Thursday 18 July 2019

Rebels must start to work on their attack

NFL Division 2 Round 3: Clare v Cork, Sunday, February 10, Cusack Park, Ennis, Throw-in at 2pm (TG4 deferred), Referee: P Neilan (Roscommon)

Denis Hurley

It's perhaps easy to look ahead to a Cork football game against Clare and hark back to a time when the Banner would be easily brushed aside.

It wouldn't necessarily have always been accurate, though - in 1996, Cork needed a replay to beat Clare in the Munster championship and then the following year, in Ronan McCarthy's first year on the panel, the home side won in Cusack Park with a last-minute winner.

While Billy Morgan's second coming and Conor Counihan's second period in charge may have seen Cork establish a chasm between themselves and the rest of the chasing pack in Munster, that's certainly long gone and there is now little between the Rebels, Tipperary and Clare.

The 2-11 to 0-9 defeat in Cusack Park in 2017 could have been written off as an aberration, with Cork unlucky on occasion, but since then the landscape has become clearer.

If the McGrath Cup final of 2018, a one-point win for Cork courtesy of a last-minute goal from Stephen Sherlock, didn't make it clear that the there was little between the counties, then the defeat at Páirc Uí Rinn on St Patrick's Day certainly did. Then, this January, the Banner were successful in the pre-season McGrath Cup decider, winning in Miltown-Malbay. Now, it's back to Clare this Sunday, seeking to pick up a first league win of the campaign.

While a victory has so far been elusive, there has at least been progress on the defensive front.

Last summer, in two consecutive games, Cork were blown away, by Kerry and Tyrone, conceding a total of 6-38.

Before the start of the current campaign, manager Ronan McCarthy identified defensive openness as the key thing to work on as Cork looked to improve.

"People talk about the championship," he said, "but we conceded 3-12 against Clare in last year's McGrath Cup final, fair enough we won that game but we conceded 3-16 against Tipp in the first league game too, you're not to going to win too many matches if that's the concession rate.

"It's something we've worked on a lot, making ourselves more solid. We've a lot of forward talent and we don't want to lose that attacking edge, but we want a better structure, to make ourselves more resilient when we come under pressure."

Obviously, Fermanagh and Kildare are not of the standard of Kerry and Tyrone, and the league is a different animal to the championship, but, while Corkhave only collected one point from two games so far, the scores-against column only reads 2-15.

There has been a noticeable improvement in defensive discipline, with wing-forwards Tomás Clancy and Mark Collins operating more or less as sweepers on Sunday against Kildare. In one three-minute period coming up to half-time, the Lilywhites held the ball through a series of phases without ever threatening to pierce the Cork 45, with no players inside the visitors' 45.

It's somewhat ironic, then, that after the sending-off of Fergal Conway, Kildare were the ones to adjust better to the change in numbers, counter-attacking well while sub Neil Flynn landed three big points.

One could also argue that Collins, who scored 1-25 in last year's league, would be of more use closer to the opposition goal but he's a victim of his range of qualities - he uses the ball efficiently and his long passing can be asset from deep when Cork turn possession over.

And it is in the offensive regard that Cork now need to find an improvement that can match the increase in defensive tightness. Sunday was a day to forget for Luke Connolly and he's likely to be back to his usual form next time out, but Brian Hurley will be suspended for the Clare game. While his brother Michael kicked five points from play against Kildare, he can't be expected to carry the burden on his own in every game.

As good as it is to concede 2-15 in two games, Cork have only scored 0-18. It's a natural result of focus on defending that the attacking play is not at its optimum level, but one would have expected a better output in the two matches.

While Brian Hurley will be missed against Clare, it may open up an opportunity for Sherlock to come in after he impressed in the county league for St Finbarr's at the weekend, while Paul Kerrigan is also building up fitness following his honeymoon at the start of the year. Damien Gore, who has real potential to excite, is another who could make an impact.

The new-found defensive solidity has provided a platform on which to build, but the other part of the bargain needs to be upheld as well.