The race for number one
Of all of the dilemmas Jimmy Barry-Murphy imagined that he would face as Cork manager, having to choose a new goalkeeper must have been far from his thoughts. After all the 2007 Munster SHC semi-final, when Anthony Nash got the nod, is the only time since 1999 that Donal Óg Cusack has not started in goal for Cork in championship action and even that absence five years ago was caused by suspension.
But now with Cusack’s 2012 season ruined by a ruptured Achilles tendon, Barry-Murphy must place his faith in either Martin Coleman, Nash or Darren McCarthy. Essentially it looks like being a straight fight between Coleman and Nash as despite the emerging talent that McCarthy has showcased with Cork underage sides and this year’s Fitzgibbon Cup champions UCC, he remains inexperienced.
Coleman is the man currently in possession of the goalkeeper jersey but he endured an uncomfortable afternoon in the league final due to the power and ferocity of Kilkenny’s play from the off. Nash’s recent big game experience is restricted to his substitute appearance when Cusack was stretchered off in the league semi-final in April.
What both players lack in senior championship exposure, they compensate to some extent in the level of goalkeeping experience they have accumulated at other levels. And after years of biding their time as Cusack’s understudies, they will be highly motivated to seize the chance to nail down a starting spot.
Sweetnam back from studies
Aside from the dazzling attacking displays of Conor Lehane, the other bright ray of youth to emerge in the Cork squad during the spring was Darren Sweetnam. A multi-talented sportsman he has previously served at underage level for Munster rugby and Ireland hockey sides.
Yet it is hurling where the Dohenys clubman has caught the eye this season with a series of dynamic and ball-playing performances at midfield for Cork that belied his tender years. A county minor in 2011, Sweetnam was one of the rare Cork players to emerge with credit from a bleak afternoon in the league final defeat last month with an enterprising cameo as a second-half substitute.
Leaving Certificate commitments have curtailed his participation since then and his absence was keenly felt in Cork hurling circles when the county U21 side crashed out of the Munster championship at the first hurdle against Tipperary a fortnight ago.
He has since linked up again with the senior squad and the question for the Cork management to now address is to whether to pitch him into the midfield battle from the start on Sunday or hold him in reserve? The suspicion is they will opt for the latter given his interrupted preparations of late but he should feature at some juncture.
An attacking sextet from a choice of eight
The loss of Niall McCarthy through injury robs Cork of their most experienced attacker with the absence of the 30 year-old resulting in a youthful look to the forward options available to Jimmy Barry-Murphy. From the starting offensive unit for the league final Patrick Cronin (25) is the elder statesmen followed closely by captain Patrick Horgan (24) with Paudie O’Sullivan (23), Luke O’Farrell (22) and Conor Lehane (19) the remaining forwards fit for action.
O’Farrell’s progress since then has been stalled by a hamstring injury he incurred in a club game but Barry-Murphy last week revealed his satisfaction with the Midleton player’s recovery and he is in the frame for selection.
The choice then is likely to come down to McCarthy’s replacement with Newtownshandrum duo Cathal Naughton (25) and Jamie Coughlan (20), who were both drafted in during the league decider loss, and Cian McCarthy (22) in the frame to feature. McCarthy has endured a problematic year fighting injuries which could count against him leaving the decision between the pace that Naughton supplies in unlocking defences and Coughlan’s greater scoring return.
The case for the defence
For long stages of their Munster SHC quarter-final last month, the Tipperary rearguard encountered difficulties in stifling the quick movement and incisive play of the Limerick forwards. Ultimately an impressive late resurgence fashioned a victory but those early struggles will have played on Declan Ryan’s mind in the interim.
Donagh Maher was the newcomer to the Tipperary defence with the Burgess man handed a starting position at right corner-back but he was whipped off during the second-half as Conor O’Brien was introduced. O’Brien’s energetic style saw him make an impact, notch a significant point and he has plenty experience.
Yet Maher did have a solid league campaign and the improvement in Tipperary’s fortunes further out the field did have an important impact in helping relieve the pressure on the inside backline. With Paddy Stapleton, a defensive fixture over the past few years, still lacking in match sharpness following recent injury difficulties, it looks to be a straight choice between Maher and O’Brien.
McGrath in the middle
Shane McGrath’s inter-county senior career began in a progressive fashion as he claimed an All Star award in 2008 and was an integral part of the Tipperary side that collected the 2010 All-Ireland title. There were signs last year that teams were starting to stymie his influence and his season was bookended by withdrawals against Cork in the quarter-final of the Munster SHC and against Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final.
This season McGrath has been edged out of the starting line-up by James Woodlock for the league semi-final against Cork and the Munster quarter-final against Limerick. But when Tipperary needed to be bailed out during that clash with Limerick, they turned to the Ballinahinch man for inspiration and he duly supplied it.
McGrath’s introduction helped altered the course of that game but the issue now is whether he can best influence the action by occupying a place from the start or being sprung from the bench. Yet given his stirring form against Limerick, it seems likely that he will be included from the throw-in on this occasion instead of Woodlock.
The return of Lar, Bonner and Seamus
When Tipperary swept to All-Ireland honours in 2010, the contributions of Lar Corbett, Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher and Seamus Callanan were invaluable in that success against Kilkenny. Corbett’s glittering scoring display saw him smash in three goals, Maher went through a mountain of work that helped Tipperary win the half-forward line battle while Callanan came on near the finish to flight over two stylish points that helped extend Tipperary’s superiority on the scoreboard.
Yet when Tipperary took to the field for their 2012 championship opener last month against Limerick, all three were absent from the starting line-up. Maher and Callanan both occupied places on the bench while Corbett donned a Maor Uisce bib having just rejoined the squad after his spring sojourn away from hurling.
The contributions of Maher and Callanan when drafted in during the second-half were ultimately critical in shaping Tipperary’s victory. They are now pushing extremely hard for starting berths while Corbett has had the benefit of four extra weeks in which to enhance his fitness and sharpen his hurling.
Will the three now bag berths in the starting forward line? Maher appears a strong favourite to secure a starting place as the Limerick game was a salient reminder of the significant level of honesty and work-rate that he brings to the party. Callanan may be better held in reserve, a useful weapon to deploy when a game is opening up and Shane Bourke, the captain of the UCC Fitzgibbon Cup winning side in March, could fall neatly into this bracket as well.
In Corbett’s case it would represent a gamble to start him given his lack of training in 2011. In addition utilising him as a substitute during the game would have a major galvanising effect on the Tipperary team given the reaction it would provoke amongst the Premier fans. Ultimately Ryan has a greater array of attacking options to choose from in comparison to the scenario facing him before the Limerick game.