Shane Stapleton says the team are catching up to their rivals
And lo, Cork have finally followed the rest of the hurling world into the modern age of tactics.
Since a couple of unjust red cards facilitated their stumbling to an All-Ireland final in 2013, the Rebels have tended to look as up-to-date as a Gateway computer running off Windows 95.
The memory of a Munster title win in 2014 was almost immediately made to feel redundant as Tipperary smashed them at Croke Park that August. From a ten-point loss ending their 2014 season, it swelled to 12 in 2015 thanks to Galway.
As the horse bolted over the horizon, finally we saw Cork try a tactical innovation in Munster 2016 against Tipp. It was the sweeper. Besides an ability to read the game, there's a couple of things to know when you're playing that role: you're only as good as the pressure your team-mates can apply out the field, and the quality of delivery from the opposition really dictates how effective you are.
William Egan ended up looking a novice at it, as if he'd only been told as he left the dressing-room. It's not easy though, nothing like Gaelic football, because the ball moves three times as far in half the time. Even Dublin’s Cian O’Sullivan would struggle on a poor hurling team. Cork’s Egan never stood a chance as the Premier defence could pick and choose the grass in which to hit their deliveries. A man like that ends up covering space that isn't being used.
William Egan of Cork. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan
The difference with Clare, and Waterford, has been flooding the middle-eight zone to ensure that laser-like ball doesn't go into the danger zone. It's why Tadhg De Burca and Cian Dillon (who in 2017 has been used as an orthodox full-back) have been able to sweep to such effect.
The Deise realise that they need to evolve so they are moving closer to a flat six at the back, with De Burca playing centre-back but not always marking his man. It's why Eamonn Dillon of Dublin scored freely in their recent league game - highlighting the difficulty in finding a mix between the sweeper, a conscious midfield, and an attack-minded team.
So we come to Kieran Kingston’s Cork in 2017. Wing-forwards Dean Brosnan and Luke Meade operated as midfield reinforcements alongside Bill Cooper and Lorcan McLoughlin against Waterford, adding numbers and pressure to the middle sector.
Seamus Harnedy was the focal point standing in front of the square and was targeted in isolation with Barry Coughlan. Alan Cadogan and Shane Kingston provided options either side and looked to pick up scraps off the full-forward. Conor Lehane, their main man, played at 11 but had half of the forward in which to utilise his speed because the wing-forwards were effectively wing-midfielders.
If De Burca was going to sweep, he had the entire width of the field to cover. Should he have to follow Lehane, whose first instinct is to look for a score, then there was space in front of Harnedy. The Waterford half-back phalanx inherited that unwanted conundrum: do I cross the ’65 to cover my man and leave the full-back line exposed, or risk him picking up loose ball? While this space-creating tactic is nothing new, the clever positioning of the attackers really hurt Derek McGrath’s side.
The Rebels defence was also much tighter, conceding just 1-13 compared with 0-22 and 2-19 in previous outings. Panic was absent after Shane Bennett’s early goal as Cork went on to score 13 of the next 16 points leading into the break. Because the midfield sector was packed and the Deise half-back line found itself pulled and dragged, the Leeside defenders were much more comfortable. A balance seems to have be found, but one that will be heavily tested by Tipp.
Jamie Barron of Waterford. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan
Jamie Barron is arguably the best midfielder in Ireland and it’s little surprise that Waterford’s defeat coincided with his removal through injury after 15 minutes. He had left his team in a winning position, 1-2 to 0-4 ahead. It’s a second home defeat in a row down at that cabbage patch in Walsh Park, a field you wouldn’t put bad cows out on right now. The other reverse was to Tipperary and there’s no prizes for guessing which key man didn’t play. Yes, Barron. The link-man’s partnership with Kevin Moran makes the team tick.
Clare meet the Deise this weekend and the most striking statistic is the dropping of the Banner’s scoring efficiency from 84% against the Premier to just 47% against Dublin, even though they lost the former and won the latter.
Had the Dubs more of a recognised free-taker at senior level, and a couple of extra ball-winners in attack, their fledgling team would’ve taken home the points.
The ball didn’t stick to the Banner’s Aaron Shanagher the way it should have. He’s certainly a promising talent but too often, after a nice ball in, his second touch is a tackle. It singularly allowed Tipp’s Tossy Hamill to win so many secondary balls as to be named man-of-the-match on him, while Eoghan O’Donnell clearly needs no invitation to rifle any man’s pocket. Ryan O’Dwyer showed how full-forwarding should be done at the other end of the field.
Balance is key for Clare. John Conlan takes more hits than his namesake Michael but an enforcer and ball-winner is key. Ian Galvin has scored 0-6 in two brief appearances which is more than any team-mate during that time. What on earth were the management duo thinking when they took him off after 25 minutes against the Dubs just after he tapped over his second point? Beggared belief, especially as his fellow forwards had been far quieter.
The final round of games means very little to Tipperary as they will maintain the top-seed position no matter, though there’s an outside chance that they will finish out as the only team to positive with a positive scoring differential.
No doubt this weekend will continue the trend of predictable unpredictability.