Monday 18 December 2017

Meet the five new youngsters who have strengthened Cork's hand

Waterford’s Maurice Shanahan is tackled by Mark Coleman (left) and Mark Ellis of Cork during the Munster SHC semi-final clash at Semple Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile
Waterford’s Maurice Shanahan is tackled by Mark Coleman (left) and Mark Ellis of Cork during the Munster SHC semi-final clash at Semple Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Their average age is 20.4 years, they were championship starters for the first time this season and they are all numbered to play on the left side.

Meet the five new faces who have exerted such a powerful influence on Cork in a season that has already yielded unexpected dividends.

They were all harvested in Semple Stadium so far but now the show moves to Croke Park.

The injection of freshness supplied by Colm Spillane (24), Mark Coleman (19), Darragh Fitzgibbon (20), Shane Kingston (19) and Luke Meade (20) has made a significant difference after a season in which they made no progress in Munster and relatively little through the 'back door', eventually failing to reach the quarter-finals.

It's all very different now for Cork, who have reverted to more traditional ways, executed in a manner that Tipperary, Waterford and Clare were unable to counteract.

Well-established names have made sizeable contributions, with Conor Lehane, Séamus Harnedy and Alan Cadogan producing man-of-the-match displays but the biggest difference this year is the improvement brought about by the five newcomers.

Spillane (No 4) (below) adds solidity to the full-back line; Mark Coleman (No 7) got an '8' (out of 10) rating in the Irish Independent for each of his three performances in Munster, while Fitzgibbon (No 9) works well alongside Bill Cooper at midfield.

Kingston (No 12) and Meade (No 15) aren't confined by their jersey numbers, instead popping up in various sectors but, wherever they go, Cork's productivity increases.

Kingston, whose father Kieran is team manager, had his best day against Tipperary, scoring 1-4 from open play while doing well in general play too.

The Douglas youngster, who got two championship runs as a sub last year, had a more difficult time against Waterford and Clare, being replaced early in the final quarter in both games but the learning experiences will have been crucial to his development as he takes his talents to Croke Park on Sunday.

Colm Spillane. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Spillane. Photo: Sportsfile

Meade (Newcestown) has averaged 7 in our ratings, with his best scoring performance coming against Tipperary when he hit three points.

Fitzgibbon has added immensely to Cork's midfield enterprise.

Cooper deploys his vast experience to anchor the area, allowing the Charleville youngster to use his speed to take him on adventures that usually end well.

Coleman made his debut as a sub against Wexford last year and while Cork lost, it was evident that the 18-year-old Blarney man had a bright future.

He was hugely effective in the Munster Championship, growing in confidence as he went. His best performance was against Waterford, which augurs well for him in Sunday's rematch.

At 24, Spillane is the oldest of the newcomers, having had his arrival on the championship scene delayed by a cruciate ligament which ruled him out last year. The Castlelyons man started the 2016 season impressively, only to suffer the serious injury in a league clash with Waterford.

Manager Kingston talked at the time of how much of a loss Spillane would be but confidently predicted that he would back "better than ever" this year.

He has been proven correct as Spillane is enjoying an excellent season in a defence that has been more stable than in recent years.

That applies across the rest of the team too, as management's decision to add a youthful dimension to every line has worked spectacularly well.

There were doubts along the way, not least when Cork lost to Limerick in the league quarter-final or, before that, when they were beaten by Kilkenny Nowlan Park.

Kingston expressed concerns afterwards over Cork's inability to match Kilkenny physically. "We struggled to come to terms with their work rate and intensity. Any time you feel you're out-muscled is a worry. The second half was concerning," said Kingston.

"We are trying to get a balance between youth and experience in our squad. That's going to take a while. It's not an excuse - it's a fact."

Five months later, Cork are in the All-Ireland semi-final so obviously the process speeded up quicker than Kingston anticipated.

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