Defensive steel can make all the difference in tight contest
Depleted Kilkenny are still formidable at the back, says Jamesie O'Connor
It's obviously a measure of the respect the bookies have for Kilkenny that despite the mounting casualty list and genuine class that injury has deprived them of today, they still retain the favourites' tag for this afternoon's League final.
Last weekend, Kilkenny feared the worst when Richie Power sustained a suspected cruciate tear. That the diagnosis was only cartilage damage will have been a massive relief to Brian Cody, but it does highlight that even with the panel they have, Kilkenny still have a few key players they can ill afford to be without.
Were Power playing, I don't think there would be a shred of doubt in anyone's mind about the likely outcome of today's game. In Henry Shefflin's absence, along with Eoin Larkin, he has really manned up and filled the leadership void in the Kilkenny attack. Of course, motivation wouldn't have been an issue either today in light of his late dismissal in Kilkenny's earlier tie with Cork, but his focus now shifts away from Eoin Cadogan to getting himself ready for Dublin in seven weeks' time.
Consequently, and especially with Michael Rice and Aidan Fogarty joining Shefflin and Power in the A&E department, Kilkenny's resources look stretched up front. On paper, it's not an attack likely to strike terror into the Cork defence but there are weapons there nonetheless. Cillian Buckley, who has been very impressive as Michael Fennelly's junior partner in the middle of the field, is redeployed to the half-forward line alongside a rejuvenated TJ Reid and Richie Hogan. Both Reid and Hogan, before his injury, have been hurling well and with possession of the jersey nine tenths of the law, that's a trend they'll be anxious to maintain. Apart from Larkin, who is a certain starter, you only have to look at the players Kilkenny have to come back, to conclude that the other five are all playing for their championship places. In such circumstances, motivation isn't likely to be an issue.
While Matthew Ruth won't have too many happy memories from his start at centre-forward in last year's League final, he has shown enough flashes to indicate he is now a viable option for the championship. Ruth looks like a genuine finisher and with Larkin alongside him, there's every chance he'll be presented with a goal opportunity or two this afternoon. A less-than-stellar Tipperary attack put 2-15 on the board against the Rebels a fortnight ago. So, even as depleted as they are, Kilkenny will feel they've enough quality to post a similar tally.
Six weeks ago, the Cork defence did cope with the Kilkenny threat, but conditions and the pace of the game are likely to be considerably faster today. There's also the Dónal óg Cusack factor. To say he's a significant loss is understating matters, especially given full-back Stephen McDonnell's relative inexperience in the position at this level. I'm not fully convinced about Cork's full-back, and he won't face a stiffer test than the one posed by Larkin, the current Kilkenny captain. That said, he has two experienced corner-backs beside him, both of whom seem to have rediscovered their best form under Jimmy Barry-Murphy.
In the Cork half-back line, both Cadogan and William Egan have been impressive but Seán óg struggled in the semi-final a fortnight ago and, with the summer approaching, probably has a question or two to answer this afternoon.
The same could probably be said about John Gardiner who was steady rather than spectacular two weeks ago. I would have viewed Gardiner as a nailed-down starter, but he's had to fight for his place, and his battle with Fennelly, who's become the dominant midfielder in the game, will be a key contest.
Ultimately, this game will be won and lost on whether or not the Cork attack can find a way to break Kilkenny down and amass a match-winning total. Looking at Kilkenny from one to eight, that's a formidable challenge. With so much experience and a tried-and-tested system that coughs up very few goalscoring opportunities, it looks as if Cork are going to have to rely on points, and a lot of them, to win.
If anything, though, there has been a marked improvement in the Cork forwards. Their movement and touch has been very good and they're playing with a lot of confidence. A lot of credit for that has to go to the manager. It's as if he's put his faith in Pa Cronin, Patrick Horgan and Paudie O Sullivan, said to them "you're my guys" and they've responded to the assurance he's placed in them.
The fact that Conor Lehane has delivered on his undoubted potential is a huge positive, and with Darren Sweetnam and Jamie Coughlan on the bench, Cork have genuine young talent that the faster ground should suit as the summer progresses. However, that's unlikely to faze Jackie Tyrrell and Co today, and it's that defensive excellence that just may tip the balance in Kilkenny's favour.
Can Cork win today? Absolutely. But if anything the absence of what could be up to a third of Kilkenny's championship starting 15 puts added pressure on the Rebels to come away with the win.
I'm sure many Cork supporters hold the view that if they can't beat a Kilkenny side devoid of Power, Shefflin, Rice and Noel Hickey, what hope have they of doing it later in the year. I don't necessarily see it that way, and I don't think the Cork management do either. They've come a long way under JBM in a short space of time, but there's a distance still to travel. Furthermore, the Cats have already lost to Cork once this season. They won't want to lose a second time.
Kilkenny to win, but not without a battle.
Sunday Indo Sport