Cork need to raise physical bar and eradicate embarrassing defensive frailties
Published 19/05/2016 | 02:30
It may be utterly repugnant to Leeside hurling constitutions but the perception has grown over the past 12 months that Cork are not only easy to figure out but have also become a soft touch physically.
Their high concession rate - an average of 1-24 in their last 12 competitive games - provides substantial evidence on the charge that their security system has been a malfunctioning mess while their physical approach hasn't been nearly as forceful as many of their more successful rivals.
That applied individually and collectively so that when one defender was beaten, gaps opened up at an alarming rate. It led to chaos on quite a few occasions.
Jonathan's Glynn goal in the first minute of last year's All-Ireland quarter-final stands as an embarrassing monument to Cork's defensive frailties as he galloped clear of his pursuers, flicked the ball over Mark Ellis' head before lashing it past Anthony Nash.
That he was allowed to skip in from near the sideline without any Cork defender getting in a stiff challenge was in marked contrast to the channel-clogging routines that most other teams deploy.
Suffice to say, Glynn and his fellow Galway forwards found life a whole lot less comfortable against Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final.
Glynn's goal left Cork facing a challenge which proved well beyond them and, by the end, they had conceded 2-28, leaving their championship ambitions in ruins.
Indeed, if Galway, who shot 23 wides, scored even half of them, Cork would have been hit for an embarrassing 2-40.
A change of management - Kieran Kingston replaced Jimmy Barry-Murphy as the main man - brought no discernible change on the defensive front in this year's Allianz League.
Cork lost all five 1A games before surviving in the top flight by beating Galway in a relegation play-off.
Even then, they conceded 0-25, leaving them with a league average of 28.3 points, which was even worse than last year.
So while they survived in 1A, helped enormously by Galway's even greater defensive lapses, it didn't augur well for Cork's championship prospects, starting against Tipperary in Thurles on Sunday.
Observers were surprised that there had been no hardening in the Cork defence as Diarmuid O'Sullivan, one of the toughest defenders of his generation, is a selector this year.
'The Rock' hinted at a change of emphasis in early February when he revealed that he was taking an active part in training "not because I want to make a comeback but I'm trying to teach them the dark arts which have kind of got lost on a few of them".
There was no great transformation during the league but by the time Cork line up against Tipperary, they will have had almost two months to work on an aspect of their game which needs to be significantly better if they are to make progress.
Indeed, clear signs of a new approach emerged in an outing against Clare to mark the opening of the Cloyne Complex on April 23, which developed into a far feistier affair than is normally the case in challenge games.
Clare, who fielded a largely second-string team as the main group were preparing for the league final eight days later, quickly discovered that there was nothing friendly about Cork on this particular occasion.
Indeed, the Banner boys were stunned by the ferocity of Cork's approach in a game which had several flashpoints.
David Fitzgerald (Clare) and Christopher Joyce (Cork) were sent off, while Tipperary referee Fergal Horgan also flashed several yellow cards.
Cork won by 1-26 to 1-13, which pleased them greatly, even if the opposition was well below full-strength.
The more significant aspect centred on the harder brand of hurling produced by Cork in what was surely an indication of what to expect from them in the championship.
There's also likely to be some concession to the modern trend of packing the middle third.
And while that may reduce Cork's scoring power, they will see it as a risk worth taking after discovering that their high-yield, high-concession approach last year ended up in defeat more often than not.
Cork scored some very high totals, only to find that they weren't enough because of their weaknesses at the other end.
They will be acutely aware of their poor record defensive record against Tipperary in their last two clashes, having conceded 2-27 in this year's league and 2-28 in 2015.
Clare were very impressed with Cork's defensive solidity last month and while challenge games are not a reliable guide, it showed that Kingston and Co were planning for different approach this summer. That was always likely to be the case and is certain to result in far greater physicality by Cork on Sunday as they try to upset the odds against the second favourites for the All-Ireland title.