There is one all-important question in Gaelic Hurling – how do you beat Kilkenny? Anthony Daly’s answer, as we will see this Saturday, is that you can only beat them by joining them, by matching their intensity and imitating their swarm tactics. Liam Sheedy seeked something similar, with added emphasis on movement and pace to beat what has been historically seen as a Kilkenny defence susceptible to being run at. Evidently Offaly’s Diarmuid Healy believes ground hurling – and just moving the ball as fast as possible – is the way to un-do Kilkenny, a style akin to how Wexford competed with Kilkenny in Leinster in the mid-00s.
One may ask why I am talking about Kilkenny in an article on Munster hurling, but such are the cat’s presence in hurling that they loom greatly even over Sunday’s game. After all, the last team to beat Kilkenny in a truly important match was Tipperary, and as such its towards Tipp that most hurling fans look to make the sport really competitive again. More importantly for us though, this is Cork’s first game post-league final, where we were destroyed by a rampant Kilkenny side, and where we will see what it was Cork’s management learnt from that game, or more precisely how it is Jimmy Barry-Murphy and Ger Cunningham think they can beat Kilkenny. With this question in mind, the Cork team and panel selected for Sunday is illuminating.
Rather then imitate Kilkenny (and Dublin) JBM has decided that we were defeated in the league final simply because our hurling wasn’t quick enough. We got bogged down with the ball in hand not because we weren’t strong enough, but because the ball should have been moving up the pitch before Kilkenny’s swarm tactics kicked in. This isn’t a strange solution to the quandary that faces every inter-county hurling team – after all the emphasis from the start of the year for Cork has been on quicker, more intelligent hurling while the whole concept of ‘greyhounds over elephants’ has been bandied about in the media in every article involving Cork hurling. Very simply, says JBM and Ger Cunningham, we need better hurlers, not bigger ones.
Sunday’s panel makes that clear. Out are physical but not exceptionally talented hurlers like Brian Corry and Ross Cashman, and in are physically middling but classy players like Steven Moylan, Daniel Kearney and Killian Murphy. The team itself shows the same trend – Steven McDonnell, a aggressive but erratic hurler, is replaced by the stylish Conor O’Sullivan, while speedster Cathal Naughton has been picked over the powerful Cian McCarthy and Lorcan McLoughlin has been picked before John Gardiner to partner Sweetnam at midfield. The only exception here is the picking of Tom Kenny, although I guess one could argue that Kenny has always been a superior stickman to Sean Og.
As such, the picking of the actual team and panel, at first a little odd, makes perfect sense in what JBM and Cunningham are trying to achieve and have been trying to achieve all year – skill players first and foremost, and work from there. And by and large an emphasis on youth. But what will this actually mean for Sunday? Well unfortunately for Cork fans, we should be worried – this isn’t a team to inspire confidence.
Coleman is dropped from the entire panel on the back of his performance against Kilkenny which seems harsh but (a) Nash deserves a crack and was always going to start and (b) Darren McCarthy is the long term successor to Donal Og. This is one of the more positive developments in my opinion – Darren McCarthy is an exceptional goalkeeper and has looked like a future number one since he appeared on the scene at Minor.Moreover Nash is competent, and is finally someone who can put away penalties and 21 yard frees.
The full-back line looks dodgy to say the least – its surely the least physical full-back line of all the ‘major’ hurling counties. Moreover the Tipp full-forward line is nicely set up to punish our lack of size, which makes the decision to drop McDonnell more disappointing as I believe he would have been an ideal candidate to man mark O’Meara. This author, at least, has some doubts over Conor O’Sullivan, a classy hurler no doubt but one that isn’t particularly big or quick. Brian Murphy playing full-back is unimportant – the three lads will be given their men to follow, and positions won’t matter massively. However, the size of the inside backs.has repercussions further up the pitch – as Tipp will know they have a size advantage inside, they don’t need to put as much effort as we do to playing intelligent ball inside. Simply, direct, not completely accurate and long balls are far more likely to work for Tipp then they are for us, leaving some of the pressure off those that are delivering the ball inside for Tipperary.
The half-back line will be interesting – I have a sneaky feeling Joyce may start, but if it is Kenny I can only assume its because he has been exceptional in training. Kenny has looked like a person who spent too long in the gym building up his body muscle to the detriment of his greatest asset, his pace. Moreover, he was moved out of half-back by Donal O’Grady, largely because he wasn’t much good in the air. Cadogan’s hurling was poor Kilkenny, and its obvious playing football is dimming his ability to become a top class hurler. Still, he is so competitive and aggressive it would be difficult to see him having a poor game on Sunday. Egan has slowly turned into one of Cork’s best players, the stingiest of our half-backs and the best in the air, hopefully this progression will continue on Sunday.
In reality, its in midfield and the half-forward line that Cork will have to win the game. We can’t let Tipp get any kind of decent direct ball into their inside forwards, so its even more essential than usual for McLoughlin and Sweetnam to hook and block constantly. There is huge responsibility on Sweetnam’s shoulders – McLoughlin works best as a foil making runs and offering support, but he falls down in winning 50/50 ball in close action, an area that Sweetnam already looks like he will excel in. Moreover, Sweetnam is far better at both scoring and at breaking tackles, so we’ll need him to offer the drive and physicality in the middle of the field.
The half-forward line needs to be exceptional for us to win – Naughton is pretty much our only goal threat while Lehane will have to try and keep Maher quiet and win at least a few puck-outs. Cronin will be asked to keep O’Mahony quiet and win puck-outs under pressure from 2-3 Tipp players – another huge ask. Moreover Lehane will only win puck-outs that he can run on to with space around him, while the same can be said for Sweetnam/McLoughlin, so one hopes JBM and co have a plan to find someone other then Cronin for puck-outs in room. Still it looks like 80% of Nash’s deliveries will be dropping on the head of Cronin with O’Mahony and co hanging off him. It is in this area of the pitch that the sideline will have to be particularly astute.
Our inside forwards are all wrong – Coughlan is the only one with real pace but he is too frail physically – at least a year too early for this level, but Luke O’Farrell is injured so there is no other real option. Horgan and Padraig O’Sullivan neither have enough pace our enough physicality, and their stylishness doesn’t really make up for their lack of goal threat. O’Farrell is a loss because, in my opinion at least, he is a proper goal threat – his first instinct is to run at the full-back with the ball, and he has a bullet of a shot. Coughlan, Lehane, Horgan and Padraig O’Sullivan’s instincts are largely to take points, so again we’ll need to get Naughton into some kind of space to run at the goals. Tipp’s one glaring weakness is their lack of pace out wide at the back – again hopefully this is something that the sideline will try to punish.
Finally, we get the biggest obstacle for Cork on Sunday – the respective benches. Tipperary have Eoin Kelly, Lar Corbett and Seamus Callinan to call on, we have…well no one really. Sean Og and John Gardiner will get a cheer when they come on but if we struggle up from we have very little there bar Cian McCarthy, who hasn’t played a senior inter-county game all year and Steven Moylan who hasn’t played a senior inter-county game ever.
As such, its hard to look past Tipp, probably by 4-6 points. But hopefully we show some progression, and pride after the Kilkenny match.