AT the second water-break of Sunday’s Munster final, the game was on a knife-edge, with the contest mired in a stalemate of tension and apprehension.
Tipperary led by three points and, while they had already displayed more of a cutting edge up front, the match was still there for whichever team could grab it by the throat in that last decisive quarter.
The weight of history was threatening to become a heavy burden on Tipp’s shoulders as they had only scored one point since half-time. On the other hand, Cork had only scored twice since the interval.
Being hot favourites has never really suited the Cork footballers over the last decade but the albatross around their necks became heavier as Cork’s struggles to penetrate up front persisted.
Cork had clearly upped their intensity in that third quarter. Tipp only managed to pass the Cork 45-metre line on six occasions in that period. Cork were forcing more turnovers than they had in the first half.
Cork created three more scoring chances than Tipperary in that quarter but they failed to convert four of those opportunities. And the longer Tipp were able to maintain that three-point gap – and force Cork to chase the match – the more the pressure was inevitably going to build on Cork.
The match restarted after that water-break with a Tipperary kick-out, that Tipp won and which led to a Liam Casey point. Then Tipp won the resultant Cork kick-out and Conor Sweeney scored from that possession to push the margin out to five points.
It was inevitable, and just human nature, that Tipp would retreat into a defensive shell to try and hold on to what they had. Cork responded with two points but Tipperary continued to do well on kick-outs and won that stat 9-6 in the last quarter. More importantly, Tipp mined 0-4 off that possession, which was decisive considering how fewer attacks they were building than Cork.
Tipp lost the kick-out stat 9-13 in the first half but they signalled a renewed intent on restarts early in the second half when possession from a Cork kick-out created two goal-scoring opportunities. The second chance ended in the net but was harshly ruled out for a square ball when a goal would have put Tipp eight ahead and out of sight.
Tipp though, left very few chances behind them because they were more efficient throughout. Over the 70-plus minutes, they managed an incredible 28 shots off just 31 attacks, nailing 17 of them. Of the 16 shots they took at the target from open play, Tipp converted 10.
Cork were nowhere near as productive; they engineered 40 attacks but only converted 14 scores from 26 shots. Cork had 16 shots from open play but only converted six.
The comparative shot maps from open play also underlined Tipp’s greater execution; they nailed seven of their eight shots from outside the 20-metre line. However, Cork only converted one of their six shots from outside the 20-metre line. Their profligacy was also evident closer to goal because Cork missed five attempts from inside the 20-metre line. And they never looked like scoring a goal.
Compared to their excellent performance against Kerry, Cork were off the pace from the very start. They coughed up 0-5 from turnovers in the first half. Cork did have a 70% conversion rate in that opening half but they’d only managed 10 shots, which was far too few in a Munster final at home, on a pitch made for forward play, and in ideal weather conditions.
The driving hard-running from deep which had caused Kerry so much trouble was missing. Seán Powter’s pace and energy was a massive loss but Cork didn’t have enough line breakers or off-the-shoulder options to negotiate a way past Tipp’s massed defence, especially in the second half. Cork’s scoring threat was heavily diluted after Luke Connolly went off injured but it also deprived Cork of the fulcrum inside that Tipp constantly had through Conor Sweeney.
Tipp’s class and experience up front, especially Sweeney and Michael Quinlivan, was also telling against a young and largely inexperienced defence. Yet Cork never hunted in packs like they had against Kerry, or matched the savage claustrophobic intensity which Tipp brought all over the field.
This was always a dangerous game for Cork but one of the most disregarded factors leading into the game was the inexperience of so many of Cork’s players compared to Tipp’s big-game experience; 10 of the Tipp side which featured in the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo played on Sunday, which included six of the back seven from that 2016 match, all of whom started again.
Moreover, Tipp also had Steven O’Brien and Colin O’Riordan, who didn’t play in 2016. O’Riordan has been away playing AFL for the last five years but his contribution was massive in the second half. O’Brien was a colossus throughout.
Tipp just went for it from the off but, even when the heat came on late on, and the weight of history threatened to engulf them, Tipp outscored their opponents by 0-3 to 0-2 down the home straight.
“There was an inner belief,” said Tipp manager David Power afterwards. “We always believed we could beat Cork.”
That was an apt metaphor for Tipp’s display. On the otherhand, Cork’s performance mirrored a concern Eamonn Fitzmaurice highlighted after the Kerry game. “Historically, it wouldn’t be unlike Cork to underperform the next day out,” said Fitzmaurice.
On a footballing weekend defined by history, Cork’s modern footballing history unfortunately became a main story again on Sunday.