Shane Stapleton looks at how Cork have learned the lessons of last year's loss
William Egan had an impossible task last year.
He was deployed as a sweeper for Cork in their Munster collapse against Tipperary and his flak jacket was a magnet for criticism afterwards. But what could he do? For anyone who has played the position, so much of your succees or failure depends on what happens in areas beyond your control.
Usually, deploying a sweeper means your team is now operating with five forwards, so they are likely outnumbered both with and without possession. So it's harder to score and easier for Tipp backs to take time over their deliveries.
This double whammy was realised 12 months ago in Thurles: a tally of just 0-13 for Cork, and the concession of 22. Yes, Tipp didn’t manage a goal, and that is largely down to having a sweeper, but it was a pyrrhic victory.
In truth, Egan was supposed to be able to create two-on-one situations to aid his defenders, but in reality it did largely the opposite. Because with Cork’s forwards outnumbered and not all of the highest individual standard anyway, Padraic and Ronan Maher were able to stand up and pick out pockets of space with their deliveries. The wonder is that Seamus Callanan and John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer didn’t pilfer more than 0-4 apiece from play.
Egan didn’t have a hope. In football, where sweepers have traditionally had more success, the ball is moved upfield incrementally, meaning the extra man back can shuffle over and back as he sees fit.
William Egan of Cork. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan
For anyone who has ever played the position in hurling, especially on a side losing the middle-eight battle, it is a horrendous position to play. Effectively, you are shuttle-running across the field, never quite catching up with a ball that moves 100-yards in a couple of seconds. You're never too far away, but never close enough to make a difference.
Kieran Kingston knows this won’t work, and certainly not against a Tipperary side who have become comfortable with playing against a sweeper.
So where are the Tipp weaknesses and how can they be exploited? That’s largely down to which men in red are able to do so. Seamus Harnedy has had some success in aerial duels with James Barry, so that’s one potential match-up on the edge of the square.
Michael Cahill is an injury doubt with a hamstring complaint and, even if he does line out, will recall Alan Cadogan taking him for four points a year ago. As ever, the Rebels are going to feed quick, low ball into the forwards when they can and it’s not something that the Premier will be overly comfortable with.
Cahill hasn’t been flying, hightower Tomas Hamill doesn’t seem a suitable option in the corner, John O’Keeffe and Donagh Maher have had injury issues, so Michael Ryan has an issue that Cork will look to exploit.
We’ve seen Daire Quinn used at midfield during the league. Corner-back is the Nenagh man’s natural position, but a lack of height may mean Ryan doesn’t see this as a viable solution — and in any case, Quinn would’ve needed to be trailed in this position before now. Hamill may yet go to the wing and Seamus Kennedy, who has speed and agility, might yet be the one asked to fill the round peg. O'Keeffe may yet appear.
Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan
Tactically, the Rebels have looked obsolete in recent seasons but the crux of what they’ve embraced is filling the midfield with their two wing-forwards, and isolating their pacy forwards.
Against the old enemy — against whom all progress is measured — that will amount to hoping Padraic Maher and the other wing-back are dragged outfield. The hope being that Conor Lehane’s pace from centre-forward will do untold damage against Ronan. Then inside, the crumbs from Harnedy are to be gobbled up by Cadogan and Patrick Horgan - certainly, that's the hope.
Of course it all comes down to winning the middle-eight battle. Should Cork’s extra numbers give them a platform, fast ball will make its way into that potent inside line and damage will be done. As it was by Galway against Tipp in the league final.
The people of Tipperary are worried. Once bitten, twice shy: that’s history around these parts. The wool has been pulled from over their eyes, a cover that had suggested this was a panel for the ages. That this was the dawning of a blue and gold magpie.
What Galway have done is bring back a realism to the county. Like everyone else, they need their best 15 on the field and, right now, Ryan might not even be sure what that is.
As above, there is a corner that needs mending. While at midfield, it is not the suspension issue that is the main concern with Jason Forde, but whether this position works well for him or the team.
Tipperary’s Patrick Maher could miss Sunday's match.Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ken Sutton
Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher is another huge injury concern after pulling up playing for Lorrha/Durrha recently. So all in all, what felt a month ago like a massacre in waiting, is now more finely poised.
The bottom line is that the All-Ireland holders have more of the very best players on the park, but they will only get it on the front foot if they win more of it in the middle.
Tipp have won six of the past nine Munster, seven of eight championship clashes with Cork since 2006, and the Rebels have managed just six goals against them during that decade.
Whereas 20 years ago it was hell to be a young Premier fan, that is now the reality for fledgling Leesiders.
All-time, the win-loss-draw ratio is 38-37-7, with Tipp edging it. It took a long time to overcome Cork’s lead, and surely that won’t be squared off this Sunday. Though it could be a tight squeeze.