WHEN the war is in the balance, send in the cavalry. In what was a pulsating encounter for fifty minutes last Saturday evening in Pairc Ui Rinn, at that juncture Cathail O’Mahony launched his second raker from outside the ’45 metre line to bring Cork to within a point of Kerry on a score line of eleven points to ten. The crowd roared, it looked game on.
General Jack didn’t panic, he knew he had the reserves to come in. In the next three minutes, Paul Geaney, David Moran and Paul Murphy were introduced. From minute 50 to minute 60 Kerry went from leading by a point to an unassailable 18 points to ten lead. Moran tortured the Cork kickout giving complete control to Kerry around the middle. Geaney contributed on the scoreboard and Murphy was his usual terrier like self sweeping up ball right, left and centre.
I heard Johann van Graan, the South African Munster Rugby manager, being interviewed prior to their Champions Cup quarter final with Toulouse last Saturday and the first thing he spoke about was getting the balance between who he starts and holds in reserve for impact late in the game as being one of the keys to toppling their French opponents. All the recent All-Ireland football champions have relied on their benches to get them out of sticky spots in recent years. You only have to look at Tyrone last year and Dublin for years on end.
Jack O’Connor now has that luxury and is ready for a serious assault on Croke Park. On the other hand when John Cleary looked to the bench to counter the Kerry management’s move, he saw inexperience and youth, with the Cork replacements only commanding eleven championship appearances between them.
But credit to Cleary, his backroom team and players. They came with a plan. They came with drive, bottle and determination. They left defeated on a score line of 23 points to 12 but with a lot of positives and something to build on for the qualifiers.
Defensively, Kevin Flahive picked up David Clifford. Rory Maguire marked Sean O’Shea with Shanley left to pick up Tony Brosnan. Sean Powter replaced Eoghan McSweeney from the start on the ’40 and reverted to a sweeping role on the top of the D with his concentration mainly being on the younger Clifford. In turns, Ian Maguire, Johnny Cooper or Colm O’Callaghan filled the role of the second sweeper blocking up the central attacking channel for Kerry.
The tighter confines of Pairc Ui Rinn and huge aggression and organisation meant the plan worked a treat until the gas got low in the tanks and the ongoing kickout issue again reared it’s ugly head and the game went away from them in the last twenty minutes. Flahive did a great job on Clifford holding him to a point from play, continually forcing him to win ball in the corners and turn and play it back out to fellow team mates. Maguire kept Seanie O’Shea to two from play but between them they racked up eleven from frees.
The referee felt the full brunt of John Cleary’s frustration on several occasions as a number of those frees I would say were soft. The big one for me in relation to the man in black was when Brian Hurley was taken out after shooting wide late in the first half. If the free was awarded on that occasion Cork would have gone in just a point in arrears at half time. With Rebel backs hurling themselves into tackles, something we longed to see during the league campaign, Cork turned over the Kerry attack regularly in the first half leading to fast counters and frees being drawn from the Kerry defence which Sherlock slotted with aplomb. However off three of those turnovers the Kerry forwards and midfield showed huge physicality to win the ball back leading to scores, an example being when Powter was met with a big hit midway through the first half that led to a Clifford score.
Cork were in trouble all day on kickouts from both ends of the pitch. Of the totals at half time Kerry had won fourteen kickouts to Cork’s seven. And when the aforementioned cavalry came on by the end of the game that stat had become twenty six to twelve in favour of the green and gold.
Micheal Martin didn’t fare well in finding his targets or making good choices and neither did Dylan Foley who replaced him after twenty four minutes due to a groin injury. Credit to Foley though on his superb save from David Clifford on sixty minutes. Again both keepers favoured kicking to the left. Jimmy McGuinness even commented on Sky Sports how Kerry had sussed Cork’s favouritism for going left and were loading that side with bodies.
Granted Ian Maguire went through the pain barrier to play with a damaged hand and he was definitely curtailed in his ability to contest. O’Callaghan battled gamely but apart from kickouts taken clean by the Kerry men Cork just were not getting numbers to the breaking ball. Foley had the onerous task of facing a Kerry line across the middle of Moran, Barry, Morley and man of the match Diarmuid O’Connor for the last twenty. Cork just have to find a way of winning it long to build on progress made in this Munster semi-final.
Kerry have a settled and experienced panel and are quite a ways down the line from a strength and conditioning point of view compared with Cork. Those extra years of playing at the business end of the championship and competing at the high pace and high intensity that comes with Division 1 league competition was the reason they held all the aces with twenty to go. Last Saturday Cork showed others how to shut them down and they lost a lot of ball in their attacking half so Jack will have plenty to work on over the next month.
Cork will be disappointed not to have got closer after putting in such a great shift for so long. They need to get more players contributing from play and try and sort out their kickout before heading into the qualifiers and hopefully a favourable draw which will allow them build on this creditable performance.