The Kingdom's shooting stars
Kingdom have firepower to take down Cork but only if they survive the relentless running power of the reigning Rebels, writes Christy O'Connor
Published 01/07/2011 | 05:00
When Kerry played Limerick in last month's Munster semi-final, their attack hit the highest number of points ever recorded by a Kingdom team.
Their final scoreline resembled a hurling tally, with 24 of their 26 points coming from play, from 12 different scorers. They only managed one goal, but they could have had at least four if they'd put their minds to it.
Limerick stood off their men and applied little or no pressure on the ball- carriers or kickers out the field, but Kerry were still moving better than they had at any stage in the last five years and they just did as they pleased.
In the first half, they annihilated Limerick with their long-ball tactic to Kieran Donaghy, who was involved in the creation of 1-4.
Then they played Donaghy in a more withdrawn role for the second half, before tearing Limerick apart with their angled and incisive running game.
More than anything, though, their attacking formation for long stages of the second half highlighted their depth -- Donaghy is the best full-forward in the country, but Declan O'Sullivan is possibly the best No 14 in the game after Donaghy. And then there's the small matter of Colm Cooper's scoring pedigree.
In training, Kerry have never been going better. They have only lost to Cork on three occasions in 14 championship meetings since 2005, while Cork haven't beaten Kerry in Killarney since 1995.
This has the potential to be one of the highest scoring Cork-Kerry matches in the modern history of their rivalry and Kerry have more blue-chip forwards than Cork.
Although Cork's age profile at the back is as high as Kerry's, this game still may also hinge on the Kingdom's midfield and defence as much as their celebrated attack.
After their win over Limerick, former Cork player Tony Davis said on 'The Sunday Game' that Kerry were in decline because of their struggles in these areas. Despite being blown away, Limerick managed to hit 3-9 and their three goals came from running at the Kerry rearguard. What might happen if Cork's tsunami-like running game comes at them?
The obvious answer for Kerry is to win the breaking ball in the middle third because this game will be won between the two '45s.' Kerry may still be able to survive on 40pc of that breaking ball, while Cork would need around 55pc to ensure enough of a scoring return.
Whatever ball Kerry don't win in this sector, the key will then be tracking and stopping the Cork runners coming from deep. And if they don't win enough clean possession or dirty ball, they have to ensure the momentum isn't built up from Cork's half-back line, because that's where Cork's energy comes from.
When you examine Limerick's Munster final display against Cork in 2009, their success in halting the Rebels' running game put them into a position to win. Limerick's workrate was heroic.
Players were covering more than just their own man because anytime a Cork player got possession, they were nearly always double-teamed. As opposed to marking space, Limerick consistently made sure they had more bodies than Cork in every contest.
Limerick maximised whatever pace they had that day. And with a deficit in pace in the Kerry defence, that's why a player like Darran O'Sullivan is crucial to the Kingdom on Sunday. He is in excellent form and was brilliant against Limerick when he scored Kerry's goal and should have had a second.
He is lethal as an outlet runner when Donaghy wins possession, but they need him performing a more workmanlike role in Paul Galvin's absence.
Can O'Sullivan add that extra dimension to Kerry's game?
On the other wing, Donncha Walsh is not noted as a scorer, but he is one of the most under-rated players in the game. Few players cover as much ground, or cover as much space from a defensive viewpoint, as Walsh does. Walsh is regularly substituted, but that's largely because he has run himself into the ground contesting breaking ball.
Jack O'Connor will have been happy with how his team fared at midfield against Limerick when they won the kick-out battle 25-16, with 17 of those coming from the Limerick end. However, Limerick's outstanding midfielder John Galvin was injured, while Jim O'Donovan, who had really improved as Galvin's junior partner last year, was gone off the field after just 27 minutes.
Cork will pose a totally different challenge at midfield on Sunday, but the kick-out and breaking ball statistics have always been very interesting in Cork-Kerry games.
Traditionally, Cork have always done well in those areas against Kerry in Munster, but Kerry have wiped them out in the same areas in Croke Park.
However, Cork seem to have a distinct advantage now in the engine room. Darragh O Se isn't around anymore, Tomas O Se is suspended, David Moran is injured, Seamus Scanlon has been sick, while Galvin is unlikely to take any part. Without those bodies around, Kerry will probably be looking to win around 30pc of their kick-outs from snappy short balls to the wing.
As long as Kerry have possession, they will feel confident their attack can do the business.
What separates Kerry from most other teams is their decision making and how they rarely waste a single ball. Once the inside forwards are making the runs, the execution of the kick or fist-pass into them is of the highest quality.
Kerry are also masters at drawing frees -- if their forwards receive the ball on the run, defenders have to tackle hard or foul to stop them getting away. And much of that is down to the superb delivery of kick-passes from Kerry's players out the field.
Ultimately, that could be their decisive weapon on Sunday because the Cork full-back line will be in trouble when Kerry's inside forwards have possession.
Another key factor will be which team reacts better to the personnel changes throughout the game. Cork's extra options at midfield were decisive in their All-Ireland success last year, while their use of a target man in the full-forward line in the second half against Dublin was also crucial. What will Kerry do if Nicholas Murphy comes on as a target man at full-forward?
If this game is to be won off the bench, as they often are, do Kerry have the depth? On the face of it, they don't have the same level of options as Cork from number nine back, which is where the Rebels will look to stretch them.
Kerry will always produce talented underage players and teams, but their results at minor and U-21 this season showed how far ahead Cork are of them now.
Cork have been gobbling up underage titles over the last five years and the belief is that when Cork finally stride ahead of the current Kerry senior team -- which will inevitably happen in the next few years -- they will leave the Kingdom in their slipstream like they did in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
There is an anxiety in Cork for that to happen sooner rather than later, but the future, and what it holds for both Cork and Kerry won't have any impact on the result on Sunday.
Both sides could possibly meet again later in the championship and, despite both teams desperately wanting to win, defeat won't have any impact on either team's ambitions or chances of winning an All-Ireland.
Cork and Kerry will probably learn as much about themselves from this match as they would have in any other Munster meeting in the last six years.
Kerry know that they have the firepower to take down Cork. What they'll find out now is whether or not they have sufficient barricades to deal with Cork's counter-artillery.