Hurlers head to the Gaelic Grounds on a mission of atonement

Hurlers head to the Gaelic Grounds on a mission of atonement
Sean O' Donoghue and Mark Coleman. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

THE expression is fairly common now but the first time it appeared in the modern GAA sporting lexicon was when John Tobin, the former Galway footballer and then Roscommon manager, used it after Roscommon beat Mayo to win the 2001 Connacht final.

“When you win, you’re probably never as good as everyone says you are,” said Tobin. “And when you lose, you’re probably not as bad as people think you are either.”

In victory, the victors are always lauded, and in defeat, the vanquished are too often hammered. Are Tipperary are good as they seemed last Sunday? Was Cork’s underperformance just a one-off or are this team in serious trouble, and in danger of crashing out early of the Munster championship?

Sunday’s game against Limerick will effectively tell as much but Cork are under the microscope now. Why were Cork so flat last weekend? 

Is the defence too porous? Is the defence just not good enough, full stop? Have some of the highly talented younger players gone off the boil?

And yet for all the stick the defence took, two of Cork’s three best players were in the full-back line – Niall O’Leary and Eoin Cadogan. O’Leary’s performance was all the more impressive again considering his lack of exposure at senior level, especially when he didn’t feature in this year’s league.

Tipperary's James Barry and Declan Dalton. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Tipperary's James Barry and Declan Dalton. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

O’Leary was tied up on Fitzgibbon Cup duty with UCC but he still seemed well down the pecking order behind Darren Browne, Ger Mellerick and Stephen McDonnell. Mellerick was injured while McDonnell had been recovering from a knee injury and had been playing midfield for Glen Rovers, but O’Leary’s inclusion cemented the form he has shown with UCC and Imokilly.

Management have clearly invested in Tim O’Mahony as a centre-back but O’Leary was so impressive as the defensive pivot with Imokilly that he has given management an option of playing him at centre-back going forward. He may have no experience of playing that position at this level but O’Leary showed his mental strength and ability to get quickly up to speed last Sunday.

Whatever happens, Cork need to do something different now. Cork were restricted with the loss of Bill Cooper and Alan Cadogan but there was still an almost jaded and predictable look about Cork, and how they played. Tipperary, on the other hand, were much more creative in how they went about their business, especially with John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer in the half-forward line. Tipp came with something different. And Cork didn’t.

Darragh Fitzgibbon was peripheral against Tipp but would playing him at centre-forward ensure he gets on the ball more often? Do Cork need Aidan Walsh’s physicality up front?

Cork were largely bullied by Tipp but so much of their play was off colour. Cork’s lack of intensity was reflected in Tipp’s stick-passing numbers, because they had an overall (long, medium and short) completion rate of 72%.

Their success rate for long stick passes beyond the 65-metre line was 62%. More than doubling that average percentage from last year is down to better coaching and more intelligent forward play but Tipp players got the time on the ball that Limerick certainly wouldn’t allow.

Bill Cooper’s loss, especially so close to throw in, upset the balance of the team but Cork’s numbers were way down everywhere. Daniel Kearney was a good example; Kearney’s outstanding form last year was crucial to Cork’s progress to his stats were half of his average numbers from 2018.

Cork also struggled on their own puck-out, especially in the second half. Cork won 54% of their puck-outs in that period but they coughed up 1-3 from the 11 puck-outs they lost, which was extremely costly considering Cork lost by seven points.

Despite their searing pace, Cork only looked like cutting Tipp open on three occasions. In private conversation this week, one Tipperary player expressed surprise that Cork didn’t go for the jugular on a couple of occasions. When goal chances presented themselves, the Tipp player was a little taken aback that Cork were content to take the point.

Maybe that’s just the mindset within the Tipp camp, especially with Eamon O’Shea back involved again coaching the forwards, where a half-chance is still a goal chance. But that difference in assassin attitude towards green flags also underlines the struggles Cork often have in trying to engineer goals. Tipperary players see the pass, they make the right angled or support run, they just think goal. And too often, Cork’s forwards don’t.

Galway won an All-Ireland in 2017 despite not scoring a goal in four of their five matches. This Cork team is a potential point-scoring factory. But when they are consistently leaking such big scores in big championship matches, Cork will struggle to get the big job done without goals.

Galway’s average concession rate in 2017 was just shy of 1-17. Cork’s average concession rate in 2018 (not taking into account extra time in the All-Ireland semi-final against Limerick) was 1-23.

Shipping 2-28 last Sunday could have been far uglier if Tipp hadn’t hit 12 wides (nine more than Cork) and if they had taken more of their six clear-cut goal chances.

Cork will need a radical improvement now against Limerick but they should relish the opportunity of trying to make up for last Sunday. Cork will also be highly pumped for atonement after last year’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat but this is a different type of pressure now too.

In the cut and thrust of the Munster championship, nobody can afford to look past the next minute, never mind the next game. The process is always king but Limerick will still smell blood with Cork coming to town.

Limerick know how dangerous Cork could yet be in Croke Park later in the summer so this could provide the perfect opportunity to flatten Cork and leave them hanging on in Munster by their fingertips.

And for Limerick to remove a major potential headache for themselves later in the summer.

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