Weak links in the Cork footballers' defence will be exposed in Killarney

Weak links in the Cork footballers' defence will be exposed in Killarney
Stephen O'Brien of Kerry celebrates after scoring against Clare. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

The Peter McNamara column

UNLESS Peadar Healy has a time machine set to get Anthony Lynch and Ray Carey available at their peak to cover both corner-back positions on Sunday, Kerry will retain their Munster SFC title in Killarney.

The majority would agree both of those players were the best operators Cork have had in the corner-back slots in recent history. Lynch and Carey, of course, are long since departed the inter-county scene. However, ever since they retired square pegs have been put in round holes in terms of stationing players in that area tasked with protecting the Leesiders’ goal.

Noel Galvin was the closest Cork have come to detailing a natural corner-back in either the number two or two positions in recent campaigns. Yet, the Ballincollig man could not truly nail down a place in the side long-term due, primarily, to injuries which understandably impacted on his form as well.

Enda Dennehy, St Finbarr’s, is pursued by Noel Galvin, Ballincollig. Wearing six here, Galvin was a natural corner-back at his peak. Picture Dan Linehan
Enda Dennehy, St Finbarr’s, is pursued by Noel Galvin, Ballincollig. Wearing six here, Galvin was a natural corner-back at his peak. Picture Dan Linehan

Michael Shields and Eoin Cadogan have filled these shoes previously but both are players more shrewdly placed in the half-back line. In effect, neither is an out-and-out man-marker.

Healy’s greatest problem travelling down into the lion’s den to face the Allianz NFL Division 1 champions is that there are no man-markers within his squad capable of counteracting Paul Geaney and James O’Donoghue.

Éamonn Fitzmaurice will be aware of this and surely attempt to isolate Geaney and O’Donoghue inside while withdrawing his half-forward line to the middle-third in order to monopolise secondary possessions in that sector. Fitzmaurice will appreciate that dragging Cork’s half-back line out the field will leave space the attacking duo could exploit for fun.

Even if the Rebels have a player detailed to sweep across in front of those forwards Kerry can easily make that ploy redundant by drilling low trajectory diagonal balls into the corners for Geaney and O’Donoghue to run on to. The deliveries into Tipp’s Conor Sweeney were decent, generally, and he finished Cork’s provincial semi-final victory with the RTÉ Man of the Match award.

What damage could Geaney and O’Donoghue inflict if Kerry’s playmakers have their percentages spot on in Fitzgerald Stadium?

Many people have been impressed by the contributions of Kevin Crowley and he has performed admirably. Nevertheless, the hunch is the Millstreet man is more inclined to career forward with the ball than he is to have minding the house as his priority.

Obviously, Cork will be setting their stall out to ensure the number of possessions those attackers acquire is kept to a minimum. Yet, what if the hosts shade, or dominate, those middle-third exchanges?

If there was ever an occasion whereby the rank outsiders – and that is what Cork are at odds of 11/2 – have got to control the midfield area it is in this encounter. Otherwise, Kerry’s spot in the last eight of the All-Ireland series will be secure by half-time.

Healy could fall into the trap of trying to deploy the likes of Cadogan, Alan O’Connor and Aidan Walsh in the hope their experience and power will be of benefit to the team. However, that would be counter-productive as each of those men would probably contribute more from the bench in the final quarter of the game if Cork are within touching distance of their foes.

The likes of Barry O’Driscoll, Mark Collins and Sean Powter should be automatic choices to start on Sunday as their pace and lines of running could hurt Kerry. Those three players illustrated their worth (as if they needed to in the first place) against the Premier and it would be foolhardy to have them among the substitutes.

Even if Cork manage to yield a high number of primary and secondary possessions in the middle-third, do they possess the scoring power to really compete with Fitzmaurice’s outfit?

The scoring statistics of their season thus far would suggest not. In the nine league and championship matches the Leesiders have contested this year, on five occasions they failed to total more than 14 points.

The quartet of fixtures whereby Healy’s charges tallied 15 points or more included 1-14 against Fermanagh, 0-18 versus Meath, 0-20 while faced with Derry and the 1-12 posted in Fraher Field in the Munster SFC quarter-final. What total would be required to dethrone Kerry? 17, 18 points? Would either of those totals even be sufficient?

The point is, all the evidence on offer so far in 2017 indicates the Rebels are incapable of posting a match-winning tally on Sunday, especially because this will be a top-tier challenger in the opposite corner.

In keeping with the scoring ceiling seemingly apparent in that nine-match sequence, Cork’s average total return per game was 15 points in the league and 14 (1-11) in the two championship matches won.

To be fair, Cork are unbeaten in seven of those nine games, but the standard of opposition cannot be ignored. A six-point reverse to Kildare does not seem so bad on reflection however, an eight-point loss to Clare does not bode well.

Kerry, with one hand tied behind their back in the sense they operated with 14 men for the second half, had six points to spare over Colm Collins’ unit in Ennis just two-and-a-half weeks ago. Of course, form-lines can be absolutely worthless at times. Still, taking into account all of the information to hand, a jury would not take long to deliver a verdict on the most likely outcome of this Munster final.

Furthermore, if Fitzmaurice opts to start Stephen O’Brien – and we suspect he will – it is his insatiable work-ethic that could define the day for the Kingdom. At the end of the decider the Kenmare man is the type of individual that could leave the ground with the MVP prize.

You can see O’Brien acting as the ideal link between Kerry’s midfield and the Geaney-O’Donoghue axis. O’Brien’s capacity to kick vital scores from acute angles is another feature of his arsenal which Cork could struggle to handle.

Essentially, forcing him into wide areas in the hope it curtails the attacker in possession will not necessarily work. O’Brien’s presence should be a defining feature on Sunday.

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