Jamesie O'Connor: Wounded animals Cork and Dublin need luck of the draw now
Dispiriting defeats of last weekend make it hard to be hopeful for Cork or Dublin, writes Jamesie O'Connor
The fourth of July is Independence Day. But for one third of hurling's Liam MacCarthy contestants - this particular fourth of July is judgement day.
Defeat on Saturday fortnight, and the summer is over. For a number of supposedly heavyweight contenders, there'll be the dispiriting sense that it never really began. Clare fall into that category. Cork and Dublin joined them last weekend.
Nobody wants the luck of the draw to be what determines their fate from now on. But that's exactly the scenario they're facing. Tipperary drew the short straw in 2013- away to Kilkenny in Nowlan Park. A year that promised so much, done and dusted before the Munster final had even been played. Clare by contrast got lucky and it made all the difference. Laois at home, Wexford in Thurles a week later. Two wins, and a new-found momentum that carried them all the way to September.
Galway were the ill-fated ones last year - a trip to Thurles their prize for falling to Kilkenny. Struggling to pick themselves up for a third consecutive weekend, and eventually running out of gas against a Tipp side whose second-half fightback turned their season around and propelled them to the All-Ireland final.
So for Cork and Dublin, last weekend's major casualties, is it triumph or disaster that awaits? The draw, as well as what happens in their camps between now and July 4, will go a long way towards determining what impact, if any, they're likely to have on the remainder of the championship.
For Cork, it would be easy to scapegoat a couple of the players for key mistakes that were made on the field, but the Cork management also have to take some of the rap for last Sunday's result. Tactically, Jimmy Barry-Murphy has his beliefs, and the largely orthodox way his teams set up and play has served both him and Cork well over the years.
But last Sunday's game was always going to be tactical, and that battle was won hands down by Derek McGrath.
It was no secret that Waterford were going to set up the way they did, with Tadhg De Búrca sweeping in front of his full-back line, Noel Connors man-marking Cork's best forward Pat Horgan and Colin Dunford playing out the field, far from where the number 15 on his back suggests he should.
It was essentially the same strategy that disabled the same opposition in the league final - loads of bodies in their own half to deny the Cork forwards any space, and acres at the other end for their own forwards, with runners coming from deep.
Those were the terms on which Waterford, again, wanted the game played. With Cork effectively acceding to those demands, and so naive defensively in terms of the space they left at the back, the three goals they actually conceded could easily have been six or seven.
At the opposite end, they still struggle to score goals themselves, or look vaguely as threatening as say Tipp or Kilkenny at their incisive best. In my opinion, that's down to a combination of the way they set up - with their full-forward line operating largely inside the opposing 21-metre line, which is easier to defend, especially with the aid of a sweeper, plus a sense that if they do create goal chances, it's more likely to be due to a moment of individual skill, rather than something they've fashioned as a team.
With De Búrca parked in front of the D, those outside seemed flummoxed as to how to find Alan Cadogan, Luke O'Farrell and Horgan with the ball, and the amount of possession Cork frittered away, especially in the opening period, came back to haunt them. Surely this was something they had prepared for, but there was little evidence to indicate that was the case.
There's a stark contrast between the 0-4 Cork's inside trio contributed from play and the 5-8 their Galway counterparts accounted for to bury Dublin on Saturday night. By leaving Horgan in the corner to be shackled by Connors, Cork, with the exception of Pa Cronin, who shot five from play, didn't do enough to get the ball in the hands of their other scoring forwards.
Conor Lehane scored inside the opening two minutes, but was largely anonymous thereafter until winning the late penalty that merely put window dressing on the result. Cork played Aidan Walsh at number 12, presumably to curb the influence of Austin Gleeson. However, as good as Gleeson is on the ball and coming forward, he's the type of player who will give up chances to his opponent. Were it a more prolific and accurate shooter like Lehane taking advantage of those opportunities, rather than Walsh, who had three wides from scorable chances in the first half alone, Cork's cause might have been better served.
But if the Cork management made mistakes, where was the on-field leadership and in-game communication that could have helped rectify them? Somebody at the back should have been alive to the problems that were there, and taken charge of organising a better defensive structure. Cork, however, don't appear to have those natural generals on the field, or at least not enough of them. What was also evident, was that the work rate and intensity of some of the Cork players, particularly up front, fell away as the game progressed, and wasn't close to where it needed to be. Only the players themselves can rectify that going forward.
On the positive side, Séamus Harnedy and Lorcán McLoughlin will strengthen the team when they return. But it's very hard to see Cork as realistic All-Ireland contenders on the evidence of last Sunday. Furthermore, Waterford currently have something like 14 under 21s on their extended panel. Cork had one in the 26 named, substitute goalkeeper Darren McCarthy. That, if you're a Cork supporter, is worrying.
It's even harder to make a case for the Dubs, another side that paid a heavy price last weekend for the lack of protection afforded their full-back line.
Admittedly, Peter Kelly was a huge loss at full-back, and in the circumstances it's understandable that Paul Schutte was parachuted back into the corner, ahead of schedule. That move backfired badly however, and while Michael Carton coped admirably in the second half in Croke Park a fortnight ago when replacing Kelly, there was enough evidence during the league to indicate that he was never comfortable with the unique demands of the position, and was liable to struggle.
Struggle he and his counterparts in the full-back line did; but they weren't helped by the space the Dublin half-backs left in front of them when the initial blitzkrieg was launched in the opening quarter. It all happened so quickly, that the game was up by the time remedial action had been taken.
The manner of the filleting they received also leaves Ger Cunningham with some big decisions to make. Critical among them is whether he should restore Liam Rushe to his favoured number six position. There's obviously an element of robbing Peter to pay Paul about it, but Rushe didn't contribute enough in either game up front against Galway to provide conclusive evidence that the move has been a success. Rushe and Kelly in the key central defensive positions, and a fully fit Schutte in the corner, would make Dublin a far more difficult proposition to carve open. That, for me, has to be their starting point.
I also think that, like Cork, they don't score enough goals, and again that isn't being helped by the way they set up. But that isn't something that's fixable overnight. Mark Schutte and Danny Sutcliffe would still get into any forward line in the country, so maybe it's time to start them in the central positions, and if they can get more out of David Treacy and Paul Ryan, there's enough attacking talent there.
In the opposite bowl to the Munster sides, Dublin are obviously likely to face off against one of the big guns, possibly even Cork. That may be exactly what they need. At home in Parnell Park, in the last-chance saloon, and still bleeding from the wounds of last Saturday night, would be the nightmare scenario for the Rebels or whoever else comes out of the hat. It all comes down to that qualifier draw.
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