Patrick Kelly: Case for the defence as Haven and Nemo serve up a tough watch

The West Cork outfit did enough to get over the line in the Cork showpiece.
Patrick Kelly: Case for the defence as Haven and Nemo serve up a tough watch

HEAVY TRAFFIC: Mark Cronin of Nemo Rangers is tackled by Mark Collins, left, anD Cathal Maguire of Castlehaven. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Castlehaven sealed their sixth county title and their first in 10 years after overcoming Nemo Rangers in what can be politely described as a tactical arm-wrestle. With scores at a premium amid mass defences it was the class of the Hurley brothers, Brian and Michael, which ultimately proved the difference. 

Since their last county final victory in 2013 no team has deserved another one more than they have and they deserve enormous credit for continuing to go to the well after some agonising defeats to both Nemo and St Finbarr's in recent years.

I posed the question in last Friday’s pre-match article if either or both sides would sacrifice their attacking intent to ensure defensive stability. Unfortunately for us neutrals, the answer was apparent within a few minutes of throw in. The first half was largely forgettable. Bar the frantic last breakaway point from Michael Hurley, I’m not sure there was a single attack where the opposition didn’t have at least a plus one in place. Neither side applied much pressure on kickouts, instead opting to begin their pressure on the opposite 65, thus condensing the field. As youngsters, us forwards used to say “I’d hate to be a corner back”, the opposite felt more apt watching yesterday as the marquee forwards found space at a premium.

The match-ups were as expected but such was the degree of protection offered there was only one half-chance of a goal in the entire 60-plus minutes with Mark Cronin scuffing his second-half effort while being pushed. Luke Connolly showed a few glimpses with nice scores on the turn but in general got little change off the tenacious Ronan Walsh. Cronin was busy and showed well but didn’t manage to score from play. For Nemo, they will rue the misses of what would be considered in the scoreable bracket without being gimmes. 

A return of five points from 16 shots tells its own story. They never sparked and went on a three- or four-point run that they have done so often before in finals. Instead, the Haven hung in there and when it mattered most the Hurley brothers combined for the last three points to seal a memorable victory.

I previously hailed Nemo’s excellent defensive setup and it was again very resolute yesterday as they were very disciplined and organised in stifling the Haven threats. Stephen Cronin dropped cleverly to a deep-lying sweeper ensuring there was no threat of a goal inside. Their industrious midfield and half forward line in turn filtered back which ensured there was no route to easy attempts from around the D. To their credit the Haven realised this and instead isolated Michael Hurley cutting in from the sidelines. Nemo were clearly reluctant to double up using their sweeper and Hurley revelled in the half space cutting in on several occasions to kick five points from play.

Watching the game enter the closing stages it always felt like if there was a loser there’d be fierce regrets. On the Haven side I was surprised by how little impact their captain Mark Collins had as an attacking threat. Instead, his efforts were focussed inside his own 65 in possession and he was crucial in their defensive masterclass as himself and Damien Cahalane showed all their experience in limiting space and minimising the concession of scoreable frees. Neither that duo nor Rory Maguire rampaged forward with their usual regularity, a sign of the structured approach they adopted. Having come out the wrong side of a few classics in recent years, it’s hard to blame them.

Stats can often tell only part of the story of a game but those supplied by Matthew Hurley of @gaelicstatsman on Twitter/X really emphasise the type of game that unfolded. Of the 36 kickouts in the match, only two Castlehaven ones were lost. Of the 28 turnovers in the match none were inside their team in possession’s own half of the field. Of the 19 frees conceded only three of those were in the opposition half. It was essentially an old-school training game of backs and forwards with pressure only being applied within one’s own half. Instead of six versus six with plenty of space it was usually 13 or 14 sitting back and facing a slow-moving possession at all costs attack.

One can admire the tactical setup, physical conditioning and the disciplined tackling but the fare overall unfortunately was again unenjoyable. The GAA president was present in Mayo for what seems an even less enjoyable game of football. The Premier Intermediate final was a classic as Cill na Martra edged out an unlucky Bantry side which proves that football can still be a great watch. However, at the top level of club and inter-county football the level of tactical conservatism and defensive discipline means the clamour for rule change will only intensify.

As a championship the Premier Senior football failed to ever ignite with the Haven’s quarter-final and semi-final victories over Ballincollig and St Finbarr's the only games of real competitive attacking football in the knockout stages. Ballincollig had the Haven on the ropes late in the quarter final in Enniskeane before Michael Hurley produced a wonder score, it was fitting that he had the final say of the championship too. Their sights will now turn to a tilt at Munster, their season could run into 2024 yet.

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