IN his half-time TV analysis of the Cork-Tipperary Munster semi-final, Colm O’Rourke went to town on Cork. He said that the performance was an “embarrassment” and an “insult” to the Cork jersey.
“A disorganised rabble” was how O’Rourke summed up Cork.
Nobody was spared but much of O’Rourke’s ire centred on Cork’s decision to play a sweeper with the breeze, and not attack the play more.
Giving Tipperary possession on their own short kick-out also handed Tipp the initiative, especially with an inexperienced goalkeeper.
Cork’s solitary point in the opening half made it difficult to argue with O’Rourke’s assessment.
They looked like a team devoid of any confidence or belief. Playing a sweeper with the breeze also seemed to corroborate the theory of Cork having no faith in themselves.
Yet how accurate was that assessment either?
Cork never had more than six defenders back but Tipperary were mostly playing two inside forwards, one of whom – Conor Sweeney – is one of the most dangerous inside forwards in the game.
Cork were sitting Michael Shields (mostly) back – a plus-one situation – but what were they supposed to do?
If they hadn’t provided that shield to a dangerous two-man inside line, and Tipperary had got a bag of scores, Cork would have been annihilated even more in the media.
Cork have long been the easiest of targets, primarily because of the chronic underachievement of a county of its size and resources.
Careers were on the line in that second half. Peadar Healy and his management would probably have felt pressurised from the public into stepping down if they hadn’t shown some improvement.
Yet Cork did, and in the gravest of circumstances.
The biggest criticism of the team was how mentally weak they had been, of their inability to think or work their way out of a difficult situation when it arose during a game. Cork finally arrested that trend against Tipp. Scoring the winning goal in the circumstances – straight from the kick-out after Sweeney’s goal – proved that Cork had the composure to execute that move when the demand was greatest. The sequence of play only took 20 seconds (six passes) from when Ken O’Halloran kicked out the ball until Luke Connolly palmed it to the net.
Cork did throw off the shackles after the break but the biggest tactical adjustments was their decision to go after the Tipperary kick-out, and to run the ball. In that second half, Cork won ten Tipp kick-outs, and mined five scores from that possession.
All of Cork’s ten second half scores were constructed from a clever and hard-paced running game. Four of the seven wides they kicked in that period also came at the end of running moves, all of which were narrow wides kicked within 30 metres of the goal.
Playing with the breeze, and with Peter Kelleher sited at full-forward, it was natural that Cork would have kicked more long ball in the first half but that tactic didn’t work. It almost led to a Colm O’Neill goal within the opening minute but Cork failed to win any of the four other long deliveries into the full-forward position in the half.
Five of their nine wides in that period were desperate misses but Cork were so low on confidence that it also clearly diluted their aggression, which was a critical difference between the teams. Tipperary forced seven turnovers in possessions in that period when Cork were in an attacking position. When Cork approached the game with a different mindset after the break, everything changed.
Kerry will be a whole different challenge on Sunday but all the pressure is off Cork now. It will soon come on again if they get a hiding – which is possible – but going to Killarney, as opposed to a huge and expectant crowd in the new Pairc Ui Chaoimh, allows the players to have even more of a cut.
Kerry will bring serious heat but mindset is critical in these games and Cork can go into this game in a far more relaxed state of mind than they were before the Tipperary game. Cork also have a better idea of their best team now, and the defined style of play that suits them.
Over the years, Cork have invariably ran the ball well against the breeze but that running game suits Cork better anyway. That approach also presents Cork with their best chance on Sunday. Cork have the pace and running power to get at Kerry more, as opposed to trying to pick them off with a kicking game, something Cork are clearly not comfortable with.
With Dublin in mind, Eamonn Fitzmaurice has picked players with pace and athleticism but Cork have those attacking players in abundance too; Paul Kerrigan, Sean Powter, Michael Hurley, Barry O’Driscoll, Luke Connolly, Mark Collins. Cork won’t start all of them, especially when they will need legs late on, but the team which finished against Tipperary was certainly better than the one which started.
Tipperary eventually just ran out of bodies, especially around the middle, but one of the key decisions Cork will need to make now is whether or not to push up on the Kerry kick-out, especially when going long is what Kerry may want to do anyway with David Moran, Anthony Maher and Jack Barry as target men. The return of Alan O’Connor and Aidan Walsh gives Cork options in that area but Cork really need to get their defensive match-ups right on James O’Donoghue and Paul Geaney.
Jamie O’Sullivan may be tagged to Geaney, wherever he goes. Eoin Cadogan may not be match-fit after so long out with injury but he is the type of aggressive leader that Cork need in a game like this, especially against O’Donoghue.
Kerry could still do a job on Cork but Cork will at least be competitive if they can get their running game going. Whatever happens, Cork should just go and have a cut. They shouldn’t fear defeat. Because nobody expects anything less off them.