IT’S a cliché that All-Ireland finals are 50/50, but I genuinely think it’s very hard to call between Cork and Kilkenny on Sunday.
At the start of the year the pecking order was Galway, Cork, and Kilkenny, but retirements, injuries, and form have Cork and Kilkenny in the final. Based on the semi-final displays and Kilkenny dethroning the champions, they will go in as slight favourites. But Cork love All-Ireland finals.
Kilkenny lost 50% of the defence that were beaten by Cork in the 2021 All-Ireland semi-final by a point; Davina Tobin, Megan Farrell, and Colette Dormer have been replaced by Niamh Deely, Tiffany Fitzgerald, and Laura Murphy.
But what a transitional job manager Brian Dowling has done here. Kilkenny’s defence was excellent against Galway. Having said that it was the collective tracking back that prevented Galway from netting. That and goalkeeper Aoife Norris, who blocked two potential goals and a penalty.
I think Kilkenny are somewhat sacrificing their attack by playing key forwards so deep. Right half-forward Denise Gaule played very defensively and I think Kilkenny will need her further up the field against Cork.
Katie Power, so often a thorn in Cork’s defence, missed the 2020 campaign because of a cruciate injury and while she returned last year, for the 2021 season she didn’t have as much of an impact. Twelve months later Kilkenny have her playing in midfield. I don’t think they are getting the best out of Power there.
They moved her into their half-forward line during the second half against Galway and she had a hand in 1-1.
Traditionally Kilkenny are goal-getters. With Gaule and Power deep they don’t look as dangerous in that regard as they used to.
Galway looked more likely to hit the net in the opening half of their semi-final, having a number of chances, but they failed to do so and a wonder strike by wing-back Laura Murphy saw Kilkenny breach the Galway rear-guard and go in front.
It shows the way the game has gone now, when your wing-back goals in an All-Ireland semi-final. Similar to Cork’s Laura Hayes and Saoirse McCarthy she’s an attacking defender.
Miriam Walsh at full-forward is Kilkenny’s main attacking threat. Her battle with Libby Coppinger is going to be crucial. Walsh has strength and height and wins difficult ball. Coppinger has mastered the art of standing off and not being rounded easily.
Kilkenny will look to stop Cork’s runners, particularly up the flanks by the aforementioned wingers. By default, due to all teams now pulling out their forwards and leaving typically two, maybe three inside, both sides will operate a sweeper.
Cork’s good play comes from that sweeper initiation, primarily by Laura Treacy. The overlap and support play before striking to open space didn’t work that well against Waterford for three-quarters of the game. Space was tight and it was only in the last quarter that they split Waterford, racking up eight points in a row.
Ashling Thompson and Hannah Looney will more than likely take midfield, both runners, both good at tracking back and moving forward.
There will be no better person to expose Kilkenny’s new wing-back than Katrina Mackey. However, I doubt they’ll leave Laura Murphy on her. If Cork play two inside then Michelle Teehan and Grace Walsh will pick up Mackey and Amy O’Connor, two brilliant defenders.
There was a lot of jersey pulling by Kilkenny defenders in last year’s semi-final, preventing Amy O’Connor’s bursts and it wasn’t penalised.
Against the top sides, Cork rely on their runners, they’ll need that and Chloe Sigerson to find space and score from distance. Of the 1-13 Cork scored in their recent league final, seven came from their midfield and defenders.
Sorcha McCartan will add physicality and a good role for her could be at centre-forward on Claire Phelan and go toe to toe.
Kilkenny played Galway twice in the past five weeks. Tremendous battles that are sure to stand to them.
Cork had the easier group, lost their final group game to Tipperary and struggled for long periods against Waterford. But Cork’s intensity and tempo has been proven time and again in Croke Park.