Tuesday 26 September 2017

Rebels' rise down to old values and new faces

Cork have gone from losing seven of nine matches in 2016 to being title contenders

Mark Coleman (pictured) and Colm Spillane have greatly reinforced the left side of the Cork defence. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Mark Coleman (pictured) and Colm Spillane have greatly reinforced the left side of the Cork defence. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

A year ago next weekend, Cork selector Pat Ryan made some startling admissions about the state of the county's hurling team.

They had lost to Wexford in an All-Ireland qualifier, ending a dreary season, during which they had won only two of nine league and championship games. They had conceded an average of almost 26 points per game, flirted with a sweeper system which backfired spectacularly and looked very much like a county that had lost its way.

It was Kieran Kingston's first season as manager and while nobody was blaming him for what looked like a deep-rooted problem, he was no doubt feeling the pressure. Selector Ryan applied no sugar-coating after the defeat by Wexford.

He talked of how Wexford 'cleaned us out on breaks', which he attributed to issues over desire and work-rate.

Responsibility

"As players, they have to take responsibility but we have to take it as management as well. We didn't put the right desire into them," he said.

Ryan suggested that Cork club hurling wasn't being played with the sort of intensity that prepared county players to perform at a consistently high level.

"It's the problem for the last six or seven years. We put in one good performance, the next time we don't. We work hard one day, we won't work hard the next day. That's not blaming the players - we as a management team have to take a big part of the blame," he said.

A year on, the Leeside landscape is completely different. Highly efficient performances against Tipperary and Waterford have invigorated the whole of Cork to such a degree that talk of winning the All-Ireland title for the first time since 2006 no longer sounds deluded.

So what has changed?

"The last few years were tough. We were kind of struggling to get our identity, to get our team together. This year, it just kind of naturally happened. And I suppose you can't really force togetherness or unity - it has to happen naturally," said defender Stephen McDonnell after the win over Waterford.

He talked too of players taking more responsibility and putting pressure on themselves.

"Management aren't there on the field with us, the stats man isn't there or the strength and conditioning coaches. It's the 15 lads and guys who come on. They are the ones who have to go out and do, it," he said.

Ten of the team that started against Wexford last year are still first choices, most of them playing much better now. However, the big difference has been brought about by newcomers, who have injected real energy into Cork's efforts.

Mark Coleman and Colm Spillane have greatly reinforced the left side of the defence; Darragh Fitzgibbon has settled in well around midfield, while Luke Meade and Shane Kingston have brought a new vibrancy to attack.

Kingston, who is the manager's son, didn't have a particularly good day against Waterford but was a candidate for man of the match against Tipperary, scoring 1-4 from open play.

Indeed, he would have got the award, except for an exceptional performance by Conor Lehane, who carried the excellent form into the Waterford game. Lehane has always looked like a man who could be at the heart of a Cork revival but with the overall unit not functioning smoothly over recent seasons, his form fluctuated. Now, he is playing with supreme confidence, combining his silky touch and sprinter's pace with an appreciation of what he has to do to remain a consistently effective presence throughout an entire game.

His 0-9 total from open play (plus winning some scoreable frees) against Tipperary and Waterford underline the extent to which he is achieving that.

Cork faced two different types of challenge in their last two games, coping comfortably with each by remaining true to their own philosophies.

Shell-shocked

Tipperary were happy to engage them in a shoot-out and came away shell-shocked after discovering that 1-26, which is usually enough to win any game, left them four points short of a draw. Waterford applied a different style, attempting to choke Cork's supply lines, but it didn't work either.

Cork hurled their own game, concentrating mainly on quick, slick deliveries and were full value for their five-point win. Indeed, were it not for an excellent performance by Waterford goalkeeper Stephen O'Keeffe, Cork would have won far more easily.

All of which leaves them beautifully primed for Sunday's clash with Clare, for which they are 8/11 favourites. That's a quite remarkable turnaround, having started the Munster Championship as 10/1 outsiders of five.

Irish Independent

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