Thursday 22 March 2018

This time it's kill or be killed

Cork should make a fight of it today, says Jamesie O'Connor, but Kilkenny have too much firepower

Jamesie O'Connor

I n the classic World War I novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, there's an incident where the German author, feeling guilty after being home on leave, volunteers to go on a night patrol into no-man's land. On patrol, the enemy attacks and, unaware of where his lines are, he is forced to take shelter in a bomb crater.

Amidst the machine gun fire, the shelling and terror surrounding him, all he has in his head as the enemy moves past is one explosive thought: what will he do if someone else jumps into his shelter? Out of fear he concludes that if it happens he will stab the intruder immediately. There's no other option, he reasons. It's kill or be killed.

When a French soldier falls in on top of him he just stabs wildly. Unfortunately for him, he didn't have time to think and so has to live with the consequences as his opponent dies a slow, agonising death.

Kill or be killed. Exactly two years ago this weekend, with the three-in-a-row on the line, Cork stood between Kilkenny and a place in the final. The Rebels were coming off the back of an heroic win over Galway and an epic comeback quarter-final defeat of Clare. The manner of both wins had touched a nerve with the Cork hurling public and the Rebel bandwagon rolled into Dublin with wind in their sails. Many, including myself, were taken in by it and tipped them, albeit cautiously, to win.

By contrast, having beaten Wexford and Limerick to win a 'soft' All-Ireland in 2007 and after waltzing through another Leinster campaign, the argument was that it had been 12 months since Kilkenny had been really tested. The 'rest is rust' argument was also used, given they were coming off a five-week break from the Leinster final, and we questioned whether they'd be ready for a battle-hardened and supposedly hungrier Cork.

The Kilkenny response was to give one of the most focused and ruthless displays that I've ever seen in Croke Park. From the off, watching various Cork forwards being bullied off the ball, it was patently obvious who was going to do the killing. Everything in the Kilkenny body language indicated that whatever it took to win that game, they were prepared to do.

After a pretty even first 20 minutes, Eoin Larkin's goal broke the game open. From there to the end, Cork just couldn't live with the ferocity, physicality and intensity the Cats were playing with and while the scoreboard may not have truly reflected it, Kilkenny blew them away.

Of course, Cork's tactical naivety on the day contributed in no small way to their own downfall. Kilkenny set up to stop Cork in exactly the same way as they had in the 2006 final. Yet Cork did nothing to counteract it. Puck-outs went long into the Kilkenny half-back line, the equivalent of throwing apples into an orchard. At the back, despite their massive experience, they allowed themselves to be dragged out the field and in the subsequent spaces created, Kilkenny opened them up at will. On the day it was a miracle they only conceded the one goal, a testament to how well the full-back line played.

In the aftermath, nothing would have galled the Cork players more than the knowledge they played right into their opponents' hands. Deep down, as an experienced team, they knew their preparation and planning hadn't been good enough, but the manner in which Kilkenny dictated the terms of engagement, and the way they were outfought, must have hurt.

In mitigation, that autumn represented the high-water mark of this Kilkenny team and it's questionable if any team, no matter how well prepared, could have lived

with them. In that mood and with the form they displayed, all of Cork's weaknesses and deficiencies were going to be exposed and laid bare.

Two years on, and with Kilkenny seemingly as strong as ever and just 140 minutes away from a barely credible five-in-a-row, the question is: do the same chinks still exist in the Cork armoury? Are they better now than they were two years ago? While they may argue they're better prepared, it's impossible to say that they are.

Certainly in attack, the same scoring threat as they had at their peak in '04 and '05 doesn't appear to be there. Yes, they looked good against Tipp, but that had a lot to do with how poorly Tipp defended. Both Ben O'Connor and Patrick Horgan, arguably Cork's two biggest scoring threats, have struggled for form since, and full-backs seem to have figured out how to play Aisake. Yet if Cork are to amass a match-winning total this afternoon, this trio will have to provide the bulk of it and that will have to include at least a couple of goals.

That of course can't happen without an adequate supply of possession, something they really failed to achieve against Waterford, primarily due to a malfunctioning half-forward line. At least Niall McCarthy's form has been good, and he may succeed in tying down Tommy Walsh, but both Fraggy Murphy and Michael Cussen will have to improve on anything they've produced to date in this year's championship.

One to nine, with Seán óg and Shane O'Neill back from injury, Cork look solid. Eoin Cadogan has had a few anxious moments at full-back, and Kilkenny will target him, but he has good players around him and should survive. At any rate, Cork are likely to give him every protection by trying to hold their shape and keeping it as tight as possible at the back, with their midfielders, and Tom Kenny in particular, playing deeper than usual.

From Kilkenny's perspective, they know the satisfaction Cork would derive from turning them over. But there's a quid pro quo, in that they would take equal pleasure from driving another nail into the coffin of this Cork team. While they have looked impressive this year, especially in the second half against Galway, the wides tally has been higher than we are accustomed to seeing from them.

The injuries to Michael Rice and John Tennyson also weaken them, especially considering how well both have played over the last 12 months. There are also question marks over the fitness of Brian Hogan, and Kilkenny will have to shuffle the deck if he doesn't make it.

There are murmurings too that the forwards, Eddie Brennan and Eoin Larkin in particular, are struggling to reproduce the form of recent years. Larkin is crucial to the way Kilkenny play.

His direct and hard-running style is difficult to defend against, as evidenced by the number of fouls he draws and good things usually result when he gets inside the opposition half-back line. In addition, if Larkin does little else other than keep John Gardiner fully occupied with defensive duties, it would constitute a positive outcome for Kilkenny. But looking at the forwards in general, any one of them is capable of inflicting damage, and collectively it's hard to see Cork restricting them to less than 20 points.

General odds about a Cork success are 5/1. A bookie in Galway was apparently offering Cork at a ridiculous 14/1. Yes, the Rebels are big underdogs but regardless of how good Kilkenny are, 14/1 in a two-horse race looks seriously mispriced. It's true that Cork's stock has plummeted from the high of the Tipp match but they were arguably only denied a Munster title by a dubious enough looking free in the drawn final.

Furthermore, they'll surely have learned the lessons from 2006 and 2008 and devised a gameplan to counteract Kilkenny. I'm assuming they won't allow their half-backs to be pulled as far out the field as they were two years ago, and I'm also assuming they won't play to Kilkenny's strengths and puck out the ball on top of JJ Delaney and Tommy Walsh. I hope Cork are brave enough to take chances on their own puck-out and try to hurl their way around Kilkenny.

You would also hope they will front up physically and refuse to be bossed and bullied the way they were two years ago. No doubt the 27-point annihilation in last year's league when the Rebels were on their knees, and the humiliation they suffered that day won't have been forgotten either. Nor will the fear of just what Kilkenny could do to them if they are not playing at their limit this afternoon.

Were Cork to get a good start, and really wire into Kilkenny, and were the Cats to have an off day, then an upset is certainly possible. There will come a day when Kilkenny have to hit the accelerator and find there's nothing left in the tank. However, I just can't see the Rebels winning enough possession for that day to be today. I think we'll get a contest. I think there will be an edge to it. Playing for these stakes, it's kill or be killed and Cork may have the knife ready. Unfortunately, though, Kilkenny carry the greater weapons.

That should see them through to yet another final.

Sunday Independent

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