Dermot Crowe: Will the real Cork please stand up?
Cork's ongoing search for consistency faces its day of reckoning.
The team that finished against Dublin in the National League semi-final or the leg-ironed one which started it? The team that fell eight points behind Waterford this time last summer or the one that blew Waterford away in the replay? The one that beat Clare and Limerick to win Munster after eight years or the one mastered by Tipperary in an All-Ireland semi-final?
The last indictment, anaemic against their fiercest rival, cut to the quick; if Tipp couldn't stimulate Cork who could? But on it went. They resumed in the league at home to a heavily depleted Kilkenny and hadn't the energy for that either. That became the prelude to hurricane wins over Clare and Dublin until your head was dizzy guessing where the truth lay.
Go back to the previous September's All-Ireland final replay against Clare. It looked teed up for Cork but Clare had the anger, the explosive start, before Cork awoke and produced the hurling of which they're capable. In the final 15 minutes Clare took control again but at least Cork's season showed quantifiable progress from a team in transition. Losing to Tipp in the manner they did last August had no redeeming features.
"I would say Jimmy (Barry-Murphy) is still scratching his head as to what happened that day," says Tomás Mulcahy, "as to the way they didn't turn up on the day and collapsed the way they did. I think he decided he never wanted to see a repeat of that again and that influenced his decision to stay on."
The Cork manager doesn't pretend to be any less flummoxed by this ongoing struggle for a consistent line of form. Having recovered from the league loss to Kilkenny, Cork ran up a 12-point lead against Tipperary and ended up losing by one. They did the reverse in the Dublin game and the joy at the end was as palpable on the sideline as it was on the pitch. The whirlwind nature of the win would explain some of that reaction. The need for positive affirmation after the rocky road they've travelled would too.
Which brought them to the league final and another puzzling retreat, players looking like rabbits in the headlights rather than driving on and consolidating their gains. "When we don't reach the required work rate all over the field then we become an average team," Barry-Murphy said last year. "When we play to a high intensity and commitment, we can be a very good team. We just can't afford to let that dip."
They will expect a big reaction today and if they don't get one it is hard to see how Cork might recover their confidence in the qualifiers. A win won't rid them of all doubts heading into a Munster final but a win is an absolute must in the life cycle of this team and the management team in charge.
"If you are honest, what we had against Waterford (in the league final) was similar to what happened against Tipperary (last August) and Jimmy would have felt there would never be a day again where guys stood off their men," says Mulcahy. "I wouldn't say we were in a relaxed frame of mind, but we saw lads getting the ball and no one near them. And I would say that was disappointing; he (Barry-Murphy) thought they were over that."
All of which piles the pressure on the Cork manager in a way that is reminiscent of the match against Waterford when he was in charge on his first tour of duty in 1999. There is a key difference in that the qualifier net will save them this time if they lose. A defeat though would leave them in their deepest hole since Barry-Murphy came back and leave their popular manager in the kind of place he last inhabited after the heavy loss to Limerick in 1996. Cork don't expect that to happen; they expect a big response.
"I think the team and the management know they have backed themselves into a corner," says Mulcahy. "There is a lot of disappointment over how they did in the league final. It has been one good game, one bad game. We are due a good game."
The league final also shone unfavourable light back on Cork's tactical performance. Last year brought a focus on bolstering the defence prised open with alarming ease by Clare in 2013. Mark Ellis emerged in a traditional stopper's role in the middle as Cork sought to close gaps which Clare created and cruelly exposed. Waterford's win in the league final raised further questions. They had a clear game plan which saw them dictate from the off and Cork were unable to counter it. The five weeks since will have occupied management minds in finding strategies designed to frustrate Waterford's style of play.
Last year, when Cork demolished Waterford in the Munster Championship in a replay, Barry-Murphy said that attitude was more relevant than tactics to indifferent Cork form, without dismissing tactics out of hand. Finding a plan to counteract a team's tactics in five weeks is less ambiguous a challenge than nailing why a team can fluctuate from dazzling spells of hurling to puzzling spells of inertia. Kilkenny are the market leaders in being able to deliver consistency and virtually all of the other contenders hit dips in form. But Cork's swings remain too pronounced to be considered a team capable of stringing together the levels of consistency required to win the All-Ireland last achieved ten years ago.
"I think this is going to be Jimmy's biggest challenge," says Mulcahy. "How will they counteract this Waterford style? Will they have worked on some system in the last five weeks? You saw Pat Horgan in the corner the last day and very little supply going into him and he became a frustrated figure. Straight after the league final players went back to their clubs and played championship games so how long have they been together, even in match situations, to put into practice what they are going to do? Alan Cadogan and Seamus Harnedy have also been out injured so there are huge question marks in terms of the time they have had to prepare.
"They are all very good hurlers but you can have very good hurlers and if the work rate is not there and you have players standing on their hurls you are in trouble. Waterford were hitting 20-metre balls into players' hands and nobody marking them. I remember in 2013 in Munster when they chased and harried and followed Clare all over the field - that needs to happen on Sunday.
"They are good enough, no doubt about it, they are a very good team on their day. But they can be made to look very bad on their bad days. It comes down to how they apply themselves in the game."
So, Cork need some kind of prod to get going. They have that now; they need to beat Waterford and the days that follow will have to look after themselves. "They seem to be at their best when they are questioned," says John Considine, who played for and briefly managed Cork. "Like, I was convinced before the Tipp game (last August) that the Munster final win would have given them the confidence that they would say, 'Look we can play without fear'. And maybe looking back you are wondering if winning Munster took the edge off them."
In the same way he wonders if the sheer excitement of recovering to defeat Dublin also had a complacent effect ahead of the league final. "I don't think anybody realised that Waterford were playing as well as they were. Ok they had played a substantial number of hard games away from home but people were going, 'Ah sure, bad weather' and they had Galway at home and - I am guessing, I don't now - but maybe Cork might have been more up for it if it was Tipp in the league final.
"This game will tell a lot. I remember after Kilkenny beat them in the first round of the league, Jimmy seemed very disappointed that night and then they go on a run and play their socks off."
Even with a greater time spent on shoring up the defence last year Cork still play an open game which they see as their strength. The recall of Brian Murphy comes in the context of a growing injury list but he is also a proven man-marker at a time when Cork may decide to go man-to-man rather than the zonal defence which didn't serve them well in the league final.
But tactics alone didn't explain their demise. "They didn't use the ball well," says Considine. "Fellas getting rid of ball when they were not under much pressure. They had one or two players free at the back at times and had it been executed properly, Cork might have figured out the Waterford system. But (in delivering it loosely) they made a rod for their own backs."
It hasn't been a comfortable ride for Barry-Murphy, but Mulcahy feels that he still has faith in his players and what they offer. "I would say he was close enough to walking after the All-Ireland semi-final (defeat to Tipp). I would think he said to himself, 'This team deserves better, I deserve better; I am going to give this another shot; I believe in the players'. He likes their style. He loves a stylish player, a player that moves the ball quick, like he played himself. He loves guys that take on defenders and get goals."
What manager doesn't? But Mulcahy's point is that Barry-Murphy is at heart a romantic when it comes to the game and a reluctant advocate of modern defensive strategies. But he must also, he knows, be a realist. "No doubt the strength of this Cork team is their hurling," says Considine. Barry-Murphy will expect a response worthy of his trust today.
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