Kevin Egan previews this Sunday's Offaly SFC final as champions Rhode look for their third title in a row, while Ferbane bid for their first since 1994.
As last Sunday proved, form and rational analysis can only take you so far when it comes to previewing games. It was hard to find a pundit anywhere who felt in advance that Coolderry had the raw material to outgun Kilcormac-Killoughey, and yet they did so in style. Their fitness and strength was superb and there was a real sense that if the sides kept hurling until midnight last Sunday, K-K would have struggled to reel in Joachim Kelly’s side.
Too many key men on the side of the 2017 champions just didn’t show up on the day, and while “hunger” often gets cited as a key factor in games where two teams went at it and one team came out on top, a review of this game would suggest that Coolderry had a massive edge in that regard.
Rewatching the game would quickly reveal instances of K-K players giving up on tackles that little bit quicker; it would show some of their men not working hard enough to put pressure on Coolderry ball-strikers, or players in possession staying isolated without support a second or two longer than they should have.
If this Sunday’s football final plays out like that, where one side plays with more vigour and intensity than the other, then all other factors will cease to be relevant. However Rhode have proven time and again that their will to rack up county titles in bottomless, and if there was ever going to be any complacency in their game, that would have shown up long before now. Similarly, Ferbane are trying to win their first county title in 24 years, they’ve arrived at this stage before and failed to put their best foot forward, and they play a high-intensity brand of football at the best of times. There is no evidence to suggest that either side will fail to show up, which leads us back to three key battle grounds that are likely to provide the key to this game.
The potential permutations here are numerous. Oisín Kelly has started in this sector previously but he tends to do his best work coming on to the ball from the half-forward area, while it would be a surprise if Rhode didn’t have a specific plan to negate his influence. Alan McNamee isn’t able to cover the same amount of ground as might have been the case before, but he still handles a significant amount of ball in games. Moreover, his ability to pick out the right pass in a split second enables Rhode to get their attacking play going quickly, which is invariably crucial. What Ferbane cannot do is to allow the Rhode veteran to play a quarter-back style game as a free man around his own half-back line. They need to find a way to give him something to do defensively – to mark him with someone who will ask questions of him off the ball.
Conor McNamee will cover ground up and down, he will get on the end of moves and try to convert scores, and he will take covering – he’s not the most glamorous player of the likely quartet in this sector, but he could easily be the most effective. Kyle Higgins has all the talent and athleticism needed to be a significant player at club level and possibly a county footballer as well, but areas like decision making on the ball need some work. If he can put in a big shift on Sunday and move his game up to the next level, as he has threatened to do for some time, that will be a huge boost to Ferbane’s cause.
Long before the dreaded phrase “transition” had become so ubiquitous in Gaelic football, Rhode had mastered the art of moving the ball from defence to attack at pace. How often have we seen their whole team acting in unison as they used the full width of the pitch, stretching the opposition while still maintaining direct forward momentum. A missed tackle anywhere on the field will get punished, as their ability to use the extra man through the lines is simply superb.
Consequently, Ferbane need to ensure that from the second possession is conceded, they need to collectively spring into action. Those closest to the ball need to get in meaningful contact, and while forcing a spillage is ideal, getting the player in possession to go back towards his own goal is good enough. That will give the rest of the team enough time to get the scoring zone fully covered, and then they can gradually push out in a controlled fashion.
Conversely, Rhode will commit men to the attack, but they are always very careful to ensure that they don’t get caught out with too many ahead of the ball – consequently they tend not to concede too many breakaway scores themselves. What was encouraging to see from a Ferbane perspective in the semi-final was the way corner-forwards Cian Johnson and Ronan McGuire worked hard for what could be described as less-than-ideal deliveries. If they can offer an outlet, that will force Rhode to keep extra men back, which will in turn make it easier for Ferbane to carry the ball forward themselves.
This is where both management teams will earn their corn on Sunday. There are dangerous forwards on both sides, and it’s unrealistic to expect that either side’s defence will lock down every opposition threat. If the kickout battle starts to go a certain way, if players struggle to perform to expectations either through big day nerves or simply a bad day at the wrong time, acting quickly and decisively will be crucial. Neither side is likely to have a massive array of options on the bench, but those that are available to be called upon must have a positive impact.
For players, a county final can fly by and it’s not usually an option to give a struggling footballer time to play their way into the game – the win can be out of reach by the time that happens. The temptation to call up one or two in-form intermediates will be there for Ferbane, while for Rhode, players like Gareth McNamee, Shane Lowry and Dylan Kavanagh have been on the periphery all year – one or two of those will need to deliver a strong showing on Sunday or the Village could find the going tough in the closing stages.
If this Ferbane team was playing the Rhode side of even as little as four or five years ago, they’d probably find them a bit too hot to handle just yet. Still, it can’t be denied that Rhode have come back towards the pack a little bit, while Ferbane should improve for each big game that they get under their belts.
Nonetheless, it’s one thing to say that Rhode are slipping, it’s another thing to say that they are ripe to be overtaken. Players like Eoin Rigney, Niall Darby and Anton Sullivan are still very much at the peak of their powers, and there is a wide spread of scoring in this Rhode team. Niall McNamee is unlikely to score four or five times from play in a game of this magnitude, but that shouldn’t be necessary. There will come a day in the next few years when Rhode are no longer the best team in Offaly, but there is no evidence to suggest that day is upon us. Rhode to win by four points.