IN the aftermath of Limerick’s win against Tipperary last weekend, Ger Loughnane wrote in his newspaper column about the sense that Waterford are still Limerick’s biggest threat.
In that context, Loughnane said that there was more focus on Waterford than ever this weekend to see if they deserve that status as Limerick’s main challengers.
“If Waterford want to put down a marker to Limerick that they are serious contenders,” wrote Loughnane. “They have to wipe Cork off the field.”
Outside of Cork, that view has framed much of the background and build-up to this match, as in it seems to be heavily focused on assessing where Waterford are really at more than even considering Cork as any real threat, either to Waterford or anyone else.
Cork are already written off in the minds of so many and Liam Cahill knows how dangerous that perception can be.
This is only Waterford’s second home championship game under Cahill and, while crowds weren’t a factor in 2020 and for most of the 2021 championship, Cahill did something he has never done before during the week – he pleaded with the Waterford public to get behind the team.
“This is the biggest game in my tenure here to be straight and honest about it,” said Cahill.
“That’s why I’d really appeal to the Waterford people to pack out Walsh Park next Sunday.”
For all the talk about Cork being under incredible pressure to get a result, Waterford are under just as much strain.
If Waterford lose here, they’ll have to beat Clare in Ennis and hope Cork lost to Tipperary next weekend.
Cork’s inferior score difference has put them in a bind but if Cork and Waterford end up on four points, which could happen if Clare beat or draw with Limerick, Cork would nail Waterford on a head-to-head.
From the outset of the championship, going to Walsh Park always looked like being a tricky fixture for Cork, irrespective of the position they were in.
It looks more perilous than ever now but the other side of that coin is that maybe Waterford aren’t as good as the hype suggests.
The form of some of their top players has dropped off considerably since the league final. Tipperary rattled them and while they ran Limerick to three points, Waterford’s two goals camouflaged how close they were that evening.
Apart from those two green flags, Waterford only registered one point in the last 25 minutes. Despite being down four All-Stars, Limerick still hit 30 points.
Was too much read into Waterford’s performance in the league final, especially considering how poor Cork have been since?
The other side of that coin is that Waterford know they can get at Cork with goals. And they’ll go after them even more now on Sunday.
In lots of ways, Waterford are nearly the worst team Cork could face right now.
They will keep going at Cork, relentlessly hunting for green flags. And if Cork are not 100% committed to meeting that force head-on, especially around tracking runners and players covering back the field, this could get ugly for Cork very quickly.
Much of the debate in this championship has centred on Cork’s personnel, structure and style, especially around where to play certain key players.
That is still an issue but it no longer carries the same importance because Cork have to boil everything down now to one basic reality – unless every player works to the maximum level required, everything else is irrelevant.
Whether a certain player lines out in the half-back line, half-forward line or midfield, none of that stuff matters unless they bring a scavenger mentality to hunt every ball.
What does that require?
In a brilliant piece of analysis on The 42 this week, Seán Flynn showed how Tipperary made 92 tackles compared to Limerick’s 80 last Sunday. Yet measuring work-rate and tackle counts are always relative to the number of possessions that the opposition had in the game.
In that context, Flynn was able to show how Tipp players hit a tackle for every 1.7 of Limerick’s possessions, but Limerick’s players tackled for every 1.2 of Tipperary’s possessions.
Tipperary worked as hard as they possibly could and it still only got them to within seven points of Limerick, who underperformed on the day. That is the level Limerick now operate at and, with Waterford perceived as their nearest challengers, can Cork summon the level of work-rate required to take down the top teams?
Cork need to fight like warriors from the first ball.
A repeat of the first 15 minutes against Clare would see Cork wiped out here; in that period, the Cork midfielders and forwards had only a combined total of 16 possessions.
Cork’s struggles on their own puck-outs continues to be a huge problem, but their biggest issue is turnovers, most of which stems from their difficulty to win ball under pressure, especially in 50-50 contests; in their last three matches, Cork have now turned over the ball an incredible 108 times; they’ve conceded 3-32 off that possession.
A continuation of that trend on Sunday will put Cork in huge bother in a game they have to treat like it will be the last for a number of this squad – because it will be if they lose.
Cork can win, but unless they arrive in Walsh with a manic desire and attitude to show that they’re willing and ready to fight for their lives, they absolutely won’t.