Nicky English: Cork aren’t the finished article but they’re not far off
Rebels have struggled defensively in recent years and will get first real test against Clare
Cork’s Seamus Harnedy during the Munster SHC semi-final against Tipperary. Photo: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
This weekend Cork will have to deal with being favourites for the first time this summer but it’s less of a burden for them and can build confidence and a smattering of cockiness, which generally does them no harm.
Cork’s difficulty over the last number of years has been in defence. Tipperary scored a lot against them in May but didn’t put them under the sort of physical pressure I had expected. Then Waterford were very poor in attack and their supposedly best forwards ended up being replaced on the day. To an extent the Cork defence is untested.
They dispensed this season with the seventh defender and are playing more a more conventional one-on-one marking system and the additional responsibility is suiting them. Mark Ellis and Damien Cahalane had been unconvincing in the past couple of seasons in the centre of the defence but both have registered a definite improvement.
Colm Spillane has added a combative edge in the corner and did very well on John McGrath in the first game. Maybe he blotted his copybook with the impetuous red card against Waterford but he can learn from that. Mark Coleman has been excellent on both days so there is fresh blood there as well.
Another factor in the improvement has been the work rate amongst forwards and midfield is immense and there’s virtually no unchallenged ball going into the Cork defence. That vitality has been most obvious in the younger players: the Cork newcomers, Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Luke Meade and Shane Kingston were all good the first day but only Coleman followed it up.
They might not all have played well against Waterford but they nearly always managed to get in a challenge – a tackle or a hurley – and used their energy and pace to get to the pitch of the ball.
Clare have improved this season as well and were scoring noticeably more fluently, which is especially important in a high-scoring championship, against Limerick. The marquee forwards from 2013 looked right back in scoring form.
Shane O’Donnell has had a hard time with injuries in the past four years but looked sharp the last day. More importantly Conor McGrath, who is a fantastic player, also looked right back in form. John Conlon, who looked to have slimmed down a bit too much a year or so ago, has powered up again and the attack now, is more robust.
I still believe that Conor Ryan is a huge loss to their defence at centre back while David McInerney, who has been persecuted with injury and back problems, and is reported to have picked up another knock since the Limerick match, is finding it hard to get an uninterrupted run on the team. He’s a key defender at full back and with Ryan gone they’ve struggled in the heart of their defence.
Other reservations I have would be the form of Tony Kelly and Podge Collins, neither of whom fired on all cylinders against Limerick. They need Collins to conduct the orchestra and Kelly at full tilt.
An extended run in the club championship can take it out of individual players and Tony Kelly carried a big weight for Ballyea in the responsibility of getting them to an All-Ireland final and that has to have been a drain on him. He looked to me against Limerick not to have the dynamism of his best form.
That’s significant when you take into account the evolution of hurling in Munster this year has been rewarding energy, speed and scoring rather the strength to beat the tackle.
The biggest concern for Clare is most likely to be the supply to their forwards. If they get the ball O’Donnell and McGrath will do damage but in the semi-final as a team they really struggled to win primary possession. Their puck-outs didn’t work very well with the result that Limerick dominated possession for much of the game even if they couldn’t do very much with it.
If their ball winning in the middle third wasn’t good enough then how will they get on against a more potent Cork side being directed by Anthony Nash’s puck-outs?
Séamus Harnedy has come right back to his best form in the forwards and Conor Lehane has been absolutely superb, finally hitting the sort of high notes that people had been waiting for since he made his debut. Conor Cleary has a big job on his hands: does he follow him and leave a hole in the middle of the defence or let him off to pick his scores from all around the place?
Cork might not be the finished article but they’re on the move and the bandwagon is rolling with momentum.
It’s striking that the second round of the qualifiers includes three of the All-Ireland semi-finalists from the past two years. All are damaged to some extent. Tipp struggled to put away Westmeath and Kilkenny didn’t show much evidence that they were sufficiently revived to be considered as All-Ireland contenders.
Kilkenny and Waterford gave us an epic in Thurles last August but they’ve both dropped a fair bit off that standard although Kilkenny improved the last day and their effort and application remains strong.
The defence looked significantly better against Limerick with Paul Murphy back in the corner, Cillian Buckley very good and Pádraig Walsh catching the eye at full back. Michael Fennelly’s come back was a triumph but they still looked blunt up front.
Waterford may also have improved. They scored as much against Offaly as Galway did and maybe they were rusty after 11 weeks out when they played Cork. They won’t have a better chance to beat Kilkenny but they were poor in last month’s semi-final, lacking discipline and crucially, scoring power. I expected them to kick on this year but it hasn’t happened.
It’s Waterford’s to lose but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did.
Tipperary face a Dublin team that put up a good score against Laois but have the latter improved to the point where they’re going to beat the, albeit underperforming, All-Ireland champions at home in Thurles? Tipp need not just to win, which they should, but also to rediscover a spark.