Need for success the driving force in novel final
With so much for both sides to prove, today's final is not a phoney war
Today's Allianz League final may not have the cutting edge of championship hurling, but we doubt it will descend into the phoney war some are predicting - even if the counties meet again on June 7.
It's the first time since 1998 that Cork and Waterford meet in a league decider and it promises to be a fascinating encounter between a side that stacks its defence and one that scores freely.
Following last year's Munster title, today's showpiece offers Cork another piece of silverware, another platform to show their championship credentials. On the other hand, unbeaten Waterford have gone from frustrating to formidable in the space of just 12 months.
Cork have a chance to see Waterford's refined defensive structure at first hand. It has worked a treat so far. Against Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds, when they looked like letting the game slip from their grasp, they could have gone gung-ho in pursuit of that match, but instead held their nerve - and the solid ring of steel around their defence - as they managed to claw their way back and earn a draw.
Now they will meet a team that boasts a ruthless free-taker in Patrick Horgan, an almost unmarkable forward in Seamus Harnedy and Conor Lehane, who can flick over points for fun. When Waterford tire - and while it doesn't happen that often, it might today - Paudie O'Sullivan will be sprung from the bench to test them again.
If Waterford's system fails this afternoon, will they change for the championship? That would be a seismic step but it has to be considered if they ship a heavy defeat.
We can't see Cork tweaking much, no matter what happens in Thurles, but will they continue to depend on their forwards to get out of trouble?
And what happens if their attack is starved of space? For that's what will happen this afternoon. Waterford will retreat and harass their half-forwards and midfielders. They work hard and are disciplined too. It will be fascinating to see how the respective game-plans work, especially with June 7 in mind.
Waterford have shown an edge thus far and the one thing that must be shown by Cork today is a ruthless streak. Until recently it had been said that Jimmy Barry Murphy's men don't finish off games when they are on top, though anyone looking at their comeback against Dublin would argue that there's lot of fight within that team.
"A ruthless streak is something that we have to develop in our game," Lorcan McLoughlin says. "If you look back over the last few years, Kilkenny and Tipperary are the top teams. They have it. But we certainly have the firepower to do it. As a unit, we have some of the best forwards in the country, but if we are to win these big games, we are going to have to score more goals. Lads like Patrick Horgan, Paudie O'Sullivan and Luke O'Farrell are capable of getting goals."
Apart from scoring more goals they must also tidy up in the full-back line, and need to play a bit more as a unit in that department.
They are also a little over-reliant on Patrick Horgan. Apart from him, and Harnedy, who has been in sparkling form, the team in general has not yet shown the support levels that one would expect. If they can improve there, and show more edge at the back, they can win a league title - and an All-Ireland.
"We have come in for some criticism and rightly so, but that goal (when Dublin's Dotsy O'Callaghan was allowed to saunter through the Cork defence) was more to do with a mindset, in that we weren't fully focused," McLoughlin says.
They get the chance to rectify that now.
Pauric Mahony last week hailed the impact of Derek McGrath on his development.
The Deise have qualified for just their eighth league final ever and go in search of their third title with a load of young players, many of whom McGrath coached at De La Salle College. With McGrath at the helm, De La Salle claimed back-to-back Harty and Croke Cups in 2007 and '08, with Mahony featuring in the latter campaign.
"Derek has had a massive impact on me," he says. "I was only 15 on that colleges team. For the quarter-final, he threw myself and Jake Dillon in at the deep end. It was him who gave us the opportunity. It was really since then I started to believe in myself.
"It's blending the two in nicely. There's a strong core group around 20-23, a lot of the lads would have hurled with each other and against each other at colleges level."
McGrath took colleges coaching to a new level - he brought the school on trips and to the UK to watch soccer games. He has already shown what he is about this year and he has the confidence to back himself.
This final is already a novelty, simply because Kilkenny are not there. Brian Cody's men have contested eight of the last 10 finals and this Cork-Waterford clash will be the first between two counties from the same province since Tipperary beat Clare 14 years back.
But what is most noteworthy is the fact that this is the first time in 18 seasons that a side from outside the top division has reached the league final.
At the start of the season Limerick or Wexford would have been most people's fancy to emerge from 1B but Waterford have shown massive improvement in 12 months. They will bring a huge crowd to Thurles, a venue that Cork supporters also love, so there should be plenty to enthuse about this afternoon.
The shoot-out between Patrick Horgan and Pauric Mahony will take top billing. Last time out it took Cork nearly 20 minutes to get a decent ball into Horgan, and it won't be any easier for the Glen man here.
Up against Waterford's compact defensive system, the prolific Horgan will have to figure out a way to get on the ball in a meaningful manner.
He scored half of Cork's tally against Dublin, while Mahony scored almost three-quarters of his side's tally against Tipperary in the respective semi-finals.
It means Mahony goes into today's game with 1-79 for the league to date, four points off Horgan's haul. Mahony is still only 22 but his robotic accuracy, from the placed ball especially, has ensured that Waterford's attack has functioned all spring. He practises visualisation, having been advised by former coach Nicky Cashin to picture the ball sailing over the bar before striking it.
"When you get a free, just visualise it over the bar before you hit the free. You can't be nervous hitting the free if it's already over the bar! That's one piece of advice I've always carried with me," he says. "As a free-taker you have to be very mentally strong. When it comes to the big frees in games you have to stick to your routine and just be mentally strong. If you are, you can't have any regrets at the end of it."
What methods Horgan uses obviously work too, setting us up for a fascinating individual battle.
Personal struggles and heroic comebacks are part of sport's great attraction and we have a fair number of those up for consideration at Semple Stadium.
Take Pauric Mahony's brother Philip, for instance. Almost a year ago Philip saw his season, at county level anyway, end after sustaining a double leg fracture and a dislocated ankle in a club game.
He had fully recovered by last October to captain Ballygunner to the county title and now his journey to full recuperation continues. He is a regular in the Waterford half-back line and has had no problems since last winter. His development has been staggered up until now as the year before his injury was spent in the US.
Another player who should see action today is Clashmore forward Brian O'Halloran, who was earmarked as one of the finest young players in the game five years ago, only to see his career interupted by injury. O'Halloran made his championship debut in 2010 but it's only now that he can look to build on that platform,.
"He's a good player and a lovely lad too," said manager Derek McGrath. "It helps when you are working with a fella who is such a nice man. He has been plagued with injuries and it's a lovely story to see him coming back."
With Cork, well each time Paudie O'Sullivan hits the field and makes the impact he does, it still beggars belief. O'Sullivan had a lengthy spell out of a Cork shirt after breaking his fibula and enduring subsequent complications. But he has been looking sharp since his return and a league medal to go with the Munster title of last season would be huge for the Cloyne man.
Big Game Preview
Cork v Waterford
It’s 2007 since Waterford last won the league title. They have tacked on two Munster titles and an All-Ireland minor since then. Much is expected of their under 21 side, and today their supporters can be optimistic about what lies ahead.
Cork are into their fourth year under Jimmy Barry Murphy, and it’s a decade since they won the Liam MacCarthy Cup. Last year, they came unstuck against Tipperary after sealing a provincial title. A National League crown today would fuel their tank to go all the way and peak in September.
They were under pressure against Dublin last time when they were 12 points down, but they showed heart to bounce back and reach today’s final. Having done it the hard way, there is hardly any chance they won’t go full pelt this afternoon, but Cork will come up against a resolute, organised defence.
Their midfielders and half-forwards won’t have much room to spray the ball around because the midfield and both half-back lines will be clogged up. If they can get Patrick Horgan on the ball enough, they will win.
Waterford will have to be mindful that Cork are content to take points on the run, from distance. They don’t always go hunting for goals. Until now, the Deise defence has been excellent, but today is a big challenge.
Both teams will want to win a national title, and there will be two young sides going at it hell for leather. We have a feeling the game could be way more open than expected, and in the likes of Colin Dunford, Pauric Mahony and Maurice Shanahan, Waterford can cut loose too.
Still, we feel Cork are a little further down the road in terms of development.
Cork: A Nash; S O’Neill, A Ryan, S McDonnell; L McLoughlin, M Ellis, C Murphy; D Kearney, A Walsh; B Cooper, S Harnedy, R O’Shea; A Cadogan, C Lehane, P Horgan.
Waterford: Not available
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