Friday 20 October 2017

Brendan Cummins: Donal Óg Cusack a spark behind Rebel rise from zeroes to heroes

Clare selector Donal Óg Cusack before the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final match between Clare and Cork at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Co Tipperary. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Clare selector Donal Óg Cusack before the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final match between Clare and Cork at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Co Tipperary. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Clare’s Shane O’Donnell is fouled for a penalty by Cork duo Mark Coleman (left) and Damien Cahalane. Photo: PIARAS Ó MÍDHEACH/SPORTSFILE

Brendan Cummins

When Tipperary were decimating Cork's sweeper system in Thurles last year, few would have believed that the Rebels would end up on the steps of the New Stand at Semple Stadium, as 2017 Munster hurling champions.

They've put away Tipp, Waterford and Clare - and manager Kieran Kingston deserves huge credit.

He has empowered his players to make winning decisions on the field, by giving them a framework within which they can operate. It's a framework that suits their talents, and when a player believes in a process, he'll do everything he can to ensure that the process works.

So, what were the key components behind this success?

No 1: restarts. Donal Óg Cusack revolutionised hurling with his puck-outs and now his successor and former understudy, Anthony Nash, is following suit.

Cork bamboozled Clare in this facet of their play, and while the Banner were so busy trying to shut down Cork, they forgot how to play themselves.

Clare would have felt that Damien Cahalane was Cork's weakest defensive link in possession of the ball but he passed the test, again.

Cahalane was the launch-pad for many a successful attack and this was good management from Kingston, in preparing his full-back for the challenges that lay ahead.

Fluidity of movement is another of Cork's central tenets.

They're constantly in motion, with forwards making 'break and bunch' runs to the tramlines, knowing that these runs will be rewarded with quality service.

That fuels the belief structure, and kills the opposition every time the tactic is implemented, but none of this happens by accident.

These players are well-drilled, well coached and now that they know what they're doing, they're buying into the system.

With every successful team, you also need a sprinkle of youth and enthusiasm.

When Tipp won the All-Ireland in 2010, we had players like that. Noel McGrath, Gearóid Ryan, Patrick 'Bonner' Maher - all young men who came into our panel with a fearless attitude, hurling off the cuff, expressing themselves and seeing no limits to what could be achieved.

In Darragh Fitzgibbon and Mark Coleman, Cork have players of this ilk.

Coleman, at wing-back, is not only a scoring defender, but he also makes good decisions when bringing team-mates into the game.

You and I may watch him pinging a sideline cut over the bar in a Munster final and declare it as 'genius' but for Coleman, that's the result of sheer hard work and practice.

How many times has he done that at training, night after night and often when everyone else has gone home?

Fitzgibbon, at midfield, is still a young man and not yet fully developed.

But he makes the most of every sinew in his body, and that was epitomised by a run in the first half to support Christopher Joyce, which resulted in a free.

A 40-yard burst to help out a team-mate, and that brings me on to another of Cork's key characteristics: that they are just that, team-mates.

The culture here is that nobody is isolated, and you do everything you can to make the guy beside you look good.

That's a winning culture and we've seen it in full effect in their last three games.

Another key point. Three years ago, I sat in an RTÉ studio alongside Donal Óg when he spoke about the demise of Cork hurling.

His comments provoked a huge reaction, and he was also highly critical when they lost to Galway in the 2015 All-Ireland quarter-final.

Sometimes, somebody has to say it out loud when there's a problem, and perhaps Donal Óg and others provided the wake-up call that was needed.

It's taken a few years but Donal Óg saw at first hand yesterday what this Cork machine is capable of, and he was on the other side of the fence as Clare coach.

Contrary to the common belief back then, there was a Cork hurling resurgence bubbling under the surface.

Their underage teams are flourishing and their minors were also crowned Munster champions yesterday.

The grassroots of Cork hurling are angry and it's possible that Donal Óg's comments stirred this Rebel rising.

They've been hoovering up titles at U-14, U-16 and now minor, but it's all well and good doing that but you need your flagship team, the seniors, to lead the way and provide the role models.

Your senior team must operate with structure and discipline and what I saw from Cork yesterday was both of those. No man is alone in this set-up.

The Cork supporters are back in their droves. Build it, it seems, and they will come.

In Force

The first signs of it were seen in May when they travelled in force to Thurles for the Tipp game. They saw something in this team that the wider hurling community did not.

With their backs against the wall in the second half yesterday, Alan Cadogan flashed over a score and jumped.

In that moment, we saw what keen-eyed Cork supporters had, rejuvenated players playing with anger.

Six starters yesterday lined out in the 2013 All-Ireland final replay against Clare - Nash, Joyce, Stephen McDonnell, Seamus Harnedy, Conor Lehane and Patrick Horgan. They're the leaders now, the guys Kingston picked out to show the way.

They wake up this morning as Munster champions, and who knows what might come next?

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