WE really do have two humdinger semi-finals in the Liberty Insurance senior championship in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday.
Cork and Kilkenny face off in the curtain-raiser followed by Galway-Tipperary. The All-Ireland champions typically play second so that’s the reasoning there, but the Cork versus Kilkenny clash is anything but a prelude.
What a game we have in store. There is so much at stake for both sides. Apart from the obvious that there’s an All-Ireland final place on the line I’d argue that Kilkenny have so much more to lose than Cork.
Cork have been champions four times over the past six years and are in rebuilding mode, albeit still with a very strong backbone. Kilkenny, on the other hand, lost another All-Ireland title last September and you get the feeling that if they don’t reach the final this year it’s the most difficult of roads back for them, maybe even impossible for this particular group.
They have suffered so much in recent times, losing five finals in seven years and psychologically that does damage, not to mind the mileage on their clocks. The mileage takes its toll far harder when you’re losing.
Brian Dowling, Ann Downey’s number two in 2019, has now taken over the helm, assisted by Tommy Shefflin. I wonder if he’ll use a different tactical approach in the semi-final. I’m setting aside Kilkenny’s previous outings in this campaign as they had little competition and that will not have helped Brian.
In the 2017 and 2018 finals that Kilkenny lost to Cork, by a point on each occasion, Ann Downey was criticised both inside and outside her county for going extremely defensive. They invited Cork onto them and lost in low-scoring finals, 0-10 to 0-9 and 0-14 to 0-13.
However, in 2019 they changed all that and played a more attacking style. And what happened? They conceded three goals in last year’s final to Galway as their defence was ripped asunder by the running midfield duo of Niamh Kilkenny and Aoife Donoghue.
Was Ann Downey therefore justified in how she played those ’17 and ‘18 finals? It seems so.
What will Brian Dowling do in Páirc Uí Chaoimh?
Cork’s short passing game could play into Kilkenny’s hands. They need to get the ball in fast and split them.
Kilkenny have weaknesses defensively. Running at them down the middle was the Cat’s weak spot 12 months ago.
Orla Cronin plays deep from centre-forward; will she be the thorn in their side? If Brian Dowling hasn’t sorted his defence then Kilkenny will be in trouble.
Either he has or he will play seven or eight defenders and if that happens that’s where Cork need to start taking their scores from distance. It’s an area in which Cork has been poor at so far in the campaign.
That and taking too much out of the ball with hand-passing. You are inviting trouble with that style.
Gone are the days when you used it just to get out of trouble. Cork were regularly dispossessed last year as a hungry, in your face team, will distract you.
Cork’s defence have been excellent to date and on the flipside Kilkenny too will need to take their scores from outside Cork’s 45. Cork however crowd the middle third and that could prevent Kilkenny getting the space to do so.
Amy Lee, in her first year is having a great season, Laura Treacy is playing a blinder minding the square, Meabh Cahalane is a very welcomed addition back to the squad, Pam Mackey is a leader with Laura Hayes also having a good season. Hannah Looney is playing a lovely attacking style from the right wing which Kilkenny will want to dampen.
Katie Power, Kilkenny’s best forward in previous battles with Cork, was ruled out for the season after breaking her kneecap in training six days before their opening championship game and it goes without saying that her loss is immense for the Cats.
Tactics will play a huge role in how this game plays out. It’ll either be a very attacking, exciting game or we’ll go back to a 2017/2018 format which will lead to low scoring and minimal distance between the sides at the end.
If Cork speed up their play and from midfield up they pop over the points I’d tip them to win.