Saturday 23 September 2017

Jamesie O'Connor: It pains me to say it, but the return of Cork's swagger has been a real breath of fresh air

Rebels have lit up the summer but Clare's pacy forwards will ask big questions of their defence

Cork’s Daniel Kearney in action against Clare’s Cathal Malone during the league match at Páirc Uí Rinn earlier this year. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Cork’s Daniel Kearney in action against Clare’s Cathal Malone during the league match at Páirc Uí Rinn earlier this year. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Jamesie O'Connor

I'd describe my father as a genuine hurling man, and very much a traditionalist. He loves the game and has been making the point over the last couple of years, especially in the context of Tipperary and Kilkenny's dominance of their provinces, that you need Cork back as a force in the championship.

My response hasn't been overly sympathetic. Be careful what you wish for Dad. When it comes to Cork, I tend to think of the defeats. The devastation of the Munster minor final in 1990; the senior final in 1999, out with a broken arm and watching helplessly from the sidelines as they took our title; and my last game against them in the semi-final in 2003. Retired and watching from the stands, I was gutted walking out after they broke Dalo, Seanie McMahon and the Lohans' hearts in the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final.

I was there as a kid at the Munster final in Killarney in 1986 and, even though I was too young to really remember it, what Clare man couldn't reference '77 and '78 and the heartbreak suffered by Loughnane, Sean Stack and that team of the '70s at the hands of Jimmy Barry, John Horgan and the great Cork three-in-a-row side.

In general, out of respect for all those who wore the Clare jersey before me, I might have pointed out to the old man that you couldn't have sympathy for Cork, considering the hundred years of oppression the Rebels have subjected us to in Clare.

Meanwhile, Mossy the Corkman, one of our caretakers in St Flannan's, has been putting a brave face on things. I think even he had abandoned all hope after the manner of last year's loss to Tipp and the subsequent capitulation to Wexford in the qualifiers.

Cork were so bad in 2016 that I had begun to formulate a theory that there could be a point - considering the lack of success, and I mean any success, at minor and under 21 level - where the winning tradition and belief that comes with it might be lost.

Well, debunk that theory. Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Luke Meade and the rest of the rookies who don't have any minor or under 21 medals weren't short of confidence when they took the field against Tipp or Waterford. The Cork jersey still means something and - call it tradition, call it heritage - once they got their tails up, there wasn't a shred of doubt in their minds.

The Rebels are well and truly back and, more pertinently, so too is that bit of cockiness and swagger that comes when they pull that red jersey over their heads.

And you know what? My father has a point. It's good for the game that they're back. The way Cork have played - so easy on the eye, with the skill, verve, pace and the fearlessness of youth that has re-energised this team and their supporters - has been a breath of fresh air in this year's championship.

That's not to mention the colour, wit and everything else they bring off the field. Starved of success, there is a tidal wave of support building behind this team, and they're likely to outnumber the Clare support by ten to one in Thurles today.

But that brings its own pressure. Underdogs in their two previous contests, for the first time this year, Cork will carry the burden of favouritism into a big championship match. Understandably so too, because Clare did just about enough to win against Limerick in the easier side of the draw, and you couldn't really say they impressed.

That means the hunter has now become the hunted, which is a completely different dynamic. This is also a Munster final, with all the trappings that go with such an occasion, and the biggest stage that many of these Cork players have played on.

'Everything, from where Anthony Nash (pictured) is going with his puck-outs, to how the half-backs and Mark Ellis in particular are dropping back to help the full-back line at every opportunity, to the goal chances they've engineered at the other end, will have been forensically analysed.' Photo: Sportsfile
'Everything, from where Anthony Nash (pictured) is going with his puck-outs, to how the half-backs and Mark Ellis in particular are dropping back to help the full-back line at every opportunity, to the goal chances they've engineered at the other end, will have been forensically analysed.' Photo: Sportsfile

I can only assume that the hype has been building down south since the Waterford match. There's such an appetite for success in the county that people can't wait to board this train. The excess demand for tickets - the sheer number of clubs and size of the county means it couldn't be any other way - is in marked contrast to things in Clare, where (a minor ticket crisis apart) the build-up couldn't be any less low key. You wouldn't know there's a Munster final on, walking around Ennis, which is perfect from a Clare player's perspective.

I was in Páirc Uí Rinn when the sides met in the opening round of the league in February, and Cork served notice of their intentions for the year. All of the rookies - bar Colm Spillane - who took the field against Tipp started that night and they were all impressive. Admittedly Clare were flat and off the pace, but it was a serious wake-up call. Cork won well, and I walked out believing I had seen the future, because Coleman, Shane Kingston, Fitzgibbon and Meade had demonstrated they not only had the pace and athleticism, but also the mentality and attitude to survive and thrive at this level.

However, the adage that you find out more about your team in defeat than in victory is also true. The Clare management learned a lot more than their Cork counterparts that Saturday evening. The lack of pace in certain parts of the Clare defence was cruelly exposed at times, and Gerry O'Connor and Donal Moloney discovered that night that some of the players they started simply don't have the wheels required to live with the raw speed in this Cork forward line.

They have also had the luxury of being able to take a good look over the last three weeks at how Cork went about beating both Tipp and Waterford. The Cork team picks itself now and the Clare management have 150 minutes of championship footage with which to break down what they're doing.

Everything, from where Anthony Nash is going with his puck-outs, to how the half-backs and Mark Ellis in particular are dropping back to help the full-back line at every opportunity, to the goal chances they've engineered at the other end, will have been forensically analysed. Having Donal Óg Cusack in the back-room team is no disadvantage, and I think Clare will know a good bit more about Cork than Cork will know about Clare, because there's no way the 15 that started against Limerick will be the same 15 that lines out today.

By all accounts David McInerney has recovered from the hamstring injury sustained in a club match and will start at full-back. Having Oisín O'Brien back from injury is another huge bonus, because his man-marking abilities will be needed. They may start him at corner-back on Alan Cadogan or Patrick Horgan.

But Bill Bellichick, the defensive genius who has masterminded five Super Bowl victories for the New England Patriots, always starts from the premise that you take away your opponents' biggest strength. For me, in 2017 no-one has been more important or effective for Cork than Conor Lehane.

By their nature, most centre-backs instinctively want to hold the middle, or drop back into the pocket and read the play. Lehane has exploited that by drifting out either to midfield or to the sidelines, where he has found space, been a key puck-out target for Nash and been able to pick off scores.

He will crucify Clare if they get caught between two stools as Waterford did, and allow him the freedom to do and go as he pleases. Don't be surprised to see O'Brien attached to Lehane for the day; that's something I'd give serious consideration to. For Lehane, it could make for an unpleasant afternoon, because it means dealing with a corner-back's 'I don't care if I never hit the ball as long as you don't either' mentality, rather than the hurling centre-backs he has found himself up against to date.

Assuming they don't play a sweeper - and it might be something they haven't ruled out - that may leave Clare leaving more space open through the middle, but that's the trade-off, and they'll have to trust their midfielders to cover that space as best they can.

Clare will also need to get more out of Tony Kelly. There's speculation that he could start alongside his old partner Colm Galvin at midfield. I think it's by far his best position. He might score three or four points from wing-forward. At midfield, he's every bit as likely to get those scores, but with the freedom to exert a far bigger influence on the game.

The lack of ball-winning ability in the Clare half-forward line is another area likely to have been addressed. The Cork half-backs, and Coleman in particular, have been excellent. Keeping them on the back foot and ensuring an adequate supply of ball into the quality inside forwards Clare have could very well be where this match is won and lost.

Maybe Clare aren't good enough. Maybe this Cork team are the real deal, with the legs to run Clare ragged, and maybe they will. But maybe Tipp and Waterford didn't take their chances when they had them. Maybe they weren't ready for Nash and didn't have a plan to shut down the Cork puck-out. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Bottom line, I think there's a big performance coming from Clare. History proves how hard it is to win three tough games in the Munster championship. True, Tipp managed it last year, but they coasted to victory in each of them. Cork haven't had that luxury. And they haven't really been on the back foot, or found themselves under real pressure where they've been five or six points down in a big championship match. Clare have the forwards and pace up front to do that, and in particular ask the questions of that Cork full-back line.

It's bad news for Mossy, I'm afraid. I might be eschewing logic, but I'm backing Clare to do it.

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