and the condition they had put on to rectify matters. Now it all made sense. The Cork players were mad and getting madder. Noel O’Leary was the first to twig it. Just before the break, he had capsized Vaughan, who was trying to run through the middle. Noel proceeded to pick Vaughan up by the back of his jersey like a rag doll.

In the dressing room, Alan O’Connor, Pearse O’Neill and Graham Canty were after realising what was happening too and were almost falling over each other to get back out for the second half, bulling for a physical battle. They wanted to finish what Mayo had started. Cork had found the way to win this game. Whether they could do it without incurring red cards was the bigger problem.

If the first half was about Mayo giving Cork the proverbial smack on the cheek, the second half was about Cork sitting on Mayo’s chest while repeatedly pummelling the face. Vaughan came in for the worst of it. When he pushed up to Canty, he was manhandled to the ground. Michael Shields left a dent in him as he came through and then dismissed him by smacking the ball off Vaughan’s back as he writhed once more on the ground. That was a relatively new Mayo team trying to put it up to a seasoned Cork team. End result, Cork 2-10 Mayo 0-11.

Cork’s only regret was that they followed Mayo into the physical battle rather than lead them into it. Ironically, it was Mayo’s first half show of strength which roused the motivation for that Cork win.

Tomorrow, the roles are almost reversed. The experience and the physical superiority is now with the Connacht men. If inter-county teams come in four-year cycles, Cork are in year one of four going up against a Mayo team in Year four-of-four. That’s not to say Cork can’t win tomorrow’s All-Ireland quarter-final, but, like all new teams, they will need to throw something new at Mayo with some brilliant individual performances.

Where can that something new and those brilliant performances come from?

Last weekend, Cork deployed a more definite system which isolated their best scorers up front and afforded protection with two additional defenders/sweepers at the back. It allowed their main men to shine and their vulnerabilities to be masked. Sligo were never good enough to beat Cork, thus it was the perfect time to trial this system. Credit where it’s due to the Cork management team, who came in for so much criticism after the Munster Final. It seemed to be the system they should have employed against Kerry. The key question is whether Cork will use it again tomorrow, whether it is the right game plan for Mayo? The evidence suggests it is not.

Mark Collins and Colm O’Driscoll both played well last weekend as Cork’s sweepers. If both players go deep to sweep and play-make again this week, they could well be drawing the still-effective Vaughan and/or attack minded All Stars Keith Higgins and Lee Keegan onto them.

In a 2006 league game against Dublin in Páirc Uí Rinn, I lined out at wing-forward and played deep in front of my own full-back line. The man I was marking, Paul Casey, stayed in his position at wing-back and repeatedly kicked the ball down to me exactly where I wanted it. The following week we travelled to Mayo and Billy Morgan asked me to do the same job. As soon as I drifted back, however, the shout went in from the Mayo line to get the ball over to my man, Peadar Gardiner, who proceeded to attack like a mad man from wing-back. I wasn’t long pushing back up into my position.

The sweeper system has evolved and Cork’s system is certainly more organised these days with better players, but the point is that this is Mayo, not Sligo and Mayo have Rolls Royces in their wing-backs. They will be ready to drive straight through if Cork drop too deep. By retaining their sweepers, Cork will have to be ready for the consequences in the shape of a marauding Mayo wing-back line. Cork’s plan to cater for these gallopers will be the most interesting part of this game.

Last weekend, Sligo’s No 6, Brendan Egan, held the centre-back position and effectively ushered Cork’s fastest and most experienced forward, Paul Kerrigan, past him on either side. Tomorrow, you would expect Colm Boyle to be deployed on Kerrigan – to hunt him, punch him, kick him up and down the pitch if need be. James Horan, who was in the stand in Tullamore, will have done the math. If Kerrigan has 15 runs in him during the game, Boyle will attack and try to make Kerrigan go backwards on at least 7 of these.

An aspect of Mayo’s play that has attracted more media attraction than was warranted this week is the tackling of their forwards. Mayo’s six forwards would be considered the hardest-working forward unit in the game these days. They have to be, as generally they don’t possess a marquee forward who consistently rack up 1-5 or 10 points via traditional attacking play (Cillian O’Connor is close). Instead, they hope to generate a lot of scores from turning over opposition defenders coming out with the ball. The most interesting aspect of their play in this regard is that as soon as Mayo lose possession in the final third, any and all of their forwards in the vicinity of the ball appear to leave their own man and flock to the opposition ball carrier to dispossess him as high up the pitch as possible.

Not a lot of defenders coming out with a ball are mindful enough to ship it back to the goalkeeper, who can then pick his pass. Certainly, no defender likes to see three or four opposition forwards rushing at him and grabbing his free arm. It’s a skill set the Cork management team are worried about. Their dialogue during the week was all about bringing it to people’s attention, especially that of the referee. As per the 2012 league final, it’s high risk stuff to be antagonising an experienced side who may just be searching for that added bit of motivation.

The central question to the quarter-final remains, however. Do Cork stick with what worked against Sligo? Cork may use their two sweepers again. They may play just one sweeper instead of two but in all likelihood they will find it difficult to move away from the conceptual comfort this sweeper system has provided to a team fragile in confidence. There is comfort in a new system that generates a win but the next championship opposition is better and is ready. Mayo will be ready for the sweepers. Cork need to be ready for the consequences.

Aside from how comfortable Cork may feel in the new sweeper system, does the Mayo full-forward line possess enough of a threat to merit Cork dropping players deep to protect the full back line in any case? If the Cork wing-forwards come deep, can you deal with inviting the best half-back line in the game onto you? With Mayo likely to push up on any sweepers, there may be no space for a short Cork kickout. Will you win the aerial kick out battle against the two O’Sheas and Barry Moran who already have the support of some of the best in business breaking ball specialists in Kevin McLaughlin and Jason Doherty?

A brave alternative might be to surprise Mayo and play to Cork’s strengths by going orthodox 15 on 15. This would, of course, have necessitated picking a different, more attack-minded team against a Mayo side that Cork should not be intimidated by, man for man. Big call for a big game. Assuming the Cork team lines out as named, it’s probably not going to happen.

If Cork win this game, it will be very impressive. If they win with the sweeper system they employed last weekend, it will be even more impressive as it needs to be so fine-tuned against a top team.

Cork can win this game. They just need to find the way to do it.

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