Henry Shefflin: Hard to see any way back for the Rebels and Dubs
Qualifiers look a perilous route for two teams whose confidence took a terrible battering last weekend
Published 13/06/2015 | 14:00
'Cork don't look like they believe they can win this!'
That's a line I scribbled in my notepad while sitting in the Kinnane Stand press-box maybe 50 minutes into last Sunday's Munster semi-final. And it's pretty damning. With 20 minutes still to go and Waterford just five points up, I just couldn't see any belief in Cork that they'd be able to rescue the situation.
Unless they turn things around pretty dramatically, it's hard to see them going much further in this Championship. They just looked a team that ran out of ideas on Sunday, a team that became resigned to the fact that they couldn't break Waterford's system down.
I find it very hard to see where a team can go from there. Numbers seven, eight and nine - Cormac Murphy, Daniel Kearney and Bill Cooper - were all taken off and Brian Murphy, who was only back in the panel two weeks, was probably one of their better performers.
I suspect they need two things now. Firstly, they need a reaction. Secondly, they probably need a relatively kind draw. But Jimmy Barry-Murphy must be scratching his head, trying to figure out where this team is going.
To me, they lacked leadership on the field and, to that end, Seamus Harnedy was a loss even though his direct replacement - Pa Cronin - was easily the best of the Cork forwards, scoring 0-5 from play.
Harnedy has that intrinsic toughness about him, that ability to win hard ball and translate it into scores. I think Cork could do with one or two more hurlers like him.
They looked to me like a team very low on confidence last Sunday.
We expected backlash from them after the National League final and, to be fair, we got it, but only for 20 minutes. I was amazed by that.
Throughout my career, you would always be wary of Cork teams, even if you were 10 or 12 points to the good against them. Why? Because of that inner belief you always associated with the Cork jersey.
That's just not there at the moment. Waterford's two goals in three minutes completely deflated them and that, again, casts a harsh light on Cork's struggles to get goals of their own.
The funny thing is that they always play three forwards inside. You're looking on and the likes of Pa Cronin or Bill Cooper or Conor Lehane are well out the field while, the three lads are still stuck rigidly inside.
As a corner-forward, I know you're brought up being told to stay inside the '21', keep close to goal. But Cork could have done with one of the three coming out the field, just to open up a bit of space even if it meant sacrificing their own game.
I know Tadhg de Burca was hanging back around the 30-metre line, but I think Cork could have done with bringing out someone to play in front of him.
To be fair to Waterford, the runs they were making from midfield and half-forward proved a massive factor. Every one of them was busting a gut to get the break off Maurice Shanahan and, eight times out of 10, they were there before the Cork players arrived. That was probably the key difference on the day.
I couldn't be more impressed by Waterford just now. I reckoned it would be difficult for them to sustain a level of performance that they've carried, not simply through the League final, but through the quarter-final and semi-final too.
But, if anything, Waterford were even better last weekend than they were in the League final.
That's a great testament to their team and management.
I was hugely impressed by Galway too in their replay defeat of Dublin. My suspicion that they had more scope to improve came to fruition. They looked hungrier and, certainly, more confident than they had the first day. And that full-forward line of Cathal Mannion, Joe Canning and Jason Flynn just ripped the Dubs apart.
They're a big, pacey threat now but the thing that stands out above everything for me is their skill levels. All three can virtually make the ball talk. You look at Flynn flicking the ball over his head the last day to set up a score and it was the image of gifted player completely comfortable in his skin.
Very skilful players like, say, the Patrick Horgans, Seamus Callanans or Richie Hogans, will always hurt you if you give them space.
And that was Dublin's main problem in Tullamore - they simply gave the Galway forwards far too much room. With the gift of hindsight, people are now saying they should have brought back an extra man, but they hadn't done that in any game so far this year, so it was never really going to be the way they set up last Saturday.
That said, with the way the scoreboard was ticking over after just five minutes, it probably should have been an option taken then. But I suspect Dublin's management were probably a little shell-shocked by just how quickly the game blew up in their faces.
That issue of space is the key to most things in hurling now. I mean look at how Horgan struggled against Noel Connors in Thurles. Connors just seems to have it over the Corkman at the minute, which can happen. In my earlier career, I used to struggle a bit against Wexford's Declan Ruth.
I remember getting seven points from play against Brian Whelahan in the Leinster semi-final of 02 and being written up as the bee's knees, then struggling to get a single one against Ruth the next day.
A psychology can creep into it if you play against the same player a number of times. Maybe the forward can become a little wary and I'm sure Horgan is trying to figure out what it is that Connors is doing that's making his life so difficult.
But that can change. Like I probably had the better of things against Declan when he was moved to full-back by Wexford, so Horgan needs to believe that there'll be a good day for him against Waterford in the future.
The strange thing for Dublin is that had they lost the first game to Galway, they'd have come away feeling okay about themselves. But the replay seemed to go off like a bomb in their heads.
It was just a terribly flat Dublin performance that had them in defensive trouble from the off. Peter Kelly was a massive loss at full-back and Paul Schutte didn't maybe look as fit as he needed to be.
No more than Cork, they'll be looking to get a win now, any win, in the qualifiers. But the worry must be that they could be pitched in against Clare, Cork or the losers of Limerick and Tipperary. If so, it's going to be very difficult for Dublin.
Certainly, the more games we see in this Championship, the more the message gets re-emphasised that the battle for Liam MacCarthy looks wide open.
Laois were hugely impressive against Offaly and I suspect the row beforehand maybe took a little pressure off them going into that game. The development of Laois hurling is one of the most progressive stories in the GAA just now. It seems only like yesterday (2011) that Cork put 10 goals past them in an All-Ireland qualifier.
What a fall from grace that was?
But they've been doing well in the last couple of years and to score 29 points last Sunday was remarkable. Laois have a great ability to score from 65 to 70 yards as they have shown more than once against Galway.
It's a real testament to 'Cheddar' Plunkett's management skills that he's really pulled everyone together, even if things seemed to fall apart there for a few days.
It seems to me that all the best players in Laois are now wearing the county jersey, which hasn't always been the case.
I know from personal experience of hurling against Laois clubs that there's plenty of talent in the county. Take that inter-club rivalry out of the equation and they can be a serious outfit.
This has probably been the first week it's really hit home personally that I'm missing going in to train with Kilkenny. I believe they performed very well in a recent challenge against Limerick, albeit Limerick didn't have their strongest team out that night.
Wexford seemed to be flying against Westmeath last weekend. That result sets it up nicely for a great championship evening when they come to Nowlan Park for a massive occasion against the All-Ireland champions tomorrow week.
Finally, I'd like to congratulate Kerry, Roscommon and Fermanagh on their victories in the Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher Cup final last weekend.