Tuesday 18 June 2019

Progress has been made in 2018

It’s easy to forget in the despair of defeat just how close the Rebels came to winning this game. The future is still bright for Cork hurling

Cork players Damien Cahalane, left, and Bill Cooper react at the final whistle of extra-time All-Ireland SHC semi-final match between Cork and Limerick at Croke Park. Photo by Sportsfile
Cork players Damien Cahalane, left, and Bill Cooper react at the final whistle of extra-time All-Ireland SHC semi-final match between Cork and Limerick at Croke Park. Photo by Sportsfile

Denis Hurley

Does 2018 go down as a success due to Cork retaining the Munster title for the first time since 2006? Or, is it a failure due to the fact that, for the third time in-a-row going in as provincial champions, another Munster side has beaten them in the All-Ireland semi-final?

There will naturally be talk of Cork's recent last-four failures, with this the sixth time in seven last-four ties they have come up short since reaching the 2006 All-Ireland final.

In some quarters, it was spoken of as a curse - though one would have to question the power of a 'curse' which only works 85 percent of the time or so - but there are better explanations than that.

A Kilkenny side near the peak of their powers were far superior in 2008 and 2010; Galway in 2012 were ahead in development terms against a Cork team that probably over-achieved; and 2014 and 2017 against Tipperary and Waterford respectively were no-shows against sides who were perfectly primed to take advantage.

Last Sunday was a different category - the final outcome couldn't be argued with, but it was a game Cork could certainly have won. Had Nickie Quaid not made his vital intervention to deny Séamus Harnedy, this column would be full of moments during the game, which had helped to realise a Cork win, but instead it's about the things which could have gone better.

Squad depth is a natural factor to zone in on - Limerick had 2-6 from their subs, including goals from Shane Dowling and Pat Ryan, whereas Cork's replacements only managed one point, scored by Jack O'Connor.

That came in the 89th minute of the game, reducing Limerick's lead to a goal, 2-30 to 1-30, and incredibly it was Cork's first score from play since Darragh Fitzgibbon had scored his third point on 62 to leave John Meyler's side six ahead and seemingly coasting to victory.

However, Daniel Kearney had already departed by then, having succumbed to injury - it was a measure of how much his absence was felt that Cork re-introduced him in extra time - while Harnedy's influence was also affected by the knock he was carrying.

With a shallower squad, injuries can't really be afforded and no doubt the Cork supporters in Croke Park watching the warm-up will have looked wistfully at Alan Cadogan wearing the number 27 jersey as he took part in light drills.

The Douglas man would have given an extra dimension to the Cork attack at a lot of different stages during the championship as he possesses qualities that few others on the panel have.

Limerick certainly had the edge in having a greater array of options to choose to bring off the bench and this is a key area in which Cork must improve in 2019. During the four round-robin games in Munster, there were twelve players who started every game and, while stability is obviously something which is a positive, the fact that the full complement of substitutions were not used in some matches spoke volumes.

To that end, Saturday's All-Ireland Under 21 final against Wexford in Nowlan Park takes on an important status in terms of the knock-on effect at senior level. The Limerick team which beat them last Sunday is based on Under 21 success in 2015 and 2017.

A win over Wexford would give Cork a chance to end a twenty-year wait for success in the grade and the confidence gained would one would hope, allow members of that panel to make the step up during next spring's league, providing Meyler with more options.

While Cork's defence had attracted question-marks throughout the season, until Sunday the team hadn't been outscored. Unfortunately, Limerick capitalised on the weaknesses - they scored three goals over the 80 minutes and there were at least three other good chances, with Aaron Gillane twice through on goal in the first half, but without his hurley on each occasion, kicking over the bar and wide respectively, while Anthony Nash made a good save from Cian Lynch during the second half.

Unfortunately for the goalkeeper, it was a day to forget on the puck-out front, but Cork's long deliveries in general lacked direction. Beyond Séamus Harnedy, the team is not blessed with natural ball-winners and that means that a different approach is needed.

At times, the precise passing game was sharp and focused, but is a strategy which doesn't allow much room for error and can mean the ball comes back out just as quickly if the target isn't reached in pinpoint fashion.

Limerick knew that balls in towards Séamus Flanagan and Aaron Gillane would at worst create 50-50s and, as mentioned above, they were unlucky not to harvest at least one more goal in normal time from them.

The goal Limerick did get in the regulation 70 minutes, scored by Cian Lynch, had a foul on Daniel Kearney in the build-up but that's the nature of the game and cannot be dwelt upon in the overall winning and losing.

It meant Cork trailed by a point at half-time but they still came back from that to lead by six with eight minutes of normal time left. What might be reflected upon is the lack of cynicism when Limerick got a run on them and ate into that lead.

Being a bit more deliberate over dead balls, or conveniently cramping to ensure a break in play, might have stymied the Shannonsiders' momentum and allowed Cork to find their feet again.

The bottom line is that there can be no argument with how extra time went, but over 90 minutes Cork were not outclassed and, unlike recent championship exits, this defeat doesn't call for seismic changes and the usual calls for structures to be looked at in every single facet of Cork GAA.

There is, and will be, plenty of disappointment, but the key thing for Cork is to learn from this and put the lessons into action - beginning with Saturday's Under 21 semi-final against Wexford.