Sunday 18 August 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Hurlers best placed to lift Cork spirits but questions surround Meyler's men'


Cork boss John Meyler. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Cork boss John Meyler. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The last time Cork played Tipperary, John Meyler told his players and himself that they all needed to ask themselves questions about what exactly was going on.

He had just witnessed his team, which was coming off a morale-boosting win over Limerick, being humiliating by Tipperary.

Coming up mid-March - nine weeks before a rematch with Tipp in the Munster Championship - a 13-point defeat came as a nasty shock. After a good start, Cork's lack of drive was embarrassing for a team that had been so enterprising against Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds.

A fortnight later, as the hailstones clattered down on Páirc Uí Rinn, Meyler looked like a man who felt badly let down. Only one player escaped sanction.

"Bill Cooper was probably the only one powering into the game with the competitive attitude that we needed. That was lacking elsewhere, so we need to ask ourselves some questions," he said.

"I don't know why (the performance was so poor). Training was good, we had a competitive match this week and I thought we were good. It's just disappointing we couldn't put two displays together against Limerick and Tipperary."

Six days later, Cork beat Kilkenny in an unnecessary play-off in Nowlan Park, after which Meyler declared himself to be "happy overall" with the league campaign.

"We won three and lost three," he said, while also implying that some longer-term aims had been achieved. "It's very easy to go with a full team every week, but if you do that, you don't know where you are at the end."

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The question of where exactly Cork stand will be answered over the next five weeks as they work towards achieving the first goal of qualifying for the All-Ireland championship.

That requires a top-three finish in Munster, a difficult target at a time when the standard down south has never been more even.

Cork are currently second joint-favourites with Tipperary (Limerick head the list) to retain the Munster title, but the odds matter little among five contenders, all of whom are capable of beating each other on a particular day. Cork's erratic league form was nothing new for a county whose relationship with the secondary competition has fractured badly.

They haven't won it since 1998, a period in which they took three All-Ireland and seven Munster titles, including the last two. It suggests that they are better suited to summer action, but even then the All-Ireland title has eluded them for 14 years, their longest barren spell since 1903-'19.

Meyler knows there's a quiet desperation in Cork GAA, which adds to the pressure at a time when the footballers have their lowest ranking for a very long time and the Páirc Uí Chaoimh debacle has damaged the Leeside brand generally.

The Rebels need a boost and the hurlers are best placed to provide it. Alone among all the other contenders, they have beaten Limerick once and drawn twice in the last year.

Of course, the draw in the All-Ireland semi-final was followed by a defeat in extra-time, having led by six points in the 63rd minute.

Cork's injury count, combined with a lack of top-line replacements, cost them dearly against opposition whose bench were so important in the All-Ireland success.

The return of Alan Cadogan, who missed last season due to injury, Stephen McDonnell, who opted out in 2018, and Aidan Walsh, who was with the footballers, strengthens the panel, while some of the younger brigade have also shown up well.

The addition to the backroom of former New Zealand and Munster rugby star Doug Howlett as 'high performance lead' is an interesting development too as he brings massive experience in how to be successful at the highest level in an international sport.

It's ironic that Cork's worst performance for a long time came against Tipperary in March, a miserable occasion which Meyler has, no doubt, fed into the motivation mix in recent weeks.

It will have included the reminder that there's no comparison between a league game on a cold, blustery March day in Páirc Uí Rinn and a Munster Championship clash in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in summer.

"It's all about getting ready for the championship now and making sure we're right for it," Meyler said after the Tipp defeat.

How successful they have been will be apparent on Sunday.

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