Wednesday 13 November 2019

More question marks surround Rebels, especially if Tribesmen play to their strengths in decisive areas

Galway's ball-winning capability in the middle third gives them an edge, says Jamesie O'Connor

Jamesie O'Connor

With so much focus on the Olympics, and particularly the exploits of the boxers, it's meant a week spent largely in the shadows for the Cork and Galway hurlers.

Normally, with just three games left and the stakes as high as they are, the spotlight is in full glare on the championship but with so much sport happening elsewhere, there haven't been as many column inches to fill which has meant the players have largely been left alone to get on with their preparations. That doesn't happen too often and you're unlikely to hear Jimmy Barry-Murphy, Anthony Cunningham or any of the players for that matter complaining about it.

It's easy to forget too that with so many new faces on board, this is relatively new territory for many in the Cork and Galway camps. Consequently, to have had less attention, hype and public scrutiny around the place than would normally be the case, has made for an ideal build-up because it means the players aren't likely to have expended the same levels of nervous energy they might otherwise have.

With just 70 minutes separating these sides from a place in the final, I'm sure both managers would prefer it that way, and dealing with the media frenzy the final entails would be the type of headache either would give their right arm to have come 5 o'clock this evening.

On the evidence of the season to date, Galway deservedly start as favourites, but historically have struggled to put back-to-back performances together when it's really mattered. Cork, meanwhile, are a work in progress, but apart from their full-forward line, which has looked increasingly sharp as the season has progressed, look like a side with legitimate question marks over almost every other line on their team. After fading completely out of it in the Waterford match, the Cork midfield gets yet another shake-up, with Lorcan McLaughlin coming back in to partner Pa Cronin. They have resisted the temptation to

start Darren Sweetnam, who made such a difference when introduced off the bench two weeks ago, but he's a great option to have, and will surely see action when the game opens up. As expected, Conor Lehane (pictured) returns to a half-forward line that, after an admittedly bright opening, also badly malfunctioned in that quarter-final win.

This sector of the field remains Cork's Achilles heel, and while Jamie Coughlan and Lehane on the wings have pace and skill in abundance, will they be able to win enough primary possession, and particularly enough ball on their own puckout? I have my reservations. The dominance Waterford exerted in the middle third of the field meant they owned the ball for long spells in that game, and had they taken their chances, Cork would have had no way back. Given how Galway wiped the floor with Kilkenny in this area, and the likelihood Damien Hayes will again be out there as a third midfielder, leaves you wondering just how much ball the Cork inside forwards are likely to see. If Kilkenny's proven ball-winners were cleaned out, it doesn't augur well for Patrick Horgan, Luke O'Farrell and Paudie O'Sullivan which would be a real pity given how sharp this trio have looked. Most of the doubts I have about Galway centre on their full-back line, but without an adequate supply of ball, those chinks can't be exposed.

At least there's continuity of selection in the Cork defence with the decision to go with the six that started against Waterford, but it's far from the calibre of defensive unit Cork had available when winning All-Irelands seven or eight years ago. In particular, Eoin Cadogan has looked very ropey at centre-back and with full-back Stephen McDonnell relatively inexperienced in the position, Cork's central spine looks vulnerable.

At least Shane O'Neill especially, and to a lesser extent Brian Murphy, have been solid in the corners. Similarly, Tom Kenny has performed adequately on the right wing but while Seán óg had a great second half on the other flank against Waterford, John Mullane had him in desperate trouble before half-time, something that won't have been lost on the Galway management.

Under Donal O'Grady and John Allen, Cork were very good at denying the opposition forwards space. A big part of that strategy involved the use of short puckouts to prevent the opposition half-forwards from dragging the Cork half-backs out the field.

I remember playing a challenge match in 2004 against them and Dónal óg Cusack making me look very foolish by putting two short puckouts in succession into Seán óg's hand when I, his marker, had drifted out towards midfield.

I was no more than five yards off him on the second occasion, yet in the split second I turned my back to see where the midfielders were, he had picked out my old nemesis and the ball was subsequently floating in on top of our square. After that, I found myself a lot closer as a half-forward to the Cork goal on their puckout than I'd have liked, which also meant considerably more space for the Cork midfielders and half-forwards to operate in.

Against Waterford, short puckouts didn't appear to be in the Cork playbook, no surprise with Dónal óg out injured, and there were times when the Cork half-backs, and Seán óg in particular, allowed themselves to get dragged way out the field. They simply can't allow that to happen today because, with the pace and quality Galway have in attack, the space they vacated will be exploited to the full.

Having won the tactical battle hands down and with it the match in the opening half of the Leinster final with Kilkenny, Galway will be keen to ensure that they are the ones dictating the terms of engagement this afternoon. However, the element of surprise is gone, and while

Kilkenny simply weren't ready for the intensity, physicality and aggression Galway brought to bear, Cork surely will be. At any rate, Galway couldn't possibly have the same beef with Cork that they had after so many years of repression from Kilkenny, so reaching the same heights in that department won't be easy.

Cork too will have studied how Galway set up and how the Galway forwards kept moving and rotating into different positions. Like Kilkenny did to Tipp in last year's All-Ireland final, they may very well decide to just go man to man, making sure they try to get the key match-ups right.

Curbing Damien Hayes' influence too is another factor and it wouldn't surprise me if Cork were prepared to let him operate away from goal if he plays that roving role. That puts extra pressure on the Cork midfield and half-forwards but would allow them to utilise the extra defender as a sweeper to give some protection to their own full-back line, as Johnny Crowley so successfully did in 1986 when Anthony Cunningham was ironically the one playing that role.

All of this of course adds to the intrigue because it looks as if Cork are strongest where Galway appear to be weakest, and vice versa. Whoever can win the chess match and best exploit the deficiencies of their opponents is the side most likely to come out on top.

While I still have my reservations about Galway, and particularly the full-back line, there's much too to be impressed about. They are a physically imposing side in fantastic physical shape and Cork will struggle to live with them if they play with the same aggression they brought to bear in the Leinster final. The half-back line has a really solid look with David Collins back to his best position on the wing, and while Niall Donoghue on the other side may lack a little pace, he has all the other attributes to have a future at this level.

It's up front however where Galway look to have the edge. Obviously Joe Canning is a match winner in his own right, and Cork are going to have to find a way to shut him down, but there are plenty of others in the Galway attack with the scope to do damage if he's contained. Both David and Niall Burke are top-class players who invariably make good decisions on the ball, and Conor Cooney, who was below par against Kilkenny but wreaked havoc against Offaly, is another Cork need to pay a lot of attention to this afternoon.

When it comes down to it, there are far more question marks about Cork than there are about the Tribesmen. Perhaps that first half against Kilkenny was a complete aberration. It may be the case that some of the same Galway players who have looked ordinary in the past played way above themselves, and that this side still have a distance left to travel. But I think they have the better forwards, the more potent goalscoring threat and the greater ability, as Brian Cody would say, to win their own ball.

Cork may be in bonus territory, and in a great place with less pressure given where they were at the start of the year, but I think that inability to win enough primary possession in the middle third of the field will be what ultimately does them in. Galway to advance and take a step closer to ending that 24-year wait for glory in September.

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