WHEN Cork beat Kerry in last November’s Munster final, keeping a clean sheet was decisive to the outcome, as much for the psychological advantage of denying Kerry the huge oxygen they source from green flags than the three points which accrue from it.
Kerry did have a number of goal chances in that match. If a David Clifford rocket hadn’t crashed off the outside of the post just after half-time, Kerry could have gone on and won the game comfortably.
They were just craving some kind of a spark, but the longer Cork denied Kerry a goal, the greater the chance they had of winning.
Sunday’s match was a totally different game, played in a heatwave as opposed to a monsoon, but there were still similarities from the oxygen, energy and confidence Kerry sourced from goals, compared to how deprived they were in all those areas from a lack of green flags last November.
Kerry were operating at a different level on Sunday but, even when they weren’t in the first 20 minutes, and Cork were on top, Kerry’s hunt for goals was like an auctioneer waiting for the final bid to fall. ‘Going, going ….’
Kerry could have had four goals before their first but when Brian Ó Beaglaoich eventually did raise a green flag in the 33rd minute, the auctioneer’s hammer effectively hit the wood. ‘Gone’.
Kerry were devastating but the manner of the second-half collapse was the hardest part of all for Cork supporters to accept, and for everyone else to understand.
“It’s not good for Kerry and it’s definitely not good for Cork, that kind of a hammering,” said Tomás Ó Sé in his TV analysis after the game.
“I’m not saying Cork stopped fighting but I don’t know how you can explain how a team can come out for 20 minutes and play one way and then go the other way.”
Even though Cork were only five points down at the half-time break, and they still looked to be in the game, the writing was already on the wall. They only had a success rate of 50% on their own kickout.
For Cork to have any chance of being competitive, never mind winning, they had to do better on kick-outs and not turn over the ball.
But Cork’s struggles on their own kick-out was exceeded by the damage Kerry were doing on Cork turnovers - seven of Kerry’s first-half scores came from turnovers.
All of the numbers are skewed because of how badly the game petered out in the second half.
Cork ended up with a 63% conversion rate on their own kick-out (compared to Kerry’s 86%), but when Kerry were going after Cork’s throat in the third quarter, they hunted down four of Cork’s five kick-outs of the second half and converted it into 2-1. By the end of the match, Kerry had mined 23% of their scores off the Cork kick-out.
They also killed Cork on turnovers, with Kerry generating 35% of their scores from that source.
Cork also needed to be clinically accurate throughout the game.
By the end, Cork’s conversion rate was as low as 40%.
To win, it needed to be close to double that tally. Kerry got off only 10 more shots than Cork (36-26) but they got 16 more scores and had a conversion rate of 69%.
Cork’s work-rate needed to be superior to Kerry’s, especially when Cork knew Kerry would bring a ferocious intensity after the hurt of last year’s Munster semi-final defeat.
Cork did work hard early on when generating five big turnovers one of which led to Brian Hurley’s goal, but their tackle count dropped from the second quarter onwards and was nowhere near as high as it needed to be for Cork to really compete with their opponents.
Kerry are more advanced in their strength and conditioning levels and they overpowered Cork, especially around the middle.
Cork did profit from the space they were creating in front of the Cork goal in the first quarter, especially the Hurley brothers, who nailed 1-4 from six shots, but Kerry eventually shut that space down and stopped the supply going in with an increased dominance around the middle.
Scoring 4-22 without David Clifford scoring from play underlined the quality of this Kerry attack but it also showcased the class of Seán Meehan. Clifford did have 21 possessions but limiting him to four assists was a huge testament to Meehan’s performance.
The gulf in class was obvious. After beating Kerry last year, getting back to that level will be a huge task after this defeat but Cork’s priority for 2022 has to be the league.
It’s unknown yet what a new league and championship format may look like in 2022, but Cork will continue to struggle to deal with Kerry – and make real progress in the championship - unless they can get into Division 1.
And then stay there.