Gaelic GamesThe Weekend That Was

Defensive issue laid bare as Cork and Clare scramble to avoid crisis

Ruthlessness of the Munster Championship leave both sides in a race to make corrections quickest after disappointing opening round defeats

At the end of last summer Off The Ball staged a live podcast in the Cork Opera House with Jimmy Barry Murphy as their headline guest. In the context of a question about his modesty – which, without irony, he deflected – he spoke briefly about the pressures of being involved with Cork.

“As a player or manager you’re sensitive about criticism,” he said. “I know when I was playing and managing Cork I got plenty of stick – particularly on a Monday morning, if you had lost a big game [on Sunday]. People didn’t spare you.”

The most common condition in the championship is crisis. Not everyone comes down with it, but everyone is open to infection. After the weekend, the hurlers of Cork and Clare are caught in that no-man’s land between a bout of life-threatening man-flu or a simple cold that will pass after a few days of complaining. Complaining is symptomatic of both conditions.

Either way, they’re sick. Cork never looked like winning a game that everyone expected them to win; Clare put themselves in a position where losing looked out of the question, and then lost. On Sunday, they meet in Supervalu Páirc Uí Chaoimh for a match that will leave the losers in a hole.


The way the football championship is structured now, with its never-ending corridors, nobody is effectively eliminated from the Tailteann Cup until early June and from the Sam Maguire until mid-June. In the Munster hurling championship, however, with its accelerated metabolism, a team’s season can hang by a thread before April is out.

When the round-robin system was first introduced in 2018, one of the early truisms was that winning your first match was absolutely vital. As the sample-size grew, it turned out that losing your first match was not necessarily fatal. In Munster Cork and Clare have both qualified, twice, having lost their opening game.

Cork, though, are still the only team to have qualified after losing their first two games, a don’t try this at home feat they achieved in 2022. That year, they headed to Walsh Park in round three, needing to beat a Waterford team who had been one of the favourites for the All-Ireland only a couple of weeks earlier, and whose season was about to implode.

The fascinating thing about the Cork line-up on Sunday, though, was how little change there was from the Walsh Park game two years ago. Twelve players started both games, and two of the players who came off the bench for Cork on Sunday started in 2022.

So, what was the difference? On Sunday, Waterford produced a performance that was reminiscent of their best days under Liam Cahill: hard-fit, hard-running, hard-headed. And unlike in 2022, Cork couldn’t keep them out.

For Cork, defending has been a recurring and debilitating problem. In last year’s Munster championship, three of the top four highest scoring games involved Cork. In those matches against Tipperary, Limerick and Clare, Cork conceded 2-25, 2-22 and 3-25; on Sunday, they conceded 2-25, which is precisely the average of those three totals from last summer.

In the opening 20 minutes, especially, Cork’s defence was dragged out of position by Waterford’s runners and by Waterford’s set-up. The spaces that materialised were alarming, and in a critical sense, undefendable. Every defence that suffers in the modern game, though, is exposed by players in the other half of the field not working hard enough.

When Pat Ryan came in as manager his first priority was to instil more conscientious tackling and selfless covering, and over the last 18 months there is plenty of evidence that he has achieved that mindset change. Tommy O’Connell at centre field is the poster boy for Ryan’s recipe; in Walsh Park his tracking and scramble defence was terrific again. On Sunday, though, Cork were out-worked by a ravenous team returning to core principles and that was the fundamental difference.

Defending was the key issue for Clare against Limerick too. The likeness to their opening game last year was chilling. That day, Tipperary came to Ennis and scored five goals, at least three of which were the outcome of destructive mistakes in defence.

“So hard to get scores at the opposite end of the field when you’re conceding so soft,” Brian Lohan said immediately after the match 12 months ago. “They really were gifts of scores.”

“Goals change matches,” Lohan said on Sunday, after three goals from Limerick in the final quarter turned the game on its head. “A lot of poor goals from our perspective. Poor defending, which we’re disappointed with.”

For the first round last year Eamon Foudy was picked in goal for his championship debut with very little experience in the league; he suffered against Tipp and was dropped for the Limerick game a week later.

Eibhear Quilligan should have stopped Limerick’s second goal on Sunday and he wasn’t absolved of blame for Limerick’s first goal either. They clearly had doubts about him 12 months ago, but leaving him out for the Cork game probably isn’t the solution now.

The issues in the final quarter on Sunday were structural: Limerick went right down the middle of the Clare defence for their second goal, and Gearoid Hegarty was like a man in quarantine for the third goal, completely isolated down the right wing.

The hurling championship is merciless. After months of open-eyed prep Clare and Cork stepped into the championship certain that everything was in place. Now, their summer probably depends on who can make the best corrections in a week.

One of them will be in a crisis on Sunday evening. The other won’t even have a sniffle.