Sport Hurling

Friday 15 December 2017

Martin Breheny: Second bite of cherry to taste sweet for Cork

Clare's lack of goals and mileage in players' legs looks set to spell end of the line for Davy's dream

Cork's Pa Cronin celebrates after scoring his side's third goal in the drawn final. The Rebels' goal threat gives them the edge.
Cork's Pa Cronin celebrates after scoring his side's third goal in the drawn final. The Rebels' goal threat gives them the edge.
Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Last year, Galway dominated the first half of the drawn All-Ireland final with Kilkenny, but didn't translate their superiority into as substantial a lead as they should have.

Kilkenny recovered in the second half and led by a point in stoppage-time before Joe Canning shot the equaliser for Galway. Kilkenny won the replay by 11 points.

Three weeks ago, Clare controlled the first half against Cork, but failed to turn it into a significant scoreboard advantage. Cork improved in the second half and were a point ahead late into stoppage-time before Domhnall O'Donovan hoisted the Clare equaliser.

The next phase of the equation will unfold this evening and, I believe, will follow the same general pattern as last year, which means that by 6.30, Cork will be celebrating their 31st All-Ireland title. They won't repeat Kilkenny's winning margin, but would be happy to edge to victory by a point in a rivalry which has been so incredibly close and intense this year.

If the average score from the previous five meetings between Clare and Cork this season was replicated, the game would again end level (Clare 0-23 Cork 1-20) and headed for extra-time. It's not as unlikely as first appearances might suggest as they have already drawn twice (20 days ago and last April in the NHL Division 1A relegation play-off, which Clare won in extra-time).

Both have also enjoyed fairly substantial victories, with Clare having six points to spare in a Division 1A group game and Cork winning the Munster semi-final by eight points. Clashes in February, March, April, June and early September means that there is very little the sides don't know about each other.

It leaves Davy Fitzgerald and Jimmy Barry-Murphy with the challenge of devising something different to surprise the opposition and while both will no doubt try some new tricks, it will be very difficult to come up with ground-breaking initiatives.

DIFFICULTY

JBM's decision to restore Cian McCarthy to centre-forward for his first start since the Munster semi-final clash with Clare is in no way surprising, given the difficulty Cork had in winning good possession in their half-forward line.

McCarthy is strong and majors in breaking up play, something Cork found very hard to do against Clare half-backs Brendan Bugler, Conor Ryan and Patrick O'Connor last time out.

McCarthy's inclusion will come as no surprise to Fitzgerald, who has opted to start the same 15. Galway did the same last year, whereas Brian Cody made two changes to the Kilkenny attack, bringing in Walter Walsh and Cillian Buckley for Colin Fennelly and Aidan Fogarty.

It proved a masterstroke. Buckley did well, but Walsh did even better, scoring 1-3 in an hour. Cody's forward reshuffle was interesting. Galway were happy to go with the same personnel and structure that applied in the first game, but Cody tried something different, presumably on the basis that variation is necessary in a replay.

Cork have made one adjustment in personnel, whereas Clare are following the Galway policy of 'same again'. Of course, whether they line up in the same formation remains to be seen. They were expected to play a sweeper last time, but instead deployed an orthodox structure which appeared to surprise Cork.

It was a bold move by Fitzgerald, but given his constant search for tactical variation, it would be no surprise if he changed direction again.

Tactics apart, there is the even more important question of individual performances. Relatively few Cork players came anywhere near full capacity the last day whereas most Clare men did well. Obviously, that raises the question of why Clare didn't win.

The answer rests in the goal differential. It takes a huge amount of energy, stamina and work to score nine points, much less so to retaliate with three goals, as Cork did in the second half. A flash of individual brilliance by Conor Lehane, a sweet strike from a free by Anthony Nash and an opportunist finish by Pa Cronin yielded three Cork goals, which not only kept them in the game, but came very close to winning it.

Clare haven't scored a single goal against Cork in their last three games, one of which went to extra-time. That's three hours and 50 minutes – an incredibly long run without making even one breakthrough.

But then, Clare's game is based on creating space out the field and with most of their players showing a high degree of accuracy, it's easy to understand why the point option is so appealing.

BREACHED

It works when the opposition don't score goals either. Still, Clare's tight defence had to be breached sometime and luckily for Cork it happened on the day they were in desperate need of goals to stay afloat.

Even one goal could prove significant for Clare and surely it has to come soon. If it doesn't, it's difficult to see them winning this evening.

So many of the Cork players know that their performances the last day were so far below their best that they were lucky to get a second chance. Having got it, they will surely raise efficiency levels considerably. If that happens, how will Clare react?

Fitzgerald spoke this week of concerns over his team's ability to maintain momentum, having been "flat out" since February. "I'd be saying to myself, will these games catch up on them?" he said.

If he really believed it to be true he would have kept it to himself, but at the same time it could be a relevant point.

They have played two senior championship games more than Cork and with several of the Clare squad also involved with the successful U-21 side, they have clocked up a lot of mileage this year.

They showed no signs of weariness in the drawn game, but then they were leading all the way to stoppage-time. What if they fell behind? Would the season's exertions suddenly begin to weigh heavily on them?

Cork will be keen to explore that possibility from the start. They allowed Clare to dictate the first-half agenda last time so much of their focus over the past few weeks will have been on devising ways of preventing a recurrence. Instead, they will try to power up the momentum as quickly as possible, forcing Clare into a completely different mindset.

Cork survived last time with a performance level which didn't exceed 75pc. Clare were at least 10pc higher, but failed to close out the deal after leading by five points with 55 minutes played.

That may now come back to haunt them. Cork by three points.

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