Wednesday 23 August 2017

Rebel defence getting to the source of their leaks

Waterford’s Patrick Curran finds himself surrounded by Cork players, from left, Lorcan McLoughlin, Stephen McDonnell, Mark Coleman, Damian Cahalane, Colm Spillane, Bill Cooper and Mark Ellis as the Rebels showed their focus on defence at Walsh Park on Sunday. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Waterford’s Patrick Curran finds himself surrounded by Cork players, from left, Lorcan McLoughlin, Stephen McDonnell, Mark Coleman, Damian Cahalane, Colm Spillane, Bill Cooper and Mark Ellis as the Rebels showed their focus on defence at Walsh Park on Sunday. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

This time last year the Cork hurling defence was a mess. When the group stages of the 2016 Allianz Division 1 campaign concluded on the weekend after St Patrick's Day, the Rebels propped up the table without so much as a point to savour.

No team in the division, in fact no team in any of the divisions below them, had shipped as much in any comparable five-game programme.

The concession of 9-118 was five points more than the 9-113 coughed up by Laois in Division 1B or even Donegal's 10-112 in 2B.

Cork's cumulative defensive performance over the five games was the poorest, in terms of scores conceded, since the divisions were redrawn for the 2012 campaign - an average of 29 points per game, four points more per game than Clare's 9-98 concession in 2015.

They survived though with a spirited relegation play-off win over Galway and managed to improve their concession rate considerably in three subsequent Championship games, bringing it down to just under 24 points per game.

Read more: Cork bounce back into contention with resounding win over Waterford

Conor Lehane in action for Cork. Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Conor Lehane in action for Cork. Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

That improved defensive effort has been further embellished in the current campaign, the 4-65 scored cumulatively by Clare, Dublin, Kilkenny and Waterford giving them the second best defensive record behind Tipperary at an average of just over 19 points per game.

Consistency in selection, especially in defence, has been evident across all four games, as has an approach that reminded Waterford manager Derek McGrath of how they themselves were setting up in the previous two campaigns.

Michael Cahalane, who was back in inter-county action with Cork for the first time since being advised to quit the game because of a heart condition two years ago, was the 27th Cork player to get game-time in the League, but change has been minimal at the back.

Christopher Joyce, Mark Ellis and Mark Coleman have started every game across the half-back line, and Colm Spillane has been an ever-present at left corner-back.

David Griffin started the first two games before Damien Cahalane stepped back in, while Killian Burke was only ousted the last day against Waterford by Stephen McDonnell.

Cork brought a greater physical edge to their play in Walsh Park, with Conor Lehane, who has taken over from Patrick Horgan as free-taker, stressing the importance of the game in the context of the pressure they were under.

"This was really important, especially last year with the League the way it went," said Lehane. "And it was an important game to respond to. When you are under pressure, these are the main games to respond to, to show we can do that.

Encouraging

"Obviously, the first League game was important, just to get a win under the belt (against Clare) but when the stuff hits the fan, and you are able to respond to that and get a win, that is much more encouraging and that is when you get more confidence."

Lehane said Cork really focused in on delivering a big second-half performance against Waterford, in light of how they faded away against Kilkenny.

"We tried to maintain our attitude for the second half; we did that for the first half against Kilkenny only and knew we had to do it again this time for the whole game, particularly with the wind being so strong," he said.

"We know we have the hurling, the skills, and the fitness will always come with training, but mentality is huge against teams which have done well. The second half was huge, we were really aware of it and zoned in on it."

"Waterford are so well organised as a team, they play so well together that you have to crowd them, and sometimes that works out.

"Not being disrespectful but it is the league, there's a long year ahead yet."

The performances of Shane Kingston, Luke Meade, Coleman and now Michael Cahalane have already made this a progressive League for the Rebels, whose management have taken to bold decision to leave top scorer Horgan on the bench in the wake of an indifferent display against Dublin.

The failure to produce successful underage teams has been a consistent sticking point for Cork hurling but the quality of individual is high and getting Cahalane back on the field, after his challenges, is potentially a major boost. Lehane says the team feels the impetus of that youth.

"Maybe we didn't have that competition in the last few years, but it is certainly keeping everyone on their toes," he said.

Irish Independent

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