Final plans of attack for All-Ireland hurling final
The team which learns most from their last meeting will hold a crucial edge on Sunday
About 25 minutes into their Munster semi-final against Clare in June, Jimmy Barry-Murphy turned around to the Mackey stand in Limerick, sought eye contact with his selectors, threw his hands up in the air and roared out one word – 'Honan'.
By that stage, Darach Honan was threatening to mow Cork down like roadkill. From just seven first-half plays, he was involved in four goalscoring chances. Honan always looked lethal in possession. Steven McDonnell couldn't handle him but Cork hadn't the luxury of switching Shane O'Neill over on to Honan because he was being roasted by Podge Collins.
In the end, Cork just toughed it out and survived. With Brian Murphy tagging himself to the roaming Tony Kelly, with Kelly coming deep to midfield before running a loop, the centre of the Cork defence was often wide open in the first half. Clare never exploited it.
The Clare management could argue that those goal chances franked their approach but when they were struggling in the middle third, and their long-range shooting was affected by the strong breeze, their game broke down in the second half. Honan was redundant, making just four plays. Cork sat Conor O'Sullivan back as a sweeper and Clare kept running into a wall of bodies.
Cork, on the other hand, were really efficient with how they used their possession. They won 11 of the 22 balls hit in to their full-forward line. They won 62pc of their 84 stick-passes.
The aggregate number of plays made by Cork's forwards – 63 – was low but their economy heavily compensated. From a combined total of 37 plays, Patrick Horgan, Luke O'Farrell, Seamus Harnedy and Jamie Coughlan scored, or were directly involved in, 17 points.
Cork clearly addressed the issues which had murdered them in the relegation final in April and Clare can do the same now. The Banner felt they underperformed in June. They were flat. They were turned over in possession in their defence late on but that was more through mental fatigue than any real system breakdown.
Davy Fitzgerald has still stayed true to his beliefs but as Clare advanced through the championship, their playing system has evolved in tandem with their development as a team.
They have become slightly more direct. They have become more confident and sure of themselves as the summer has progressed. Their accuracy from distance has dramatically improved. The sweeper role has now become a stable and more defined part of their system.
Given that both teams have developed and improved since June, how they adapt now to the massive tactical battle set to ensue will decide the outcome.
HOW THEY TACTICALLY SET UP
When the sides met in June, Cork's policy was to man mark all over the field. Nobody highlighted the success of that tactic more than Brian Murphy. Over the 70 minutes, Murphy made just one play. Yet his direct opponent, Tony Kelly, only made seven plays. Kelly did engineer one point for Podge Collins but he only had one shot at the target.
Cork may go man-for-man again but the ground has shifted in the meantime. For a start, if Murphy is picked in the same role, how fit can he be after almost two months out with injury?
Secondly, Kelly will play deeper along with Collins. They both got seven points from play against Limerick and are two of Clare's most accurate shooters.
Cork will feel that Collins has to be man-marked because of his immense foraging and playmaking qualities but if the Rebels man-mark that high up the pitch, will that not leave massive space in the defence? Similarly, if they decide to mark Clare's sweeper Pat Donnellan, will that create even more space in the Banner attack? Is that not what Clare want, especially when Honan almost went to town in that space in the Munster semi-final?
If Cork decide to operate a sweeper, Conor O'Sullivan is very effective in that role. Yet he has mostly operated when Cork have had an extra man and Clare's build-up play – in theory – seeks to remove the influence of extra defensive cover by playing the ball short through the lines or support play off the shoulder. Given that shooting from distance is how Clare seek to mine most of their scores, Cork may be better off deploying a sweeper higher up in that middle third. If they don't decide to go with a sweeper, they may just decide to play a covering centre-back, about 40 metres from goal, which would allow Cork to at least hold their defensive shape.
Clare will definitely set up again with Donnellan as a sweeper. However, Clare see him more as a fourth half-back, which allows their half-back line to push higher up the field to win breaks and create turnovers. It also allows Donnellan to push up the field when he sees fit.
Either way, Clare will want to make that middle third a total battleground because they won't see themselves losing a dogfight.
The key for Cork is how they go about creating space. When the first half was so open against Dublin, the performance of Cork's front eight was their best under Barry-Murphy over the last two seasons.
The front eight made a total of 54 plays in that opening 35 minutes but some of those individual contributions were career-bests under Barry-Murphy: Conor Lehane's three points and setting up two more from seven plays; Lorcan McLoughlin's 0-3 from nine plays.
When Dublin operated with a sweeper in the second half, it definitely impacted on the performance of some of Cork's forwards who had gone to town in the open spaces in the first half. Prior to Horgan's goal, Horgan, O'Farrell and Lehane had made a combined total of just six second-half plays.
Similar to Dublin in the second half, Clare will want to deny Cork that space for the 70 minutes.
THE IMPORTANCE OF GOALS
Much of Clare's game is based on getting ahead early to allow them to dictate the terms of engagement. With their fitness levels and how they defensively set up, they are very hard to break down if they get out in front from the off.
Cork will also want to get ahead early and force Clare to chase the game. In that context, and given that neither team is considered a goalscoring outfit, goals – especially early goals – may never be as important on Sunday.
Clare have averaged 1-23 in their last two games. The 1-24 Cork hit against Dublin was the highest score recorded against a top-eight team under Barry-Murphy in the last two seasons.
Hitting long, high and direct ball in to the full-forward line goes against Clare's principles but gambling with that tactic early on is worth a shot for both teams. That was also how both Clare and Cork scored crucial goals in their semi-finals.
At half-time in their All-Ireland semi-final, the Limerick full-forward line's instructions to their team-mates was to get the ball in high and direct over the sweeper. It may not be ideal for Cork's attack but going down the channels won't be any easier with a sweeper like Donnellan. Being ultra-precise is the ideal way to bypass the sweeper but that won't be easy with the suffocating heat Clare will bring to the middle.
Given that Clare will want as many bodies as possible in that sector, it's likely they will look to isolate Honan up top again. This time, they will need to get the ball in to him closer to goal. And with more support runners coming at him at pace than they managed in June.
When the sides met in Munster, the puck-out trends were a complete reversal from the relegation final in April, when Clare obliterated Cork in that category, winning 35 Rebel puck-outs. In June though, Clare won just nine Cork puck-outs, with the Rebels winning the overall puck-out stat 29-24.
Throughout the year, Cork have worked extremely hard in training on winning breaking ball, especially around puck-outs. In the Munster final, Cork won the overall puckout stat 29-27 – albeit 12 of those were short puckouts hit by Anthony Nash and the Rebels couldn't win enough possession in the scoring zone.
One of the most obvious positives against Kilkenny was the number of tackles, ruck-ball and second-phase possession that Cork won.
In the first half against Dublin, Cork showed again how they had addressed all the concerns about being able to secure enough possession and dirty ball in the face of Dublin's perceived greater physicality and power. Cork lost the puckout stat 19-17 but eight of Nash's first-half restarts led to Cork scoring within 15 seconds. A ninth led to a free that Horgan converted.
On the other hand, Clare's puckouts stats were a concern against Limerick, especially their own. Clare won just eight out of their 29 puckouts.
It is a risky game but Pa Kelly will surely be looking to go shorter to his outlet receivers in the middle third. Clare will also be looking to get more bodies in around the breaking ball, while shutting down McLoughlin's runs going forward.
Equally, Clare will have to deal with Pa Cronin's aerial authority, something they didn't have to face in the Munster semi-final because of Cronin's absence through illness. When the sides met in April, Cronin won five puck-outs at centre-forward in the first half. Yet when Cronin played wing-forward after the break, he had less space.
That is something that Cork will have absorbed in the meantime. Yet so will Clare. With Conor Ryan taking up station at centre-back in front of Donnellan, Ryan will be looking to come around Cronin on his right shoulder and tap the ball down, or spoil it, before his team-mates try to win it on the deck.
Either way, Clare will have a plan. And so will Cork. And whoever implements that plan better will go a long way towards winning the game.