Rebel rookie O'Mahony will need more cover to cope with modern hurling's roaming centre-forwards

Rebel rookie O'Mahony will need more cover to cope with modern hurling's roaming centre-forwards
Tim O'Mahony gets away from Tony Kelly. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

TONY KELLY picked up the Man of the Match award from RTÉ on Saturday night at Páirc Uí Rinn yet Tim O’Mahony also had an excellent game.

On a base level it doesn’t make much sense because the Clare talisman slammed over 0-6 from play and had another legitimate point waved wide and if the Banner had been more disciplined in defence, Kelly’s brilliance would have been match-winning. Yet O’Mahony hurled a lot of ball at the heart of the Cork rearguard, particularly in the last quarter when the game was on the line and he drilled a point.

John Meyler, Donal O’Mahony and Kieran Murphy clearly view O’Mahony as the long-term best bet at centre-back. He was utilised there for most of last spring until an injury on the eve of championship opened the door for Mark Ellis to regain the pivotal slot.

Mark Ellis at centre-back.
Mark Ellis at centre-back.

O’Mahony has a cutting edge and is superb in the air but the majority of his hurling for Newtownshandrum and Cork underage has been up front. In the county quarter-final last season, he was a beacon for puck-outs and his power and poise was nearly enough for Newtown to upset the odds against Midleton.

While the U21 All-Ireland final was a disappointment, the target-man was MVP in the semi-final demolition of Wexford, where they simply couldn’t handle his ball-winning at the edge of the square. He made a cameo in defence for the seniors last summer but at Croke Park against Limerick he was introduced in attack.

O’Mahony never quite got into the flow of the game on Jones Road but you’d have still assumed his future lay under high-deliveries from Anthony Nash and as a goal threat; more Setanta Ó hAilpín than Seán Óg.

Seán Óg Ó hAilpín rises high for the sliotar in 2009. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Seán Óg Ó hAilpín rises high for the sliotar in 2009. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

A centre-back these days will often cough up a chunk of points to his man because most centre-forwards roam. When they are as pacy and accurate as Tony Kelly, Conor Lehane and Kyle Hayes then white flags are the inevitable outcome.

The deployment of sweepers or seventh defenders is as much a reaction to the mobility of the modern number 11 as a negative tactic. Cork went down that road in 2015 but they were still opened up in the All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Galway afterwards.

Limerick centre-back Declan Hannon. Picture Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Limerick centre-back Declan Hannon. Picture Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Limerick and Galway, the last two All-Ireland champions, operate similarly to the all-conquering Kilkenny unit in that their wing-forwards fortify the half-back line as required. Savage work-rate and controlled aggression between the 45 and 65 which allows their named centre-back to sit deep.

Declan Hannon and Gearóid McInerney are different types of defenders, with Hannon as a former attacker less naturally abrasive then McInerney, but they anchored those All-Ireland winning sides with aplomb.

Ronan Curran. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Ronan Curran. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Cork haven’t really nailed down their number six since the halcyon days of the mid-noughties and Ronan Curran, though Ellis had some terrific matches in recent years.

There have been a host of other Rebels used in the centre this decade and going back to the 2013 All-Ireland final replay, Stephen McDonnell ended up there. Cork’s backs attempted to go man-on-man in the traditional sense and while some of the individual battles were won, collectively they were ripped open to the tune of five goals.

In the three appearances at Croker since – semi-finals in 2014, ’17 and last summer – Cork have conceded nine goals. You can be sure Meyler and co are acutely aware of that stat.

For all the cheap shots taken by some supporters at Damien Cahalane as Cork full-back – and from this writer’s perspective, he’s an automatic choice in the defence – there needs to be a structure in place to close down space.

Bill Cooper in action.
Bill Cooper in action.

If O’Mahony’s tenure at number six is made permanent, he’ll need Bill Cooper covering back from midfield, as well as Daniel Kearney and whoever is on the other flank buzzing around as well. If you clog up the channels for a Tony Kelly-esque attacker to run into, which Cork have actually done pretty well in championship, then the centre-back can protect the full-back line more.

When you’ve the firepower Cork have, Patrick Horgan take a bow, then trophies should follow.

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