AT the end of Sunday’s Munster club semi-final, the Midleton players and management gathered in a huddle just in front of the Mackey Stand in the Gaelic Grounds.
As the Kilmallock players were going through their warm-down routine, Midleton clearly wanted to do their debrief on the pitch before heading for the dressing room.
Ben O’Connor spoke first before Ger Fitzgerald addressed the squad and then Conor Lehane wrapped up a discussion which lasted for close to 10 minutes. Once the group began to disperse, they were clapped on their way to the dressing room by a small nest of supporters which had waited on to show their appreciation for their efforts throughout the season.
The thrust of the on-field discussion surely focused on the hard lessons they’d just learned, and of the need to make up that ground if Midleton are to move to a level where they feel they belong.
The defeat extended the drought of Cork clubs in the provincial championship, but it also provided another hard reminder of why Cork teams – at senior level – are struggling to crack the code at the top, especially against Limerick teams, which are now the standard.
There were stages throughout this match – especially in the first half – when Midleton struggled to physically cope with the savagery and intensity brought by Kilmallock, both in the tackle and at the breakdown.
Similar to the Cork-Limerick league meeting in June, and the All-Ireland final in August, there were numerous examples again of a Cork team being devoured on puck-outs, and struggling to break free of the traps consistently set by a Limerick team.
The puck-out stats in the first half effectively told the story of the match; eight of Kilmallock’s 12 points came off puck-outs. Kilmallock won 11 Midleton puck-outs in that period and converted that possession into five points. Those numbers could have even more damaging because Midleton were turned over on two more occasions – after short puck-outs – and were lucky not to cough up another couple of scores off that possession.
The half-time score reflected Kilmallock’s dominance, but the tone was set by more than just the amber digits on the digital scoreboard behind the goal; the terms and conditions of the match were set by relentless tackling and hunting. And once a Limerick side sink their teeth into the throat of the opposition, the outcome is inevitable as they gradually squeeze the life out of them.
The physical profiles of both teams wasn’t too dissimilar to those of the Cork-Limerick sides this season, which meant that Midleton were always struggling to impose their game on their opponents.
The pitch wasn’t as good as the Páirc Uí Chaoimh sod last month, but this was also a totally different game, against a totally different opposition; after getting off 43 shots against Glen Rovers, Midleton managed just 23 shots yesterday, 12 less than their opponents.
Midleton only had a 43% conversion but much of that was down to the relentless pressure their players were under. Midleton were under the cosh from the first minute and the only time they had any real momentum or foothold in the match was in the second half of the third quarter.
Kilmallock had started that quarter in emphatic fashion with three points but failing to convert any of their next five chances slightly opened the door for Midleton, who nailed four of their five chances in that third quarter.
After Cormac Beausang was fouled just before the second water-break, the Midleton crowd finally found their voices after being given something to shout about, but the free was from distance and Conor Lehane’s effort drifted wide.
Kilmallock had clearly dropped off in pace, but they regrouped and three quick-fire points on the resumption pushed the lead out to 11 points. To their credit, Midleton kept going but the game was already clinically dead.
Midleton spent most of the game just trying to keep their heads above water and survive.
From six first-half plays, Lehane hit three wides, two from play, but he showed great leadership in the second half by taking the fight to the Limerick side; from eight plays, Lehane scored three points from play, won a free and secured two puck-outs.
Beausang was moved out to the half-forward line and he also kept working hard; he won three frees and nearly bagged a goal. Tommy O’Connell, who made a difference when moved up to the attack, finally raised a green flag for Midleton late on after they had manufactured a handful of goal chances late on.
Midleton can’t have any complaints, but they will still be disappointed with this performance. Midleton turned over the ball 36 times. Kilmallock turned it over 30 times but they had far more possession, whereas a lot of Midleton turnovers was down to poor execution or poor decision with a lot of possession they had.
That was mostly down to the incessant pressure and heat they had to deal with from Kilmallock. After hitting 23 or more scores in six of their seven games in Cork, Midleton could only manage 23 shots in total on Sunday.
Ten scores was never going to do in a Munster semi-final, but Cork teams have consistently found out that it’s a different game now against Limerick sides at senior level, both club and county.