Sunday 19 November 2017

Cork choose substance over style to shore up defence

The faults which cost them the All-Ireland last September seem to have been rectified

Mark Ellis, Cork
Mark Ellis, Cork

Dermot Crowe

By the end of 2013, Jimmy Barry-Murphy knew he had an attack capable of winning an All-Ireland and a defence capable of losing one. The 3-16 harvested against Clare on the last day of the championship would have won every All-Ireland final back to 1972, with one exception. But surrendering 5-16 couldn't be ignored even if your own playing career subscribed to the ecstasy of attacking play.

Something was inherently wrong, or not quite right at least. Cork have returned with a revised model and a deeper awareness of how to defend against modern attacking systems. In one respect they have reverted to an old fundamental rule of defending by choosing an archetypal centre-back. Mark Ellis from Millstreet has made the position his own and offers a stability and presence reminiscent of former residents like Ronan Curran and Brian Corcoran. He is one of three new players from the side that started in Cork's defence for the All-Ireland replay.

But the changes have been slightly misleading and Cork's defensive revision has been driven by tactics as much as personnel. In the League quarter-final against Tipperary, they shipped 2-4 in the opening eight minutes. This had disturbing echoes of Clare the previous September, but in the next eight minutes they scored 2-3 and after that they were stable enough to waylay fears of an intrinsic flaw in the defence which could only be resolved by scoring more than they conceded.

Cork selector Seánie McGrath noted that Pa Cronin had dropped back as part of a plan to close down space and disrupt Tipperary forward movement. This was precisely what did not happen in the All-Ireland final replay. Stephen McDonnell, one of their heroic players who has carried excellent form into this year, was told to follow Tony Kelly. The room that resulted in the middle of the Cork defence, with Clare abandoning their sweeper, was mercilessly exploited. The unimpeded run from Pat Donnellan for the first goal set the alarm bells ringing.

Defending is now about getting the match-ups right and requires 
versatile players

Changes in personnel are explained partly by circumstances. Their best man-marker, Brian Murphy, retired over the winter and Conor O'Sullivan spent the spring recovering from a long-standing groin injury that he had to deal with during the course of last year. He missed the National League and hasn't reclaimed his place. But Ellis and Damien Cahalane bring a more robust quality to the Cork backline and they are sitting deeper. The arrival of Aidan Walsh in Cork's midfield alongside Daniel Kearney offers added defensive cover.

There is also some element of deception in the final replay itself. In the five championship games that Cork played up to then, they conceded just one goal. Then, in one match, they conceded five. You can forensically examine each one and find an explanation that could be resolved if A did this and B did that, but no team with All-Ireland aspirations could let it sit at that. They had to find a more reliable defensive system.

One long-time Cork follower asked for his impressions of this year's defence deferred to 20 of his trusted friends and seers, 16 of whom responded by text to the simple question: is this defence better than last year's. The results were not conclusive, a 50-50 divide. But almost all were agreeing on one thing: Ellis is a trump card and a timely find.

Defending is now mainly about getting the match-ups right and requires versatile players. Cahalane was named at full-back against Clare in this year's Munster Championship but he didn't play there, Stephen McDonnell deemed more suitable company for Conor McGrath. Almost all of the defenders have had tours of the defence but Ellis is expected to hold the centre and offer that stability and presence which was missing and exploited by Clare last year.

"He seems to be allowed to play that role," says Ronan Curran, the former Cork centre-back. "It is harder to play that role these days, it is more of a possession game and if you leave your man for any length of time he is going to get the ball and he is going to do damage. But what Cork are doing is having one of the midfield players fall back and it allows him go back 10 or 15 yards. But the big thing about Mark is that he is very fast, he is a great athlete; he covers the ground well."

Ellis has adapted quickly and adds to his credentials with good ball delivery and intelligent reading of the play. "I was on the panel with him two years ago, my last year, and the one thing I did notice about him is that he has a brilliant attitude; he is willing to learn," says Curran. "I went down and saw them in the League against Limerick (in February) and he was playing wing-back and he was nervous, he was more worried about his man getting scores than playing his own game but Jimmy has given him that freedom and he has grown in the role."

Cahalane, a popular personality who is rarely without a hurl in his hand, will, if positions honour the script, face a free-scoring spirit in Seamus Callanan today. He may just as easily be seen in the corner or wing. He is not a stylist but adds metal and for Cork it is about getting the component parts to fit. "It does look like their structure and the spine this year is a lot more solid," says Curran. "They are certainly a better defence and better-trained than last year in terms of closing the middle and not letting in goals.

"They seem quite content to let teams get the odd point here and there. I think that has to do with two lads coming in. I know Damien (Cahalane) didn't have the best game the last day but there was no goal. And Mark (Elllis) is helping stop supply into the full-forward line.

"I think the main thing is that there is a good mix. You have a few big strong fellas and a few fellas who are fast skilful hurlers, but the one thing they all have is pace. I think Jimmy and the lads have got their match-ups right when playing defence."

Curran feels they misjudged their defensive configuration in the All-Ireland final replay in having McDonnell out of centre-back on his trail of Kelly. "He was great on the wing and in the corner but it left a massive gap. Maybe that was more a tactical fault but I think the management learned from that. Sometimes you need to make a mistake to get better and I think they have. They don't seem as open as that any more. I felt really sorry for Shane O'Neill last year."

O'Neill conceded four goals but was left hopelessly exposed on Clare overlaps. The first goal and the critical fourth saw Clare hare up the middle with Cork's defensive shape collapsing. You still needed exceptional players to exploit that and Clare had them, Conor McGrath's goal was a tapestry of timing, opportunism, turn of pace and lethal finishing. O'Neill has had to recover from that experience. He looked tentative in the win over Waterford, and in some of the League games, but has won back his confidence.

'Sometimes you need to make a mistake to get better and I think they have'

"If you go back to that game against Clare, there were two elements to it," says John Considine, the former Cork defender and manager. "There was a freakish element to it and, secondly, you would never find a Kilkenny team with that many backs that far up the field. But it definitely looks like Cork's backs are playing deeper this year.

"I would be amazed if a similar situation repeated itself this year. They seem to have more (defensive) bodies facing the right direction. You would have been saying Cork were a mean defence up to that (Clare) game, one goal conceded in five games. I would say there was a bit of tweaking required and knowing the people involved they put a bit of thought into it. Like, Johnny Crowley (selector), there was nothing flash about him when he played for Cork but he was a very effective defender and I would say with him there they were saying we can't let that happen again. The players are a bit more experienced as well."

He likes the look of Ellis in the middle and the overall composition. "He has a physical presence. I don't think they will ask him to play in other positions, but he has played wing, corner, full-back. I would be amazed if he was not a traditional number six on Sunday."

Cork are getting better in all sectors, the defensive machinations during the spring in the off-Broadway environs of Division 1B being less noticeable than the dazzling forward play of Alan Cadogan (pictured below). Since then the forward unit has looked even more capable with the return of Paudie O'Sullivan and emergence of Bill Cooper. That has happened organically. The defence has needed intervention and improvisation. "If you go over the three years they have gone up each time," states Considine. "I think what is most impressive, every time there is a glitch, they come back improved and learn from it. I think they are after getting better all round. Their midfielders have more defined roles. The backs don't look like conceding as many goals this year at all. The forwards are better balanced."

He thinks of Cahalane's selection as emblematic of this progressive thinking and willingness to change and take a punt. There are more wristy defenders in Cork but he brings a certain obdurate quality being a Cahalane. "He is one of these fellas that looks - I don't know is it the way he runs - awkward and he looks slow. But he has pace. He wouldn't be the most stylish hurler on the team but he has improved. I would be hopeful. He will now have been concentrating on the hurling with the football gone."

But today brings them out of Munster and into Croke Park where the memories will resurface of last year's pillaging. Nearly all the serious points to prove are in the Cork defence. Will it be the healing experience they seek? Will the new additions have the temperament for it? This is the place to find out.

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