Mark Ellis: We all have to put our hands up and say we struggled to get to grips with Waterford
Friday Interview: Mark Ellis
Published 05/06/2015 | 02:30
The milestone of Mark Ellis making a Cork hurling team is so significant that it has even made it into verse. On Millstreet's community website there's an ode to the first hurler from the town to feature at that level.
It means that much. Tucked away close to the Kerry border in the north west of the county, the town was renowned as a football stronghold, the presence of John Coleman, Denny Long, Connie Hartnett and Humphrey Kelleher on the 1973 All-Ireland winning team giving them equal representation with the great Nemo Rangers who were just beginning to dominate at that time.
Hurling wasn't even distant cousin - it felt like there was no blood-line at all in that part of the world.
But renewed efforts to promote the game in the Duhallow division have brought change.
Kanturk's rise initially propelled Anthony Nash and Lorcan McLoughlin on to the team and Aidan Walsh has followed, leaving the area's more established game behind him at inter-county level.
Ellis made it a quartet from Duhallow on last year's Munster Championship-winning team, a remarkable statistic in the context of that figure being one more than the combined forces of the three traditional city giants - Glen Rovers, St Finbarr's and Blackrock, through Stephen McDonnell, Patrick Horgan and Damien Cahalane - could manage.
For some in Cork it's a measure of hurling's expansion in a pocket of the county where the game never prospered; for others with a more traditionalist view it's a worrying development.
But few can dispute that at 6ft4ins, Ellis offers a presence at centre-back that Cork had been missing since Ronan Curran's retirement.
While others rotated in different defensive positions last year depending on the match-ups required, Cork sought to root Ellis to the No 6 position and it worked, especially for the Munster Championship.
Ellis' love of hurling may have come from his links with Clare as much as anything else. His mother is from Tulla and, growing up, Jamesie O'Connor and Seanie McMahon were idolised every bit as much as Sean Og O hAilpin or Curran.
"I would have followed that Clare team of the '90s, in '97 when they won the All-Ireland and I would have followed them in all their games in '98," he recalls.
But his sense of Cork hurling lore is strong too and that's why winning a Munster title in the last major Championship game in Pairc Ui Chaoimh before they tore down the walls was deemed a necessity.
John Coleman had told him he had played in the opening match there for the Cork footballers against Kerry in 1976 and Ellis saw a symmetry in being able to close the chapter with a Millstreet hue 38 years later.
"We owed the Cork hurling public a win, they hadn't had a win in a long time. It meant a lot. Everyone running onto the field at the end, it is something will stay with me a long time," he reflects.
"People from the club and my family coming up to me, it's nice to be involved and play a role in that.
"It meant an awful lot more maybe to Cork than to Limerick and that's what got us over the line on the day. It was very important for the team to get some silverware. When you finish your hurling days you need to have trophies and medals to show for it.
"When you're in finals you need to win them and that's what was disappointing about the League final, that we just didn't perform."
Ellis grew up on a diet of great Cork-Waterford rivalry in the 2000s and in many respects those games have inspired this generation.
"It was hard not to love Dan Shanahan and Ken McGrath and these fellas. You had equal admiration for them," he reflects.
"A lot of the lads on the panel my age, it's why they fell in love with the game. Every game had its own story and it's up to the next generation to live up to it now.
"I loved the way Ronan Curran could block any ball, the way Dan Shanahan had no fear, (John) Mullane the same. They'd take anyone on and go for goals. That fearlessness on the field was something you aspired to."
Ellis comes into Sunday's Munster semi-final still uncertain about his fitness, having injured a hamstring in the last group game against Tipperary that subsequently forced him out of the games against Wexford and Dublin, before he returned against Waterford for the League final.
He acknowledges how much he was off-colour that day and accepts that defence is the critical area for improvement this weekend.
"I probably wasn't as match fit as I should have been. You lose a bit of match sharpness and maybe that affected me. I hadn't played in four weeks I didn't perform to my potential," he says.
Ellis sensed too that Cork may have switched off somewhat in defence when Waterford set different terms of engagement.
"The last day we gave away a lot of frees. Maurice Shanahan was up front on his own for a lot of the game and we gave them an easy outlet at times by being a bit lazy in the tackle. That is something we can definitely address.
"We shipped a lot of scores but we scored a lot too. I wouldn't say it is affecting us too much but, ultimately, we'll be judged on Championship and if that means playing different backs in different positions just to see how they fare out, so be it."
"Waterford play a different game to a lot of other teams and we struggled to adapt.
"We all must put our hands up and say that we just struggled to get to grips with it. With the game they play we were a bit naïve.
"Obviously it's fresh in our mind and we are all eager to go out and set things right.
"The League final, regardless of the result of the Championship game, whether we won by 10 or lost by 10, we were going to view it differently.
"Championship is what it's about and we will learn from the last day, but we won't let emotion get ahead of us."