Monday 22 July 2019

Time for the hurlers to buckle up and buck up as business gets serious

All-Ireland SHC Preliminary Quarter-Finals: Westmeath v Cork, Sunday July 7, TEG Cusack Park, Mullingar at 3pm. Referee: Patrick Murphy (Carlow). (ET if necessary & winner on day)

Diarmuid Sheehan

This weekend's clash with Westmeath will probably be a weekend for the die-hard Cork hurling fans only as a trip to Mullingar for what should be a pretty routine day at the office for Cork's premier hurling side is hardly top of most people's sporting calendar.

This Sunday, Cork will take on the side that came in second in the Joe McDonagh Cup, after the midland side lost out to Laois by all of 11 points last time out, but while the perceived gulf in class between these two sides should be sizable the rebels will need to play this game as if it were the last game of the season, because if they lose it is.

Cork come into this win with a pretty chequered recent past - a league campaign that really only fired twice, the win over Limerick and then Kilkenny in the relegation playoff dead rubber, which was followed by a Munster Championship that saw Cork fail to make the showpiece game and just scrape through to the All-Ireland series after results went their way on the final day of the provincial race.

Cork have started and stuttered and stopped all season however we have learned a few things about this side and there is still a huge sense of optimism surrounding Cork's favourite sporting side.

First among those is that on their day Cork can beat anyone. Cork put Limerick to the sword for long periods in their most recent encounter and while the Treaty side were not at full strength they were up for the fixture in front of a large home crowd - and were ultimately and deservedly turned over. Cork looked really good on the day and showed that when questioned they can answer but few can ignore the displays against Tipperary and Clare that both ended in disappointing losses.

This game against Westmeath may well be the most unlikely of hurling fixtures but it should provide Cork with the opportunity to get back on the scoring horse giving the likes of Patrick Horgan, Alan Cadogan and Seamus Harnedy the chance to get back into the groove ahead of what is likely to be a massive game one week later.

Another huge plus for Cork this year is the strength in depth that John Meyler has managed to assemble - under the radar it must be said. Cork came a cropper against Limerick in the All-Ireland semi-final last season with the glaring issue on that day the lack of a credible bench.

This year, things seem to be very different with the return of the hugely exciting Alan Cadogan, much better displays by his brother Eoin at the heart of the Cork full back line and the return of Aidan Walsh to the starting 15 seems to have resulted in what is now a very competitive set of backup players.

Shane Kingston is another that has impressed in his cameo roles so far and the young talent is likely to get a call up to start this weekend after it was revealed that Aidan Walsh suffered a serious hand injury last weekend.

It was reported that Walsh is in a race to be fit for this weekend however the Kanturk man is unlikely to play any part.

Mark Ellis may well get the nod to start at centre back again this time round with Tim O'Mahony still having to be content with a place on the bench - O'Mahony may well get a move to a more preferable attacking spot if things go Cork's way early.

The question of whether Meyler will juggle his squad and give out some starting jerseys to the bench against a side that shouldn't have enough on their best day to beat the Leesiders will be revealed on Sunday however the head tactician will be keen to get that winning feeling running back through his side once more so he may well go for a starting 15 quite similar to the one that fell short against Clare in Ennis a couple of weekends ago.

At the half-back line Mark Coleman has been brilliant of late and will surely get another chance to show his wares with the midfield pairing of Bill Cooper and Darragh Fitzgibbon again favourites to hold court in the centre of the pitch.

Cooper has shown himself to be one of the most important players in a Cork shirt this year with Cork looking decidedly weaker when he isn't playing. His all or nothing style has driven Cork forward on more than one occasion with Fitzgibbon taking a deeper role tending to defend in front of Ellis which means he is attacking from a more defensive line as well - that said, the pairing have been complementing each other superbly and are now probably the first names on the team sheet come game time.

Westmeath have shown they can defend so they are likely to try and keep Cork to something like 12 or 13 points in the opening period however Cork will be gunning for goals early on to kill this one off before the home side can get anything like momentum on their side.

Cork have shown in the last 18 months that they are capable of putting up 30 points + and this weekend they are likely to see their averages rise again with another hefty tally registered.

Being honest, it is hard to build this one up as anything like a genuine contest as Cork should have far too much for Westmeath but that said, there is more to this game for the rebels than the win.

Cork need to win of course, they also need to perform and they need to get that mojo back - that mojo that carried them to two Munster Finals and last season's All-Ireland semi-final.

Prediction: A comfortable win for Cork must be a given