WHILE it’s not technically a must-win game for Cork — in 2019 they qualified for the knockout stages of the championship with four points after two defeats – Clare’s victory over Tipperary last week means that it might as well be.
Win and Kieran Kingston’s side are level with the Banner County, their likeliest rivals for third place behind Limerick and Waterford. Lose, however, and the margin for error from the away games against Waterford and Tipperary is reduced to zero and even then it may not be enough as Clare would have the edge if a head-to-head tie-breaker had to be called upon.
It will have been a long two weeks for the Cork team and management, given the level of criticism aimed at them since the Limerick loss, some of it fair but some of it not.
As much as the focus will be on how and why Cork lost, Limerick are ahead of the pack, as they showed against Waterford, managing to win despite missing Peter Casey, Séamus Flanagan, Kyle Hayes, and Cian Lynch. Losing to them is not a cause for celebration, obviously, but it might not necessarily be the disaster that it was painted.
Ultimately, Cork need to have processed it and parked it, ready to deal with the challenge that Clare possess. While Cork won the league game between the counties at Páirc Uí Chaoimh back in February, Brian Lohan’s side were without John Conlon, Tony Kelly, Shane O’Donnell, Peter Duggan, and Ian Galvin that night and they showed in Thurles last Sunday that they are not to be written off.
Fate was probably kind to Clare in that had an extra week to prepare and could target the Tipp game — for all the talk of how well the Premier had done against Waterford, they had expended a big mental and physical effort only to come away with nothing and then had to face into another big challenge immediately.
The variable now is whether Clare can ride the momentum gained by last week or if they will experience something similar to last year when they impressed in beating Waterford in the quarter-final only to fall to Tipp in the semis.
As well as they did last week, pressuring Tipp into mistakes and showing an appetite to go for the jugular, they could have won by more and their second-half display left something to be desired.
It’s almost forgotten now that Cork hit the ground running against Limerick, scoring an unanswered 1-2, but couldn’t build on it.
The Shannonsiders aren’t fazed with falling behind like that, but another side might succumb when faced with an early deficit.
If Cork can click in attack, then it’s vital that they don’t allow Clare the facility to create goal chances as easily as Tipp did — or as Cork did against Waterford and Limerick. Doing that isn’t just as simple as saying that the full-back line need to mark tighter; these things tend to originate out the field before an overload close to goal allows the chance to materialise.
How to deal with Kelly may be a factor, given the damage he can wreak — but then Tipp deployed Séamus Kennedy as a man-marker and Clare were able to come through for the win even without Kelly conducting affairs to the extent that he can. Naturally, debate will centre around Mark Coleman’s role for Cork but, as much as some people might yearn for an old-fashioned dominant number 6, Coleman’s placement was not the key factor in losing to Limerick.
It could come down to the benches and in that regard, Cork could come up trumps as, without Mark Rodgers, David Reidy, and Aidan McCarthy, Clare’s panel is a bit thin. However, Cork’s subs didn’t score against Limerick and they will need an improvement in that regard.
As much as talk of systems and tactics can dominate, in the end, it’s about players and getting the result, in whatever way it might be achieved.
Last July in the Gaelic Grounds, Cork were coming off a loss to Limerick and squeezed past Clare before picking up momentum. They will hope that lightning can strike twice.