LAST winter, Kieran Kingston made a couple of big decisions.
He knew that Cork had to physically and mentally step up but he went about addressing those concerns with a left-field approach.
Kingston felt that the Cork players were meeting too often as a group, yet many of those were for Strength and Conditioning and gym sessions. The manager changed that policy. Players focussed more on S&C individually, with obvious and rigorous adherence to their gym programmes.
When Cork came together as a group, Kingston always wanted the focus to be on hurling. He wasn’t bringing the group together to focus on S&C. Players were still training five and six times a week but not as a group. That approach brought a new freshness and energy back into the group, something clearly lacking in 2016.
Kingston and Cork certainly have got the balance right. Against Waterford, Cork looked better conditioned, and stronger, than any Cork team ever did before. Their hurling has never been crisper or sharper. The new and young players have added a whole new dimension to the team. And the influence of Gary Keegan – one of Kingston’s most perceptive moves in the off-season – has clearly had a massive impact on making this group believe that anything is possible.
Everything looks set up for Cork now to win on Sunday. They have impressively taken down the two teams fancied to win Munster, Tipperary and Waterford. They have done it playing the Cork way – open and attacking and brilliant hurling. Their confidence is sky-high. Optimism is rife throughout the whole county. The Rebel bandwagon, which was clamped for so long, looks set to take off.
And yet, Cork’s biggest test yet awaits on Sunday. For the first time all season, they are favourites. Clare have almost been the forgotten team of the championship. They were unimpressive against Limerick. They certainly haven’t produced anything like the quality Cork have to date but that is irrelevant to Clare. They had to win against Limerick and they did. Sunday is the day for Clare to be right. And they will be.
One reality about this group of Clare players is their love of the big day, and their capacity to produce a big performance on those days. Most of these players have performed at their best when the pressure, and need, has been greatest. Their hunger and desire cannot be underestimated either; Clare have effectively been waiting since the 2013 All-Ireland final replay for a stage like Sunday. And they aim to put on a show.
There are question marks over certain areas of the Clare defence, particularly in their half-back line, and especially when ran at. Yet Clare have the kind of firepower that many other teams do not. Of their front eight, Tony Kelly, Colm Galvin, Conor McGrath, Podge Collins, John Conlon and Shane O’Donnell, would make most teams in the country. Aaron Shanagher is still developing as a 20-year old but he is a proven goalscorer. If that Clare attack ignites, they could scorch this Cork defence, especially if they run at them.
Clare are setting up differently this year than they did under Davy Fitzgerald. They aren’t playing with a sweeper but all of these players are conditioned to the tactical nuances and requirements of the modern game, especially after having played under Fitzgerald for so long, and now coming under the coaching tutelage of Donal Og Cusack.
Clare will also surely learn from the mistakes that Tipperary and Waterford made. Conor Cleary won’t follow Conor Lehane around the field but that duty may fall to someone else because Lehane certainly won’t have the roaming licence he had in both of those games, especially on the Cork puckout.
Anthony Nash’s puckouts have been central to Cork’s success but Clare will have focussed heavily on shutting that weapon down. Nobody knows Nash’s striking better than Cusack. Clare haven’t many ball-winners in the air but they will try and force Nash to puck it to a 50-50 contest, where Clare will look to knock it to the deck and win it on the break or in the ruck.
Clare have had their injury concerns. David McInerney pulled his hamstring a week after the Limerick game and has been in a race to be fit. Clare have lacked a defined man-marker in defence, which is why they’ve tried to get Oisin O’Brien back from a serious knee injury. O’Brien played a recent challenge against Dublin but this game may have come too soon for him.
Clare will feel they have loads of room for improvement too. They hit 3-17 against Limerick but missed five frees (three which were scoreable) and drove a penalty wide. Tony Kelly didn’t score from play. Neither did Podge Collins, who went off injured, and Aaron Shanagher.
Conor McGrath was excellent scoring 1-3 from nine plays but he also had two shots blocked, hit one wide and dropped another short. He was just back from a long-term shoulder injury but McGrath should be sharper again after five weeks extra training behind him.
On the otherhand, Cork will be expect many of their players to be better too on Sunday, especially their forwards; Alan Cadogan, Shane Kingston, Luke Meade. Seamus Harnedy and Conor Lehane did most of the heavy lifting against Waterford and Tipperary but if Clare limit their influence, then Cork may be asked questions that Tipperary and Waterford didn’t ask. And Clare have the pace and firepower to ask them.
Cork have been brilliant so far this summer. Kieran Kingston and his management have got the balance and blend just right. They fully deserve to be favourites on Sunday. Cork will expect to win. But so will Clare. If Clare can hold the Cork attack to a manageable score, they have the firepower to win.