Consistency is key for Rebels
Cork strike forwards must drive on if they are to get the better of Clare
After 15 minutes of last Sunday's Cork-Waterford replay, it looked like deja vu all over again for Cork, and especially Patrick Horgan. He hadn't touched the ball once and the question was looming in the background – was Horgan going to go through another first half making just one play?
All of a sudden, bang. Horgan's first touch could have been a goal, but it produced a point. Horgan made five plays in the opening half, but four of those plays in 10 minutes reaped a dividend of four points. It emphatically proved a theory which has been consistently applied to Cork for the last three seasons – once their strike forwards are on the ball, good things invariably happen.
Just compare the stats of Horgan, Seamus Harnedy and Conor Lehane from the first half of the drawn game to the first half of last Sunday? Three weeks ago, those three made just seven first-half plays, which directly contributed just two points. Last Sunday, those three made a combined 15 plays, which transferred into an end product of 10 points.
In total, Cork's front six made a combined 31 plays, which were directly responsible for Cork's 16 first half points. Three weeks ago, the front six made a combined 18 plays, which directly led to seven points. And five of those scores were either scored or engineered by Alan Cadogan.
Prior to the replay, Cork had been answering questions about their poor starts in games and how they needed to address the issue. Last Sunday, it was addressed and emphatically answered.
In the drawn game, Cork were flat and casual, but there was no comparison to their attitude and application to last Sunday, especially in the first half.
Their work rate had clearly increased, which guaranteed them more possession. Their stick passing and accuracy and decision making was also far sharper. And, once their strike forwards got enough possession, they had enough class to rack up a big score.
work rate was the key. After the first quarter, the game turned on Cork's absolute obliteration of Waterford's puck-out.
If you compare the number of plays from the first half of the replay to the second half of the drawn game, Cork's attack had more possessions three weeks ago with 36 plays.
Yet they were chasing that match and were only gradually trying to adjust to the tempo and structure of a game which had been dictated and set by Waterford. Last Sunday, Waterford came with a similar game plan, but once Cork got on top, they ensured the game was played on their terms.
Cork have shown that they are well capable of chasing a game and eventually hitting a stride. That was particularly evident in last year's All-Ireland finals, but giving the opposition a head start and a platform doesn't allow Cork to manage the game on their terms.
By the second half of last Sunday, the Rebels were cruising. Their possession stakes were even more impressive, considering that Waterford won the second-half puck-out stat 20-13, which included 10 Cork puck-outs.
In terms of the scores they have amassed and the games they have won in the last three seasons – with poor starts, fade-outs and poor possession returns for their forwards – the question was always hanging – what could Cork really hit if they performed consistently for 70 minutes?
They weren't completely consistent on Sunday – their play count noticeably dropped in the third quarter – but hitting 28 points was completely realistic given the high scores Cork had been registering on the back of inconsistent and near-meltdown attacking statistics.
Yet was last Sunday a watershed moment for the Cork attack? Especially when their possession stakes will possibly be decreased against Clare? The big question now is whether or not Cork's forwards can be consistent for a full 70 minutes. Because if they are, on any given day, they will take serious stopping.
Last Sunday was only the third time in three seasons that the possession stakes of the forwards was consistently impressive for 70 minutes in a big game, with 61 plays made in total, almost split evenly between both halves. Their most impressive possession numbers for their forwards in that timespan was last year's All-Ireland quarter-final against Kilkenny when they made 69 plays. That figure was almost double what they made in the drawn All-Ireland final, when Clare restricted the Cork forwards to just 36 plays.
Similar to the figures from the drawn and replayed games against Waterford, it was that kind of inconsistency which was holding Cork back from going to another level.
In the opening 20 minutes of the second half of the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final against Galway, the Cork forwards had the ball in their hands on just four occasions. Although the team made more progress in 2013, the same numbers kept popping up.
After Horgan's dismissal in last year's Munster final, Cork needed Luke O'Farrell and Conor Lehane to step up but they both made just one play each in the second half before being taken off.
The sending off did impact on all of Cork's forwards, but the pattern of the half still reinforced the trend of how Cork's forwards had limited possession stakes compared to other teams, especially as the game develops.
That was really evident again in the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin. The Cork attack was excellent in the first half, but when Dublin deployed a sweeper, they had Cork by the throat until Dublin had a player sent-off. Even at that, Cork struggled up front given how much of an advantage they had; prior to Horgan's late goal, Horgan, O'Farrell and Lehane had made just a combined total of six second-half plays.
The replayed All-Ireland final was the second most consistent display Cork's attack had played in three seasons, but the drawn game against Waterford three weeks ago echoed back to old ways. The key for Cork now is to drive on and maintain that attacking consistency and possession stakes up front.
Waterford came with a very similar game plan to how Clare mostly play again last Sunday, but Cork dealt with it effectively this time around. Yet Clare have far classier players and are far more comfortable playing that system. Furthermore, Clare claim to have at least seven different variations of their style, all of which are subtly adjustable.
Clare were far more tactically fluid than Cork last year, but one of the reasons the teams were so hard to separate was because they met six times in the one season and they knew so much about each other. Clare will look to tactically and structurally set the agenda again on Sunday, throwing something different at Cork, but the sides are meeting for the first time this season. Cork also have form, momentum, confidence and eight players who appeared against Waterford that didn't play championship last year.
Cork have a serious advantage now, but Cork's forwards won't get the same easy possession they enjoyed against Waterford. They will have to be even more clinical than they were last Sunday. Can they be?
Answering that question will go a long way towards deciding the game.