Tantalising incentive to face Mayo

November 21st, 2020 6:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

Topsy-turvy aerial action from Cork's 3-15 to 2-16 Munster senior football championship semi-final defeat by Tipperary four years ago in Thurles. (Photo: George Hatchell)

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2010 All-Ireland winning Cork footballer John Hayes is conscious that the Munster senior football final on Sunday against Tipperary is a dangerous game for the Cork team coming after the incredible high of a generational defeat of Kerry in what has already become an iconic semi-final ...

CORK now face Tipperary for the right to be crowned Munster champions and, more importantly, the chance to face Mayo in the last four of the All-Ireland. Laid bare in those terms, the opportunity in front of both Cork and Tipperary is tantalising.

Mayo are a good side and will be favourites for that game regardless of who qualifies, however both Cork and Tipperary would relish the opportunity to test Mayo’s credentials. Which team are most likely to grace Croke Park in December? Let’s take a look.

Cork will enter the game as favourites on the back of beating Kerry and having won three of the four most recent championship encounters with Tipperary. Fortuitous late home wins for Cork in 2014 and 2017 came either side of a deserved Tipp victory in Thurles. There was no more than two points between the sides in these games.

In 2014, Cork needed some inspirational late points from Aidan Walsh to turn an injury time deficit into a gutsy two-point win in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Tipp, driven by Conor Sweeney and Michael Quinlivan, withstood a late comeback from Cork in 2016 to win by the same margin and a late Luke Connolly goal gifted Cork another comeback win by the bare minimum in Pairc Ui Rinn in 2017 after a historically poor first half performance yielded only one point for Cork.

This trend of close encounters ended when Cork recorded a more facile 1- 17 to 0-9 win in Thurles two years ago. Encouragingly for Cork, Luke Connolly provided the impetus for the improved performance, clipping over 10 points split evenly between play and frees. Luke made a big impact from the bench against Kerry and will surely start on Sunday.

A confident Luke Connolly is a dangerous proposition for any defence. As much as we enjoyed the win over Kerry, an improved attacking display is required from Cork in the final and Luke will be central to this. Hopefully, the weather conditions on Sunday will be more conducive to attacking football and Cork’s forwards can show their abilities.

A major challenge for Cork facing into this final is to follow up the Kerry performance with another of similar intensity and hopefully improved quality. There is no doubt the county was abuzz after the manner of victory against Kerry and the possibilities it has opened up, and it is incumbent on the players and management to refocus on the immediate task in hand.

There are a number of young guys in the squad, and so Ronan McCarthy and his management team will be working hard to ensure they have one thought in their minds – forget what is done, focus on the job ahead this Sunday. Luckily for Cork, the idea of getting carried away by one success is not something I would associate with Ronan McCarthy.

I speak with some degree of experience with respect to Ronan, having played under him as coach-selector in my second stint with Cork in 2014 and 2015, and having secured a county championship success with Carbery Rangers in 2016 under his stewardship. Ronan is a man who knows his own mind, does not indulge individuals regardless of status and isn’t afraid to make big calls based on his own instincts; parachuting Mark Keane straight into the squad and bringing him on as first sub in the semi-final being the perfect example of same.

In Ross, we had a very settled team built around a core group for quite a long time, Ronan quickly made clear that the past was irrelevant and the team would be picked based on his assessment of current form. Players that hadn’t featured much in previous campaigns were brought in from the cold, and other more established players were made to raise their game in order to retain or regain their place.

Don’t be too surprised to see Ronan make further changes this Sunday that might not have been foreseen by pundits or public alike. One point I remember him making very strongly during his time with Ross, was that he was convinced by others to change his mind on important decisions in the past and had lived to regret it.

Ronan is the boss, he will listen to those around him for sure, but the big decisions for Sunday coming will be his. Perhaps we shall see someone who did not feature much or at all against Kerry have a Mark Keane-like impact this coming Sunday.

Tipperary performed their own Houdini act in their semi-final against Limerick, with Conor Sweeney’s wonder free securing a draw having trailed for almost the entire game. The win was secured after extra time, and while Tipp were not overly-impressive, it was the kind of game that brings a team on in leaps and bounds.

While Cork were on cloud nine after deposing the Munster and Division 1 champions, Tipp would have been straight into self-examination mode after scraping past Division 4 Limerick. No worries about grounding the troops for David Power!

The accepted wisdom is that it is preferable to head into a final seeking improvement after a low-key display. The expectation is all on Cork now, and that will suit Tipperary just fine.

Having looked at the form lines from the most recent meetings between the two counties above, it is interesting to compare the teams from the 2018 game to the teams that lined out in the respective semi-finals. Cork’s team that started against Kerry contained only five survivors from the 2018 encounter, namely Kevin Flahive, Ian Maguire, John O’Rourke, Ruairi Deane and Mark Collins. Luke Connolly, Kevin O’Driscoll and Sean White started also, while Brian Hurley, Matty Taylor and Paul Kerrigan are others who featured in that game who will likely have involvement on Sunday.

James Loughrey was name-checked by Ronan McCarthy after the game so he may have an outside chance of featuring also. Nonetheless, it is a much-changed Cork team in such a short space of time, and is testament to the competition in the squad and the work done promoting younger players by the current management.

Tipperary’s starting line up against Limerick featured nine of their 2018 team. The influential Brian Fox was sprung early from the bench also and I would expect him to start on Sunday also. Kevin Fahey, Liam Boland, Jason Lonergan and Kevin O’Halloran are others who featured in both games.

Ergo it is a rather more settled Tipperary team, which relies on a strong half back line, hard working midfielders and dangerous forwards like Sweeney and Quinlivan to compete. I don’t believe they are at the same level as the team that went all the way to the semi-final in 2016, but they will believe they have it in them to take this Cork team all the way.

Similar to the mindset Cork had when facing Kerry, Tipperary will see this as the best opportunity they will ever get to secure a 10th Munster title, and their first since 1935. I’m sure they’d like nothing better than an opportunity to settle a score with Mayo after 2016 also, and none more so than my old buddy Robbie Kiely, who fell victim to a dubious black card decision early in that game.

The potential clash between Robbie and Johno is one we are looking forward to seeing in Ross. Johno did a job curtailing Gavin White in the semi-final and may be asked to perform similar duties curbing Robbie’s attacking forays.

Robbie is an enigmatic sort, and would never be mistaken for the world’s hardest trainer, but when he is focused, he is a serious operator, as evidenced by his All-Star nomination in 2016. Johno, on the other hand, is supremely dedicated and has the fitness levels to follow Robbie all day, as well as making more of an impact in an attacking sense than he did against Kerry.

Long story short, Cork should win on Sunday. Following a period in the middle of the last decade where there was nothing between the teams a few short years ago, I feel that Cork have made the more significant improvements.

Cork topped Division 3 at their ease, while Tipperary laboured in mid division. Cork have taken the scalp of the second-favourites for the All-Ireland, while Tipperary were second best to Limerick for long periods.

It’s the kind of game that makes a Cork football fan nervous, but the team should be professional enough to embrace the favourites tag on Sunday. The opportunity in front of us is huge, this set of circumstances won’t come around again and we must capitalise on the momentum and good feeling from the Kerry game, and secure our first Munster championship since 2012 on home soil. Cork by 4, Up the Rebels.


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