WHEN analysing Cork from their game against Clare on ‘’ two weeks ago, Oisin McConville said that Cork don’t play with the intent or purpose of a Division 2 team and that those qualities were closer to a Division 3 side.
At face value, that assessment seemed really harsh. Cork had won a tight game away against a team they had struggled against. They scored 22 points, engineering the winning score off their own kick-out with effectively the last play.
McConville though was surely making that assessment from a different set of measurements and metrics he was applying to the performance.
Clare did play very defensively, which meant their scoring platform was mostly on the counter-attack, or off their own kick-out. That changed the terms of engagement, but Cork still didn’t get enough contact, or make enough tackles, on the Clare player in possession.
McConville’s eye was surely trained towards that aspect of Cork’s play as opposed to what they scored, and how they won the game. In his own mind, McConville was also probably comparing Cork to the top teams, and the work-rate and high tackle-counts by which those sides consistently measure themselves against.
Despite their struggles in the league in recent years, and having been out of Division 1 since 2016, the external perception of Cork will still always mean that they are judged by the kind of standards that pundits like McConville expect of them.
And because they didn’t qualify for a league semi-final, that perception deems Cork to be much further away from that standard than they actually are.
In any case, the league table was highly instructive in informing how close Cork were to bridging that outside perception between credit and criticism; Clare finished on the same number of points as Clare and Kildare; over three games, Clare scored two points more than Cork, with Kildare scoring just one more point than Cork.
So the real test for Cork now is to make sure against Westmeath on Saturday that their season is not defined by a poor 30-minute period against Kildare, which is effectively what put them in a relegation semi-final.
Cork’s shooting that afternoon was poor, having just a 41% conversion rate against Kildare from play. Yet the graph in that stats category has clearly been rising ever since, peaking at a conversion rate of 75% from play against Clare.
And yet Cork will still feel they can do far better in an attacking capacity.
One of Cork’s biggest issues against Clare was the pace in their attack, especially in how they built their attacks from deep. They were too patient in that build up when they should have been injecting pace up to the opposition 45-metre line, and then being patient in trying to probe for the right opening.
They will also need to learn from their difficulties on the Clare kick-out, and the damage they suffered as a result. Clare trusted their big men around the middle but, if Westmeath adopt a shorter game, Cork will need to press higher up the field on the Westmeath restart.
Westmeath will be a tricky task. They lost to both Meath and Down by one point, while Mayo only beat them by three points. In their last game against Down two weeks ago, Westmeath trailed by eight points and were temporarily down a man in the third quarter but Westmeath fought back and would have won the game if they hadn’t missed a penalty and three more glorious goal chances.
Yet, while Westmeath have been creating chances in open play, they have struggled to take them; they have only managed 2-16 from play in their three games. Cork got 18 scores from play alone against Clare. On the other hand, John Heslin is such a good free-taker that he will heavily punish the indiscipline Cork showed against Clare, when they conceded 1-8 from frees.
Facing a Division 2 relegation semi-final is a totally different mindset compared to playing a league semi-final with a place to Division 1 on offer but Cork will still go into this match in a positive mindset; they’ve won their last two games; their big players are in good form; they lost key players to injury during the Clare match, along with Brian Hurley to a red-card, and still dug out the result; the brilliant display of Cathail O’Mahony two weeks ago further reaffirmed his sublime and maturing rich talent.
After the Clare match, Ronan McCarthy posed a rhetorical question – would Cork have been better off to lose the game and still have qualified (which could have happened if Laois beat Kildare) for the league semi-finals?
“I don’t think so,” said McCarthy. “I’d prefer to be winning our own games and come to a really difficult place like this and get a result, despite lots of things that went against us. That speaks well for the direction the team is going.”
Fair point. But staying in Division 2 now is an absolute must. And a win against Westmeath must be matched by an improved all-round display from the Clare game if Cork’s graph is to keep rising heading into the championship.