The big question is how can the Rebels plug the gaps in defence?

The big question is how can the Rebels plug the gaps in defence?
Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

OMENS have never pucked a ball over a bar or billowed the back of the net, but still we look for them.

Ahead of Sunday and Cork’s Munster SHC trip to the newly-renamed LIT Gaelic Grounds in Limerick, the parallel to look for is the last time the Rebels were away to the All-Ireland champions.

It was May 2017 and Tipperary were the team to beat while Cork hadn’t won a provincial game since coming out on top against Limerick in the 2014 Munster final, the last big inter-county hurling clash at the old Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Just a year previously, Cork had gone down on a 0-22 to 0-13 scoreline at Thurles against Tipp, with nine points flattering to the visitors.

You could have nearly named your price on Cork beforehand, but a superb performance was produced and they won by four points.

Between that game and last Sunday, Cork didn’t lose a Munster championship game and Tipp didn’t win one.

Now those trends have been reduced and Cork face questions, the biggest one being – what do you do when you’ve just conceded 2-28 and your next opponents score 3-32 (albeit after extra-time) the last time they met you in the championship?

It’s not a nice dilemma but it’s one for which the Cork senior hurling management must find an answer, and quickly.

Whereas the previous back-door system allowed for reflection, and sometimes recriminations, there was a period of three or four weeks in which to provide some surgery.

Fans at the game. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Fans at the game. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

The new landscape is a lot different and Cork must travel to Limerick next Sunday in what isn’t fully a win-or-bust situation, but it’s not that far short of it either.

Obviously, there were some mitigating factors in the defeat to Tipperary at Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Alan Cadogan, injured in a challenge game, was a big loss while Bill Cooper having to cry off after a back injury in the warm-up was bad luck.

The Youghal man might not have scored the seven points that were the difference in the end, but his partnership at midfield with Darragh Fitzgibbon has been an important platform for Cork.

His absence had a knock-on effect in that Luke Meade, who had been preparing to line out at wing-forward, all of a sudden had to get ready to go toe-to-toe with Noel McGrath and Michael Breen while Robbie O’Flynn, geared to be an impact sub, had to quickly adjust to the fact that he was starting.

Ultimately, though, Cork were outperformed and, while the margin of defeat was less than that of the league game at Páirc Uí Rinn in March, there were a lot of similar details.

However, one notable difference was the fact that Jason Forde got 1-13 for Tipp in the league game but that tally was down to five points last Sunday. Instead, Tipp had big outputs from John O’Dwyer, Séamus Callanan and Noel and John McGrath.

Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

If the boot was on the other foot and Cork endured an erosion of Patrick Horgan’s personal haul, it’s hard to see the shortfall being made up elsewhere.

At the other end of the field, Cork must decide what to do to close up the massive defensive gaps.

If they go with a sweeper against Limerick, is there enough time to properly implement it and would the strain be too much for a five-man attack to bear?

What can be done to improve the puck-out situation, with Tipp allowed to physically dominate last week?

There is some small consolation in the fact that they went to Limerick and won in the league, but this is different.

Limerick are playing a championship game as All-Ireland champions for the first time since 1974 and will want to put on a good show.

Perhaps they will be ever so slightly rusty compared to Cork with a game under their belts.

It’s a chink of hope but Cork will need to take every solace they can.

The widespread expectation of a Limerick win is similar to how Clare’s All-Ireland victory over Cork in 2013 led to predictions of Banner dominance in the years that followed, but they have yet to triumph in any of the championship games against Cork since then.

Likewise, Limerick may have the crown but twice they drew with Cork over 70 minutes in 2018 and the league game is in Cork’s favour.

The problem is that you can’t ignore the greater strength in depth they possessed in extra-time in Croke Park last year and there aren’t any signs that that imbalance has been redressed, especially if Cadogan remains out.

Cork only made four substitutions on Sunday despite the game going against them for much of the second half and one of those, Jack O’Connor for Shane Kingston, was injury-enforced in the second-last minute additional time.

There wasn’t much rotation during last year’s four round-robin games but, with Cork the only side to go unbeaten in that stretch, it was more understandable.

While nobody is suggesting wholesale changes in the wake of just one defeat, there is scope for some alterations.

Perhaps the extra pressure riding on the game will bring the best out in Cork, or maybe a loss won’t be fatal, with the possibility existing of qualifying for the All-Ireland series with two wins and two losses.

Nevertheless, while it’s just the second game of four, there will be a real championship feel on the Ennis Road on Sunday.

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