TWO weeks before Tipperary played Kerry in the Munster semi-final, they met Cork in a challenge game in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Tipperary set up with huge numbers behind the ball. Their intention for how they wanted to play against Kerry was obvious. Cork won by six points. Tipp only scored 0-10 but they were still clearly going to try and ask different questions of Kerry from what Kerry probably expected.
From the throw-in, Tipp deployed a double sweeper system, with Michael Quinlivan and Conor Sweeney often the only two Tipp players inside the Kerry half.
Initially, it worked. Kerry turned the ball over five times in the first 13 minutes. They only managed two shots at the target in that period, but Kerry were moving the ball, and their players, at such an incredible pace that they were gradually beginning to work out the equation.
Tipp’s style was demanding huge energy and concentration early on and Kerry were drawing scoreable frees. And once David Clifford banged in a goal just before the first water break, the game had already got away from Tipp.
Kerry were supremely focused and ready for the challenge, playing with huge pace and intensity, controlling possession, dominating on kick-outs and bringing massive ferocity to the breakdown.
Kerry nailed 20 scores from 29 shots, but a 69% conversion rate was impressive considering how many bodies Tipp had behind the ball. A 10-point defeat could have been far uglier because Kerry missed four goal chances in the second half.
Tipp were out on their feet by the last quarter because Kerry’s intent and brilliant movement up front remained constant. Killian Spillane firing three points from play off the bench provided another illustration of the squad’s depth and firepower.
Earlier that evening in the Gaelic Grounds, Cork beat Limerick but the performance didn’t carry anything like the same conviction as Kerry’s did in Churls.
Four of Cork’s starting six forwards didn’t score from play. John O’Rourke bagged 1-3 but Brian Hurley’s two scores from play didn’t arrive until after the 67th minute. Outside of O’Rourke, who nailed his four shots, the other five starting Cork forwards only got off four shots from play.
Limerick had five more shots at the target than Cork. They generated 27 shots from 36 attacks, but Limerick’s conversion rate was a paltry 41% compared to Cork’s 77%.
A lot of Tipp’s problems in the first half stemmed from their trouble to secure enough possession off their own kick-out through the heat of the Kerry press. Tipp only won two of their own kick-outs in that half.
Most of Evan Comerford’s restarts were long but Cork will also need to mix up their kick-out with long and short options because Kerry’s press is one of the best in the country.
Cork will need to go long more often than short but there isn’t much point in lorrying the ball down on top of David Moran.
As well as doing so much damage on the opposition kick-out, Kerry have also been profiting highly from their own kick-out; against Tipp, Kerry won 15 of their 16 kick-outs and mined over one-third of their scores from that possession.
Kerry will need to try and restrict the damage Kerry can do on their own restart but the standout statistic from the Kerry-Tipp match was how Tipp didn’t get any score off a Kerry turnover. Kerry did turn the ball over early, but it was so high up the field that Tipp had too much work to do to try and transition the play to engineer scoring opportunities off that possession.
Part of that was down to how Tipp set up, but it showed how efficient Kerry have become at retaining possession. With Kerry mining 21% of their scores off turnovers, Cork know that coughing up cheap turnovers here will be ruthlessly punished.
Cork will also need to disarm one of Kerry’s silent weapons this year - Paudie Clifford, who was their best player against Tipp. Despite his brother’s status as the most exciting forward in the game, it’s some testament to Paudie Clifford to have surpassed David’s level of performance for most of this season to date.
David is the lethal finisher but Paudie is becoming the player Kerry look for to load the guns. He has become excellent at foraging deep, initiating the counter-attack and then stealthily joining the end of that attack behind the opposition cover.
Cork will need to get that match-up right and, while they may have another role in mind for Seán Powter, he would be well suited to Paudie Clifford because it would bring him further up the field; against Limerick, Powter nailed two points from two shots.
Seán Meehan became Cork’s go-to defender for the opposition’s main forward towards the end of the league, so he will more than likely pick up David Clifford, who has been playing closer to goal than usual.
At face value, there are any amount of arguments to make why Kerry should win this match; Kerry having played at a much higher level in Division 1, where they blitzed Galway and Tyrone and drew with Dublin; the Killarney factor, where Cork — or anyone else for that matter - haven’t won a championship match since 1995; the hurt Kerry have been feeling since last year’s Munster semi-final.
Cork will need so much going right for them to win. But if it does, and Cork can get some early momentum in the game, the result may certainly not be as clear-cut as most people think or expect.
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