After such an emphatic and impressive win as they produced on Saturday night, the Cork management and players will have spoken in the dressing room afterwards about aspects of the game that can be improved upon — highlighting Tipperary’s seven-day turnaround as a disadvantage and cautioning getting carried away before a Munster final.
All very reasoned and sensible things to do. However as a fan, it was fantastic coming away from a victory for the Cork footballers delivered by a performance of real quality against a side many have tipped for a place in the Super 8s.
Therefore I am going to brush aside concerns about the early concession of goal chances and the 15 minutes in the middle of the second half where Tipperary scored five unanswered points, halving the deficit to just five points with 10 minutes to play.
Instead I want to focus on the many positive aspects of the performance.
After 20 minutes in Thurles, the game was finely balanced with three points apiece but Cork were under pressure after early Tipperary dominance. The home side had squandered a couple of good goal chances while Cork had hit a few nice scores on the break to give a false look to the scoreline.
After a break in play, Cork management made the key move of the game. Spotting there was too much space in front of Tipperary’s inside line John O’Rourke was redeployed to wing back to mark the busy Brian Fox, Sean White tucked in to centre back to keep tabs on the imposing figure of Jack Kennedy and this in turn allowed Stephen Cronin to drop back from number 6 and sweep on the D.
This change completely transformed the game as Tipperary were now forced to run with the ball to create opportunities. Such was the honesty of Cork players tracking runs and the discipline in the tackle, time after time Cork forced turnovers leading to counter-attacking opportunities.
This tactical change led to the game becoming a little bit cagier for a short period of time but Cork exploded into life for the final 10 minutes of the half outscoring the favourites 1-5 to 0-1 to open up a seven-point gap at half-time. This was the winning of the game and a huge amount of credit must go to Ronan McCarthy and his backroom team.
He identified an issue in real time and made the appropriate tactical tweak. Relocating a forward as an additional defender may appear to be a defensive change but the style of play and attitude of the Cork players meant it was anything but.
With the fully fit players Cork had available this was a relatively predictable team selection with no pre game changes. Everything about Cork’s set-up and tactics were simplicity at its best. I came away from Thurles with a clear idea of how this Cork team want to play and how they want to set up. Initially both wing forward Ruairi Deane and Kevin O’Driscoll worked back when not in possession leaving four out-and-out attackers in the opposition half. After the repositioning of O’Rourke to defence it left just Mark Collins, Luke Connolly, and Colm O’Neill as the fulcrum of the attack. 1-13 of Cork’s 1-17 came from those three. A simple tactic, play your scoring forwards close to goal.
At the opposite end, without wishing to jump the gun, Cork have the No 1 jersey sorted for the foreseeable future. Continuing the theme of simplicity, the younger of the White brothers made everything look easy.
He pulled off a couple of important close-range saves and fielded a few dropping high balls but it was his kickouts again that made him stand out.
With just a couple of steps he has the ability to hit the opposition 65. In the modern game so many teams concoct complicated kickout strategies which involve almost every member of the team moving. Cork’s kickouts on Saturday were simple. Ian Maguire and Aidan Walsh started centrally while beyond them stood Ruairi Deane, Kevin O’Driscoll, and Mark Collins.
The ball was either lumped out the middle to contest or placed to the wings for a deep runner. The beauty of these kickouts are that even when Cork lost the contest, there were at least seven or eight Cork men between the ball and their own goal.
It was defensively that Cork impressed me most. Conceding just nine points over 70 minutes without operating a blanket defence is good going.
The discipline in the tackle was exceptional. The tactical change which freed up Stephen Cronin had the knock-on effect of freeing up his opposite number Robbie Kiely. As a result Tipperary were able to create overlaps and get runners coming from deep, attacking the Cork 45 in dangerous situations.
To Cork’s credit every run was tracked off the ball and with Cronin rushing the ball carrier, Tipperary players were repeatedly turned back into a crowd, with possession being turned over. Key to this was the athleticism and fitness of the midfield quartet of Maguire, Walsh, Deane, and O’Driscoll.
Another impressive component of Cork’s play was directly linked to their defensive solidity. Once possession was turned over, Cork moved the ball out the crowd quickly and far more often than is their norm, with the foot. Having quality kick passers like Kevin Crowley, Stephen Cronin, and Seán White meant Cork were able stretch Tipperary early and often. With Ruairi Deane and Kevin O’Driscoll hugging the touchline providing width, the central channel was cleared up for either a foot pass to Collins and Connolly or a hand pass to a rampaging run from Maguire and Walsh.
Cork varied their play brilliantly. There was energy and dynamism about their play. Ruairi Deane epitomised this. He was outstanding. His ability to solo ball into contact and spin away at speed was exceptional. Time after time he created the spark to a Cork attack with an incisive run. Luke Connolly will get the headlines but Deane was immense.
For MVP Connolly this was a coming-of-age night. Within a few sessions of training with Luke, you see his brilliance. A self-professed ‘baller’ he does things few other players can do with an O’Neills. His vision, kicking style, dummy hops, and dummy solos catch the eye.
In soccer parlance he is a ‘street footballer’. Crucially, beyond all the flash and swagger is a hard-working, intelligent player who more often than not backs it up. Five points from play and unerring from dead balls, he is Cork’s main man for the summer.
Cork have four full weeks now to prepare for a Munster final. They will have enjoyed a well-deserved release on Saturday night and will return to training with a new zest and energy this week.
For a change, rightly or wrongly, there will be no club distractions so it will be full steam ahead. Competition for places brings out the best in players but I can’t imagine there will be more than two changes in personnel in a month’s time.
Cork have lacked consistency of selection over the past number of years and the performance of the starting 15 on Saturday deserves a Munster final starting berth. However, a month’s worth of training for Paul Kerrigan, Brian Hurley, and James Loughrey and they won’t be far off a starting place. Maybe even Seán Powter. The players will be buzzing for the next month.
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