Monday 21 May 2018

Reconnection with the crowd driving Rebels

The Cork hurling team stand for the national anthem in front of their supporters before Sunday’s victory over Waterford at Semple Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile
The Cork hurling team stand for the national anthem in front of their supporters before Sunday’s victory over Waterford at Semple Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Last March, prior to Waterford's league match with Cork in Walsh Park - and long before the Rebels delivered an early sting to the championship by lowering the colours of the reigning All-Ireland champions in Munster - Déise boss Derek McGrath sought to give some context to a more enhanced status he felt the Rebels should enjoy.

In his estimation there were few teams, with the exception of Tipperary themselves, who could draw upon a better set of forwards than the Rebels. It was an eye-catching comment given what Kilkenny could potentially produce and a Galway attack centred around Joe Canning.

With Tipperary enjoying such a sharp start to the league and the general expectation that they would be Waterford's opponents last Sunday, there was no requirement on McGrath's behalf to engage in sugar-coating.

But having watched them extensively in league games and at Fitzgibbon Cup level, McGrath felt certain that Cork could live comfortably in that environment as well and deserved to be on a par. Lehane, Harnedy, Kingston, Fitzgibbon, Horgan and Cadogan... he listed them out in that order, noting the combination they could turn out to be.

They had beaten Clare in their opening league match, but followed up with defeats to Dublin and then Kilkenny, typical inconsistency from a group that struggled to deliver back-to-back performances in the previous two seasons.

However, the potential in their attack was something that struck McGrath and when they subsequently scored an eight-point league win, his comments took on further resonance.

Luke Meade of Cork. Photo: Sportsfile
Luke Meade of Cork. Photo: Sportsfile

By then Luke Meade would have been very much on his radar too, having sliced through the Waterford defence that afternoon for the goal that effectively settled it.

The flourish of youth that was so evident against Tipperary may not have been as prominent on Sunday, but there is little doubt that the presence of Shane Kingston, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Marc Coleman, Colm Spillane and Meade is lifting this Cork team to new levels - in the same way that Ben O'Connor, Timmy McCarthy, Neil Ronan, Donal Óg Cusack, Mickey O'Connell and Wayne Sherlock provided the springboard for Cork's 1999 All-Ireland success after so many years in the championship wilderness.

Those players were largely drawn from All-Ireland U-21 successes in 1997 and '98 and, in many respects, their pathway was clear.

However, from the fog of such poor results that Cork underage teams have been experiencing, green shoots are thriving. Cork have not contested a Munster minor hurling final for nine years, though expectation is high that this year's group can steer a path to it.

While Derek McGrath's Waterford felt the full force of a resurgent Rebels outfit, former Cork forward and selector Seánie McGrath feels the onset of five Munster Championship newcomers has shaken the lethargy from the older players and re-established the connection with the Cork public.

Warmed

"These young players tick a box for the Cork fans because they have pace and they are very skilful. And I think generally Cork hurling people like that kind of player," he said. "They're cocky, comfortable on the field, they've got confidence in their own ability. So the public has warmed to them."

Getting the crowd on your side has always been important to Cork teams, according to McGrath.

"I know I have been in Cork dressing rooms where the manager will say 'get the Cork crowd behind you'."

Even on Sunday, McGrath found himself drawn on to the Semple Stadium pitch after the game in the euphoria of progress to a Munster final.

"The players are feeding off that. Cork hurlers, in general, will do that," said the former Rebel sharpshooter.

The resurgence in Seamus Harnedy, Patrick Horgan and Conor Lehane especially, is the real feature this summer for McGrath.

"Everyone is talking about the young fellas, but I think Conor's incredible return to form is being underestimated," said McGrath. "I'd go as far as to say that on Sunday he resembled Henry Shefflin in his prime by the way he just grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck at different stages, with that point he got when he caught it over his head.

"I have often been surprised at the criticism he gets because his averages are so good. He's delivered two brilliant performances back-to-back."

The balance of previous Cork teams has always been weighted towards the forwards, but McGrath feels the security Damien Cahalane is providing at full-back is another significant development.

"He's been unbelievable compared to other years. Against Waterford I was delighted to see Cork go man-to-man.

"I thought it was a great mark of trust that they didn't go with a sweeper in front of him when Waterford left just Maurice Shanahan up front, or sometimes went with just two up. Whether it was Damien or Steven McDonnell they just left them fight their own battle. The management had faith.

"Damien is not giving away the sloppy frees and I feel that's down to the coaches. Pat Hartnett was a brilliant Cork defender, 'the Rock' (Diarmuid O'Sullivan) was a brilliant Cork defender, John Meyler was a forward, but teak tough."

For McGrath the win opens up a summer of possibilities for Cork hurling, not just at senior level.

"I would be disappointed if we didn't start making a breakthrough at U-21 level and minor very soon. As soon as this year," he predicted.

"Our minors have a great chance. Coming from where we were to where we could be with both teams in Munster finals (Cork play Tipperary in a Munster minor semi-final at the end of the month), a lot of cynics out there would have said, at the start of the year, that wasn't a possibility."

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