EVERYONE is fully aware of the perils of the new Round Robin championship system but Diarmuid O’Sullivan sounded the warning siren for Cork earlier this week, especially around the importance of winning their first game.
“The Tipp game is huge,” said O’Sullivan. “Probably, it'll be the one that'll make or break Cork. You’d be very naïve not to think so. Cork have to go to Limerick and they have to go to Ennis so if it doesn’t go Cork’s way, it is a precarious road you would be on.”
The stats back up O’Sullivan’s comments. Dublin, Offaly, Tipperary and Waterford all lost their first games last year, and all four were gone by early June.
Clare were the only county to buck that trend. They lost their opening game to Cork but that loss was offset by an away win against Tipperary, which both saved and made Clare’s season.
That win against Tipp though, was the only away win in Munster, which shows how hard it is to pick up points on the road. Removing Offaly, there were only three away wins last summer; along with Clare’s win in Thurles, Kilkenny scraped past Dublin in Parnell Park while Galway defeated Wexford in Wexford Park.
If Cork lose on Sunday, can they realistically expect to get the two or three points in Limerick and Ennis that they will definitely need to qualify in the top three?
Taking on the All-Ireland champions – who will playing their first championship match – won’t be an easy task in the Gaelic Grounds. Going to Ennis will be harder again because Clare have the best home record in hurling; in their last 20 league and championship matches in Cusack Park, Clare lost just twice.
Cork have had an excellent record in Munster over the last two years, but they have played every one of their eight matches in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and Thurles. Semple Stadium is almost as much a home as the Pairc but going away, especially to a venue in Ennis where Cork never play championship, will pose a huge challenge.
All of those upcoming obstacles are irrelevant for now because jumping the Tipperary hurdle is the only task that matters.
In so many ways, this game is set up for Cork. Tipperary’s style should suit the way Cork will want to play. Tipp have serious firepower but this Cork team will still always back themselves in a shootout.
Cork still got first-hand experience of how potent this Tipp team can be when the sides met in the league in March. Tipp were on fire after just returning from a training camp abroad while Cork were clearly disinterested that afternoon. The former Tipperary hurler Shane McGrath said afterwards that the manner of how Tipp had “blown Cork away” would “matter” come the championship.
It’s doubtful that it will but Tipperary still have the guns to seriously hurt Cork. On ‘League Sunday’ the night of that game, Donal Óg Cusack spoke about Tipperary, of how there may be a lack of pace in the team, and of question marks over their defence, and their age profile.
Yet Cusack still felt that Tipperary’s class and brilliance up front compensates for many of the other perceived deficits.
It certainly does override many of the concerns but, if there is a lack of pace in Tipp’s defence, can they really survive against this Cork attack? No matter what Tipperary score, will Cork just not post a bigger tally?
They are legitimate concerns but Tipperary are clearly more tactically minded now under Liam Sheedy than they were under Michael Ryan. One of the biggest criticisms consistently fired at the team under Ryan was their tactical inflexibility. Tipperary were too predictable.
Facilitating a style change had to be one of Sheedy’s main starting points as soon as he took over. Especially when looking at their numbers from last summer.
In Brian McDonnell’s outstanding statistical analysis of all 33 championship games, Tipperary were ranked in the bottom half of ten of the 12 key categories McDonnell analysed.
The devil was in the detail but, no matter where you looked, Tipperary’s numbers were way off. The hurlingtalk Twitter handle also produced some revealing statistics on Tipperary, especially their use of possession; of 113 clearances hit past their opponents 65-yard line during play in four championship games, Tipperary only had a 29.2% retention rate.
The crisp and sharp attacking play which drove Tipp to the 2016 All-Ireland title had long been abandoned. The only hint Tipperary showed of it last year was in their league game against Wexford but throughout the summer, Tipperary were expecting their ball-playing forwards to win possession from a long and direct style that didn’t suit them.
Tipperary’s average conversion rate in last year’s championship was just 43%. Tipp weren’t creating the same high volume of scoring chances in comparison to other sides. And yet, the width of a post could have completely redefined Tipperary’s season in 2018.
They are far more tactically adaptable now. Tipp have Tommy Dunne, one of the best coaches in the country, on board. Eamon O’Shea is also involved in the background.
Tipp certainly won’t be as predictable but they also have far more options; the progress of Mark Kehoe and Jake Morris gives Tipp five serious options for the inside forward line. And that’s not including John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer, who will play further out the field this summer.
Tipp still have key questions to answer further back. They aren’t fully sure as to who is their best goalkeeper. They also spent the spring toying around with the full-back position, which has been a major issue for the last two years.
Yet they have spent the last seven months getting ready for this championship. Despite the perception, Tipp had minimal interest in the league.
The rivalry always levels the playing field but Cork face a highly pumped and dangerous Tipperary team on Sunday. And Cork are fully aware of the ramifications if they lose their first game. Especially at home.