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Rebels braced for Dubs' pace

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Brian Cuthbert. Picture: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Brian Cuthbert. Picture: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Brian Cuthbert. Picture: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

BRIAN CUTHBERT was a Cork senior selector last August when he got to see Jim Gavin's Dublin up close and personal. The first thing that struck him? Pace. Jack McCaffrey running riot up the left flank. Michael Darragh Macauley rampaging through the middle. "They had certain players who just ate up the ground and caused us huge problems," he recalls.

This Saturday night, against the same Dublin, Cuthbert returns to the scene of last year's All-Ireland quarter-final ... and now he's Cork senior manager, the man entrusted with overseeing a new era on Leeside.

He doesn't spell it out so bluntly, but it's obvious that what he witnessed in Croke Park on that August Bank Holiday weekend helped to formulate his ideas on where Cork football goes from here.

Conor Counihan called time after that 1-16 to 0-14 defeat. It also brought the curtain down on a plethora of decorated Rebels who had reached the September summit three years earlier. Thus, while Cuthbert was settling into the hot seat, six stalwarts retired; All-Ireland-winning skipper Graham Canty, Noel O'Leary, Pearse O'Neill, Alan Quirke, Paudie Kissane and Alan O'Connor. Did the new incumbent expect so much upheaval?

"I did, in fairness," he confirms. "I was a selector last year, so I had an inkling that maybe the race was run for some of these players. And they had given so much to Cork that starting out on a new journey again wasn't something that they might have had the energy for.

"So certainly, when I got the job, it was very, very clear to me that there was going to be change. Now, I suppose the big bolter was Ciarán (Sheehan) going to Australia (to take up an AFL career with Carlton Blues). That was a huge surprise to me, to be honest.

EXCITED

"But certainly the older players, to a man, I kind of knew there would be this much change. And that kind of excited me, to be honest. Not the fact that – I've nothing against any of the fellas who were retiring, they were super players – but it excites me, the challenge of trying to mould something new."

Cue the next obvious question; will Cork's style under Cuthbert be notably different?

"I would like to think it is," he starts, before harking back to when Counihan's Cork "had a physical advantage over most teams" and played a running game to suit their powerhouse players. Even though Cork belatedly conquered Everest in 2010, the new boss believes they were at their peak in '09 (when their Kerry nemesis ruined the September party).

"If you look at the kick-out stats over the years, most teams found it very hard to keep the ball away from them. And it gave Cork a huge platform to play that running game," he reasons.

"I don't have that physical prowess ... a lot of the guys who retired were the bigger men. Ciarán Sheehan obviously was a big man as well. So it's fine saying I want to play a certain way – yes I do – but at the same time there's a complete realisation that we have to play a way that suits the players we have.

"We're trying to move the ball a bit quicker," he goes on. "It's very early days for anyone to be passing judgement, but I think there's a big desire among the players to play this way. They like kicking the ball – like any fella does, from three or four years of age – and they're getting their heads around it."

Cuthbert is in his late thirties, part of the youthful managerial wave that now dominates inter-county football. His view on how the game should be played boils down to philosophy, but also pragmatism.

You wonder if he's influenced by the growing trend away from blanket defence towards expansive football, with Gavin's Dublin at the vanguard?

"Every year that there's an All-Ireland won, people look to trends straight away," he replies. "I'd like to think that we'd still be talking this way in two or three years' time, because this is the way the game should be played.

ATTRACTIVE

"But, at the same time, I would have an understanding that somebody is going to come along with something else and the game will evolve or morph into something that maybe mightn't be as attractive as what we saw last season.

"But for now, if you look at the teams in the league so far and with the advent of the black card, it's after lending itself to attacking football ... and I think it only augurs well for my group because we're not big, huge, strong guys so we want to play ball."

Cuthbert's reign has got off to a flyer, McGrath Cup final victory over Kerry followed by back-to-back Allianz League wins at home to Westmeath and Kildare. This Saturday brings their first Division One road trip – and the ultimate litmus test.

When assessing Dublin, Cuthbert cites pace as the most obvious strength before highlighting a forward line replete with match-winners; "unheralded defenders" who are good at their job, very quick and comfortable on the ball; and subs who are "as good as some of the players who are playing".

"I'm not blowing Dublin up, but I think they have an all-round package," he argues. "Most of those players already won an All-Ireland three years ago, so this isn't something that they've gone wildly celebrating around the place, as far as I can see.

"The team holiday was over quickly and they were back training quite early, for All-Ireland champions that is. And I think you won't see the post-All-Ireland phenomenon that you've seen over the last number of years with Dublin, because the level of competition within the squad allows them to actually say, 'Alright, if you're not willing to put in the work, we'll put someone else in'."

So, Dublin are the benchmark for Cuthbert's new and evolving Cork. "Questions are certainly going to be answered when you go to Croke Park to play Dublin and we're looking forward to it," he signs off.


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