Rebels looking to make up for Lost Years
As Cork face the prospect of a relegation final, Christy O'Connor looks at the struggles the county's hurlers have faced at all levels in recent seasons
Half an hour into the Cork-Dublin league game, Cian O'Callaghan drove a long ball down the heart of the Dublin attack. Bill Cooper, who was playing as a sweeper, won it and launched it straight back to an unmarked Oisin Gough.
Cork had just been hit with an unanswered 3-6 in 22 minutes. They trailed by 12 points. Cork needed to come out and chase the game but they persisted with their defensive formation. And still conceded close to a cricket score.
The style was completely at odds with Cork's identity but Cork have been caught in a kind of twilight zone in recent seasons. When they were the only top team playing orthodox hurling, they were heavily criticised for being too open at the back, and too predictable up front.
They did tweak their style for last year's qualifiers against Wexford and Clare but the hammering from Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final - when conceding 2-28 - forced Cork to think again. Galway physically bullied them all over the field. Addressing that reality was Cork's starting point for 2016.
"We have to get physically stronger," said Patrick Horgan last December. "If you look at the way Kilkenny tackle and hit, that wears teams out. If you go down the line of just being a lovely, skilful team, one of the days you're going to get blown away."
Nobody could quantify the effect Jimmy Barry-Murphy had on the team but Cork were dictated to too often, tactically and physically. JBM created a side in his own image, a team which reflected his outlook, and he picked talented ball players to carry out that positive, attacking philosophy.
Kieran Kingston wanted to retain that tradition but making the team stronger was an immediate priority. Cork have placed more emphasis on strength and conditioning and gym work than any other Cork team had in the past. They were in the gym for an hour before some hurling sessions.
Cork also knew they have to get meaner. At the Rebel Óg (Underage Academy) annual awards banquet in February, selector Diarmuid O'Sullivan spoke about taking an active part in training with the players. "I'm trying," said O'Sullivan, "to teach them the dark arts which have kind of got lost on a few of them."
O'Sullivan was such an institution that that philosophy of playing hard and on the edge was always ingrained in his psyche. The combined force of Pat Hartnett, another enforcer in his playing days, and O'Sullivan's personalities was expected to bring another hardened edge to Cork this season.
Cork's opening three games still showed how difficult it was to try and import a meaner attitude onto a group that never had that make-up in their DNA. Apart from the last 14 minutes against Waterford, Cork were physically and mentally dominated against Galway, Waterford and Dublin.
Cork finally showed a meaner edge last Saturday against Kilkenny. Tactically, they were better set up. Seamus Harnedy played at the top of the attacking diamond in an isolated target-man role. Luke O'Farrell played as a fourth half-forward while Patrick Horgan played just behind that line, which allowed Cork to spray ball either side of Harnedy.
Cork didn't set up with a sweeper but Chris Joyce and Paul Haughney filled that role at varying stages as they tried to double-team TJ Reid. Cork ran at Kilkenny in waves but Cork also brought the fight and desire they were so bereft of against Dublin.
In mathematical terms for Cork, their game against Tipp tomorrow is a dead-rubber but the question remains: what will they do next?
From day one, Cork appeared to have no interest in the league. Management only seem concerned with being right for Tipperary in May. Yet this spring campaign was still supposedly all about building confidence and developing leaders. After Round 3, their confidence was on the floor. New leaders looked thin on the ground.
After finally delivering something against Kilkenny, does Kieran Kingston experiment again now? If Cork's form drops again, will a decent performance in a relegation final - even a win - undo all the damage that has already been done? Cork reached the All-Ireland final after being relegated in 2013 but at least they won two regular league games that spring. That target is unreachable now.
Cork's different approach suggests they may be just sticking to the plan. Was their failure to push forward against Dublin when trailing so heavily another sign that Cork are trying to become more tactically fluid and comfortable with different systems?
Cork though, are still searching for their true identity. Prior to the Kilkenny game, they were still relying on individual brilliance for scores as opposed to having a set game-plan. It took JBM the final months of his four-year term to play a less conventional attacking game but how far do Cork go now?
The philosophy of Frank Flannery, a Cork selector, was obvious with Oulart-The Ballagh last season but some of the Cork management would probably prefer a more conventional approach. The set-up against Kilkenny, though, showed that Cork need to work off a more modern template for the modern game. It's also possible they may about to move on without some of their older players, some of whom have had their confidence irreparably damaged.
Kingston decided to go with the vast majority of last year's crew but, through watching his son Shane (one of the best young players in the country), Kingston would be fully aware of the talented crop of 18-19-year-olds around Cork. Kingston, though, clearly wants to establish the framework first before attempting to promote any of those players.
One of the greatest tributes to JBM and his management team was how they progressively unearthed so many new players from such a dearth of underage success. Cork's search for an All-Ireland minor title still extends back to 2001. The wait at U-21 stretches back to 1998.
In that vacuum, the role of UCC and CIT in the Fitzgibbon Cup has had a major influence in the development of Cork hurling at senior level, especially in bridging the gap from underage to senior. UCC and CIT provided a missing gateway for elite young Cork players but the county have finally got their development squads up and running to a similar level to those of other counties.
Cork still have problems, especially in the city, but progress is being made, especially at schools level. Four Cork Colleges - Hamilton High School Bandon, Rochestown College, Pobalscoil Na Tríonóide and Gaelcoláiste Mhuire AG - reached the 2015 Dr Harty Cup quarter-finals. Rochestown and two other Cork schools - St Colman's Fermoy, and Christian Brothers Cork (a rugby institution) - made the last eight of the 2016 Harty Cup.
Last August, Cork won all seven inter-county underage hurling tournaments. It showcased a new stream of young talent but Cork can't just expect to translate that potential into success like they so routinely did in the past.
"It was history (winning the seven underage titles) created," said Diarmuid O'Sullivan in February. "But unfortunately, because we are that bit further behind, we need to have a Saturday like that in August every year for the next five, six years."
Every other top county have quality development squads and academies in place. Just as importantly, they have the confidence and belief that Cork always had, and which their young players have struggled so hard to regain.
That was completely evident last year when Cork probably had the most talented minor team in the country. In control and ahead 0-13 to 0-11 down the home straight of the Munster semi-final against Limerick, Cork had enough possession to win by six or seven points. They squandered the opportunity and Limerick nailed them on the line.
In the past, Cork would have won that game pulling up but those days are gone. The old Cork aura has been gradually stripped back, layer by layer. And trying to recreate that aura, and rediscover that unique Cork identity, has become a difficult and relentless pursuit.