If you don't score goals, you can't win
With the odds stacked overwhelmingly against Cork today, Dermot Crowe takes a closer look at why this is the case
LAST September, Tipperary hurlers broke new ground by becoming the first team to score over 20 championship points against Kilkenny in the Brian Cody era. With a final tally of 23, they also became the first team to outpoint Kilkenny since Cork in 2004. But failing to convert goal chances proved their downfall. It takes an enormous performance to beat Kilkenny and goals are almost mandatory.
Whether Cork carries that kind of goalscoring power is questionable. In 2004, they conceded a staggeringly modest 0-9 against Kilkenny which laid the foundation for their All-Ireland win and the end of the black and amber's three-in-a-row bid. If they only concede double that amount today, they'll be doing exceedingly well. But if they do, will they have enough firepower to outscore Kilkenny? Few teams have managed to.
The last, of course, was Galway in the famous shoot-out All-Ireland semi-final of 2005, when they conceded 4-18 and responded with an outrageous 5-18. A word of caution: this was Kilkenny minus the bleak parsimony that's a given today and one lacking the same defensive cover; John Tennyson found himself thrown in as a full-back rookie in the absence of the injured Noel Hickey. Galway exploited the weakness and Niall Healy scored three goals in a fast-moving Galway inside forward line.
"Whoever beats them has to sustain the intensity to the end," says Sean Silke, the Galway coach in 2005, "and the difficulty is Kilkenny can beat you with a very low percentage of possession -- such is their capacity to convert and destroy with very little. On top of all of the stuff they have done, they have a fantastic pool of players."
But how can Cork's attack outfox the Kilkenny defence? "In '05 we played a high-risk game where defence was less important than attack; if Cork try the same have they enough energy and horsepower up front to do what they want to do? We knew you had to take risks, we had players that time that were very mobile."
Silke readily accepts that Kilkenny are now an even more formidable proposition. "They are much more accomplished and have found a winning formula. They do all the simple things so well, they simplify everything. And then they have fellas on the sideline who are called on who arrive in fifth gear straight away."
Anthony Daly has encountered Kilkenny under Cody (pictured) in three distinct spells, first as a player in 1999, then later as manager of Clare over two seasons, and more recently while in charge of Dublin. Each occasion resulted in defeat. "If they score a goal you nearly have to score two more, and that's easier said than done. I think the only hope is probably to get into their faces and have the type of individuals that can rough them up physically; I know that people say you should not but I think it is the only way you will beat them."
Clare took Kilkenny to a replay in 2004, almost winning the drawn match when they used Alan Markham as a sweeper in a surprise move. "We were coming off a low enough base after we were hammered by Waterford and struggled through the qualifiers and Kilkenny weren't All-Ireland champions at that stage, but I suppose we felt we were not ready to take them on (by conventional means). We were lucky to have the perfect player who could play 80-yard balls accurately to our full-forward line.
"In 2006 (v Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi final), I felt we were ready to take them on but we made two awful mistakes, the second when we had it back to two points -- I know it was only the start of the four-in-a-row but that day we had big competitive, combative players who had no problem mixing it with them. I just think you nearly need to be that way but they have developed so much that I can't see anyone there to beat them. I think they will win on Sunday.
"I think the best chance of beating them in the final is if Waterford go through; I think if Tipp get in again it will be revenge in Kilkenny's mind, not the other way round."
Dublin went with a seventh back last year in the Leinster final and managed to concede less (2-18) than any other county that faced Kilkenny in the championship. But that policy of containment has obvious drawbacks. This year they held John McCaffrey in a deeper position on Kilkenny puck-outs but played a regular formation; the result was that they lost a good deal more convincingly.
"There seems to be something more ruthless about them this year," says Daly, not for a moment believing Kilkenny are in decline. "I went to the Leinster final and thought they could have beaten Galway every bit as much as us but as (John) McIntyre admitted Galway brought Damien Hayes out to shore it up."
Dublin used Liam Ryan at centre-forward against Kilkenny this year to break the ball and stop Brian Hogan from taking clean possession. While Ryan did well enough ,the vast majority of breaks were swept up by the eager brooms of Tommy Walsh and JJ Delaney. "They just know each other's play so well," sighs Daly. "A lot of players talk about winning an All-Ireland but this is the most uniquely driven bunch of guys I have come across. They are naturally fanatical. Even among themselves. I remember at the Leinster final saying the only man with a long face from Kilkenny will be Brian Hogan because John Tennyson replaced him and you couldn't tell the difference. He went up for one ball at the end, hurleys flying and pelted himself at it. That's how much he wanted to be in the team."
For Cork to win, Aisake ó hAilpín will need to impose himself but his direct opponent, Hickey, is a hardened championship player. Hickey thrived in the 2003 final against Cork on Joe Deane. In the company of Brian Corcoran a year later, he enjoyed less rule and Cork gained a crucial advantage. Negating the driving impact of Walsh and Delaney is also vital if Cork wish to succeed.
A year after beating Kilkenny, Galway scored 3-14 against the Cats, yet still lost by five points. While they scored more against Kilkenny that year than any other county, they also conceded more than any other side, including Westmeath. Kilkenny are comfortable in all conditions, versatile and adaptable.
In 2007, Kilkenny started to amass huge points totals, from a peak of 27 against Offaly in the opening round down to the 19 scored against Limerick in the All-Ireland final. Limerick was the only side to lose by less than ten points. The following year they were untouchable, scoring 11 goals in four games, 3-30 in the All-Ireland final and breaking the 20-point mark in every championship match for the first time.
They have not been quite as wondrous since. In 2008, they conceded only one goal while winning the McCarthy Cup; 12 months later, they let in six, and Tipp should have had a couple in the final. But if you are banking on goals, like Daly said, you had better score at least two more to make it count. And that hasn't happened in a while. In fact, the last county to outgoal Kilkenny by two or more was Offaly 20 years ago. They scored three more in a 16-point win in the Leinster semi-final. The odds, plainly, are stacked against Cork.