AND so, for the first time in their history, Cork end a decade without an All-Ireland.
There have been plenty of stages over the last few years when Cork looked more than capable of ensuring that wouldn’t happen but, equally, all of the reasons why it has, were fully evident again on Sunday.
A porous defence, a lack of consistency, a tendency of big players to go missing at key stages, the inability to arrest a trend when the game is going away from them, a lack of mental strength compared to other teams, have all been recurring charges levelled at Cork.
There was a marked difference between last year’s All-Ireland semi-final and Sunday’s game but that lack of a ruthless edge evident in the closing stages against Limerick 50 weeks ago can’t be separated from the manner of Sunday’s defeat either.
Cork had 23 shots at the target in the first half but only had a 52% conversion rate. On the other hand, Kilkenny had a 71% conversion rate in that half.
Kilkenny aren’t a county that need confidence but, for a team that hadn’t been playing with the assurance of their predecessors, trailing by just two points gave them the impetus to drive on in the third quarter. And they rolled over Cork in that period.
One point from Cork in that third quarter summed up their plight but, while Richie Hogan’s goal seemed to mentally flatten Cork, the game turned on Kilkenny’s grip on Anthony Nash’s puck-outs.
Much of Cork’s control in the first half had come from restarts. Cork were ahead in that statistic by 20-12. Cork had mined five points from that possession, one of which had come from a Kilkenny puck-out, while Kilkenny won just two Cork puck-outs in that half.
In the second half though, Kilkenny won 13 Cork puck-outs, and translated that possession into four points. Furthermore, Kilkenny turned over six Cork puck-outs shortly after they’d been taken, and turned that possession into five more points.
Kilkenny fought harder than Cork to secure that possession and the shooting trends were effectively flipped from the first half; Kilkenny had 24 shots at the target to Cork’s 15. Yet unlike Cork’s profligacy in that opening 35 minutes, Kilkenny maintained their accuracy levels with a 71% conversion rate throughout.
Kilkenny dominated the game when it mattered but Cork’s overall conversion rate of 55% tells much of the story when compared with Kilkenny’s strike rate.
Kilkenny worked harder than Cork. They wanted it more, especially in the rucks and in the air, but Kilkenny also tactically squeezed the life out of Cork. Their defence, especially their half-back line, kept their shape and trusted the work-rate of their players in the middle third to win enough dirty ball, and contaminate the supply coming into the Cork attack.
Daniel Kearney has been a big part of Cork’s gameplan and, while he had two assists, and a major hand in Patrick’s Horgan second goal, Kearney didn’t have the impact Cork needed him to exert.
Kilkenny had the momentum after the break which also allowed them to realign their formation, with Conor Fogarty sitting deeper in that pocket which Cork were consistently trying to supply Horgan and Alan Cadogan with ball in the first half.
Kilkenny’s big men came up with big plays too in the second half. Walter Walsh came on and had a massive impact from seven plays, scoring three points and being fouled for a converted free.
Stephen McDonnell did a fine job on TJ Reid in the first half and, while Reid didn’t score from play over the 70 minutes, he won five huge puck-outs in the second half, two of which he was fouled for converted frees, while he also set up a point.
Hogan got 1-2, with his goal brilliantly engineered by Colin Fennelly. As well as scoring Kilkenny’s first-half goal, and a second-half point, Fennelly had big assists for three scores while he was also fouled for a converted free.
It’s a travesty for Horgan to score 3-10 and end up on the losing side but Cork can’t expect to win an All-Ireland when they’re that reliant on Horgan for 62% of their scores in such a big game.
Alan Cadogan also deserves special mention for the heroic effort he made in trying to keep Cork afloat in the second half when Kilkenny had cracked the hull and Cork’s ship was steadily going down. From 14 plays over the 70 minutes, Cadogan scored four points and was fouled for five converted frees.
Cork’s style is to stack most of their chips on their full-forward line but Kilkenny made their life so difficult that Cork won 19 of the 37 balls directly played into their attack. It’s testament to Horgan and Cadogan that they could do so much damage from a combined 25 plays but Cork needed a greater scoring spread, especially from their half-forward line.
Seamus Harnedy tried hard but he wasn’t on the ball as much as Cork needed him to be. From nine plays, Harnedy scored two points and was fouled for 1-2, but his struggles to get any real rhythm in the match largely stemmed from Cork moving him around so much to try and engineer something from different sectors of the forward line.
Similar to last year, one of the biggest differences between Cork and the other big teams in Croke Park was the impact off both benches; Kilkenny got 0-6, Cork 0-0. Tim O’Mahony did do well when making seven solid plays but too many of Cork’s players underperformed, not so much in terms of making plays, but in the overall context of showing the sufficient work-rate, desire and savagery required to beat Kilkenny.
Cork showed what they were capable of in the first half but – as had been flagged and feared beforehand – what would Cork do if the game descended into a battle, and if Cork had to chase Kilkenny? And Cork just didn’t have that mental steel, more reliable collective character or physical power that Kilkenny always bring to the battle.
Since Cork had their best chance to win an All-Ireland this decade, in 2013, four of Cork’s summers in the meantime have ended with disappointing defeats in Croke Park. And unfortunately for Cork, the same traits have defined each defeat.
And that’s the primary reason why Cork have failed to win an All-Ireland in this decade.